The legal term “voluntary manslaughter” is one of the types of charges that a defendant can receive under the criminal offense of homicide. Although it involves the killing of another human being, it is considered to be less serious of a crime than being charged with murder.
A primary reason for this is because in order for a defendant to be charged with murder, they must have had the intent (i.e., malice aforethought) to kill or seriously harm another person. In contrast, if a defendant is convicted of voluntary manslaughter, then it means that they lacked the intent to kill.
Instead, voluntary manslaughter cases generally arise in some of the following ways:
- The killing was committed in a “heat of passion” moment or in a “sudden fit of rage.” For example, if the defendant returns home to find their spouse in bed with someone else and acts on it immediately, resulting in the death of either the spouse or third party.
- In a situation where a defendant executed an imperfect self-defense. For instance, when another person is chasing after the defendant with a hot pink water gun and the defendant honestly believes they are going to be shot or injured by it, so they fight back.
- During the commission of a felony, such as a kidnapping or grand larceny. Normally, the laws of a state will provide which crimes qualify.
Voluntary manslaughter may also be used to reduce a defendant’s murder charge and as a consequence, they will be issued a lesser associated punishment. This happens when a defendant who was initially charged with murder proves that the circumstances of the incident do not meet the required elements of murder and thus should be lowered to voluntary manslaughter.
In addition, voluntary manslaughter is related to the crime of involuntary manslaughter. While both are categorized as a degree of homicide, involuntary manslaughter happens to be a lesser offense than voluntary manslaughter.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that despite the fact that voluntary manslaughter is viewed as a lesser offense in the eyes of the law, it is still seen as a very serious crime. Therefore, if you are facing voluntary manslaughter charges, then you should speak to a criminal defense attorney immediately.
How Does Voluntary Manslaughter Differ from Involuntary Manslaughter?
As previously mentioned, both voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter are lesser charges included under the crime of homicide. They are also both missing the element of intent (as opposed to murder, which requires it).
One of the main differences, however, is that involuntary manslaughter occurs when the death can be attributed to a defendant’s negligent or reckless conduct, or if during the commission of a crime that is less serious than a felony, such as a misdemeanor theft, it leads to a death.
In other words, involuntary manslaughter is usually related to accidental conduct, whereas voluntary manslaughter is not necessarily accidental. Also, the defendant in a voluntary manslaughter case is usually provoked to act. In contrast, the defendant in an involuntary manslaughter case acts recklessly of their own will, like killing another person in a drunk driving accident.
What are the Legal Penalties for Voluntary Manslaughter?
In general, most state statutes classify voluntary manslaughter as a first-degree felony. This means that it is a very serious crime that can result in harsh penalties, such as:
- Stiff criminal fines (usually $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 prison time in their sentencing guidelines for voluntary manslaughter. Other states, however, may include a list of specific sentences for voluntary manslaughter convictions. For example, the state of California lists increments of 3, 6, or 11, depending on the nature of the defendant’s conduct.
Additionally, penalties can also be altered according to aggravating or mitigating factors (i.e., factors that make the crime either more or less shocking) that were present during the commission of the crime.
Are There Any Defenses to Voluntary Manslaughter?
One of the key elements of voluntary manslaughter cases is whether the defendant was provoked. The defense of provocation can be used to reduce a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter.
For instance, in the heat of passion example discussed in the first section, the defendant will have to show that they became so enraged, it “provoked” them to attack the spouse or third party.
Other factors that will be considered when a defendant asserts a provocation defense include:
- Whether the killing happened within a certain time frame after the provocation occurred;
- Whether a reasonable person would normally have cooled off during that same time period;
- Whether the defendant had actually cooled off already or not; and
- Whether a reasonable person would have reacted in the same or in a similar manner as the defendant under the circumstances.
So, for example, if a reasonable person would not have cooled off within the same time period and under the same or similar circumstances, then the provocation defense may work in the defendant’s favor during their criminal trial.
However, the amount of time that is enough for “cooling off” is not specific. The courts have never decided whether 10 minutes is enough or 5 minutes is enough. Instead, they will always look at the evidence and decide on a case-by-case basis.
Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with Voluntary Manslaughter Charges?
Voluntary manslaughter laws can be fairly complicated to understand. In addition, the guidelines for voluntary manslaughter will often vary from state to state. Therefore, if you have any legal questions or if you are facing voluntary manslaughter charges, then it may be in your best interest to contact a criminal defense lawyer who is located in your area.
An experienced criminal defense lawyer can provide you with expert legal advice, prepare your case, and can help represent and defend you during any court proceedings.