Manslaughter Laws

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 What Is Manslaughter?

Manslaughter occurs when an individual unlawfully kills another individual, and it is not considered to be murder because of the circumstances of the case. Manslaughter is typically the charge the prosecution will use if the defendant did not plan to kill.

A manslaughter attorney, or criminal defense attorney, defends individuals who are accused of manslaughter. If a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one to represent them.

What Is the Difference Between Manslaughter and Murder?

There are differences between the criminal charges of manslaughter and murder. One of the main differences is the defendant’s state of mind.

A murder charge typically requires premeditation, malice, and planning ahead. Murder requires what is referred to as malice aforethought. Malice is the intent to kill or intent to do great bodily harm or the intentional creation or awareness of a very high risk that great bodily harm or death will occur.

Manslaughter is a killing without malice but, instead, with conscious disregard for human life, recklessness, or criminal negligence. A murder charge will often be reduced to a manslaughter charge based on mitigating factors and circumstances that surround the killing.

What Is “State of Mind” and Why Does It Matter?

Mens rea is a legal concept that examines the state of mind an individual had at the time they committed a crime. Mens rea translates to guilty mind.

It refers to what was on the defendant’s mind at the exact moment when they committed the criminal offense. If an individual recklessly disregards a substantial risk and, as a result, kills another individual, they may be charged with a crime.
Mens rea is important because it is considered in court as a judge or jury determines whether or not to charge a defendant with a specific crime and, in turn, sentence them to punishments, including jail time, fines, or other available punishments. The mens rea of a defendant at the time they committed an offense may influence the severity of their punishment.

What Are the Two Types of Manslaughter?

The two manslaughter types include voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is a killing that would typically be considered a murder, but it was committed in response to an adequate provocation.

If an adequate provocation results in a killing, criminal charges may be reduced. An adequate provocation is a fact or circumstance that is sufficient to incite a normal individual to an intense and sudden passion. There are certain examples of commonly accepted types of adequate provocation, including:

  • Conduct or act sufficient to deprive a reasonable individual of self-control;
  • The provocation actually provoked the defendant;
  • The time between the provocation and the actual killing was not long enough for a reasonable individual to cool off;
  • The defendant actually never cooled off.

Voluntary manslaughter may be further classified into one of three categories:

  • Heat-of-passion;
  • Diminished capacity or extreme emotional disturbance; and
  • Initial provocation.

A heat-of-passion manslaughter is defined as an intentional killing that results from intense emotions. For example, rage, terror, or fear reduces the defendant’s culpability. One classic example of a heat-of-passion killing occurs when an individual finds their significant other or spouse in bed with another individual and, in the heat of passion or a fit of rate, they kill one or both of them.

In this type of case, it would be difficult to convict the perpetrator with first degree-murder. Instead, the prosecution may consider second-degree murder because it does not require deliberation or premeditation.

A diminished capacity or extreme emotional disturbance can include a mental illness. It may also arise when the defendant experiences an extreme emotional disturbance or a temporary state of mind where the individual cannot control themselves enough to form intent.

An example of diminished capacity includes mental disorders such as schizophrenia. Examples of extreme emotional disturbance may include cases of spousal abuse.

An initial provocation of manslaughter is a killing that results from an act that is engaged in with the intent of stirring up rage in a defendant, which later results in the defendant’s loss of control. One example would be if an individual is fired by their boss at work, and then they lose their temper and immediately kill their boss.

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when one individual unintentionally kills another individual due to a lack of care. Typically, this occurs on two types of occasions, including:

  • Where a death occurs that is attributed to criminal negligence or recklessness; or
  • From an unlawful act that was a low-level felony or a misdemeanor.

There are two categories of involuntary manslaughter, criminal negligence manslaughter, and unlawful act manslaughter. Criminal negligence manslaughter arises when a death is caused by a high degree of criminal negligence or criminal recklessness. Unlawful act manslaughter occurs when a death is caused by an individual who committed or attempted to commit an unlawful act, typically a misdemeanor.

What Is the Sentence to a Manslaughter Charge?

Generally, the majority of statutes classify voluntary manslaughter as a first-degree felony. A conviction for this offense may result in harsh penalties, including:

  • Stiff criminal fines, typically $20,000 or more;
  • Prison sentences ranging anywhere from 3 to 11 years; and
  • Various other consequences, such as:
    • a period of probation;
    • mandatory counseling; or
    • specific types of rehabilitation courses.

Some states only list the maximum amount of incarceration time in their sentencing guidelines for voluntary manslaughter. However, there are other states that may provide specific sentences for voluntary manslaughter convictions. It is important to note that there may be additional penalties depending on aggravating or mitigating factors that were present during the commission of the crime.

The majority of states provide harsher punishments for voluntary manslaughter cases than involuntary manslaughter cases. For example, the sentence in a voluntary manslaughter case may range from three to seven years of incarceration. Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, may result in incarceration for a minimum of one year but not more than four years imprisonment.

Misdemeanor manslaughter punishments may vary under state and federal law. For example, an individual convicted in federal court of involuntary or a misdemeanor manslaughter may be sentenced to imprisonment for one to six years.

Other states, however, may have a range of sentences depending on how severe the underlying misdemeanor crime was. Typically, a state will give a range of possible sentences and allow the court to practice discretion when determining what sentence to impose.

When making a determination regarding a sentence or penalty, the court may also examine any aggravating and mitigating factors to decide how severe a sentence should be. An aggravating factor increases the severity of a crime.

Mitigating factors typically decrease a defendant’s sentence. These may include factors such as a defendant’s acceptance of responsibility for their crime and the absence of a criminal history.

Seeking Legal Help

The differences between manslaughter and murder charges can be subtle. However, the difference in punishment may be significant.

If you are facing criminal charges of any kind, it is important to consult with a criminal lawyer as soon as you can. Your lawyer can advise you of the laws in your state, what punishments you may face if convicted, and help you present the best defense possible.

As discussed above, there may be mitigating factors in your case that may allow the charges against you to be reduced. In some cases, your attorney may be able to negotiate with the prosecution either to have your charges reduced or to enter into a plea deal.


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