Manslaughter Law



What is Manslaughter Law?

Manslaughter law deals with homicide cases in which the defendant’s culpability is mitigated by a lack of malice or deliberation. Like first and second degree murder, manslaughter crimes involve unlawful killings, but they also involve surrounding circumstances that partially justify the defendant’s conduct in the eyes of the law. Thus, in a manslaughter case, there may be no doubt that the defendant killed the victim. The main issues in the case are more likely to revolve around the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions in light of what was going on at the time the killing took place.

For example, consider a defendant who is physically attacked by another patron inside of a barroom. The attacker is smaller in stature than the defendant, not armed with any weapon, and does not pose a risk of death or serious bodily injury to the defendant. Despite this, the defendant fends off the attack by pulling out a gun and killing the attacker. In this situation, the legal theory of self-defense is not available to insulate the defendant from all criminal liability. But given the circumstances, the defendant might only be found guilty of manslaughter, instead of the more serious crime of murder.

Elements of Voluntary Manslaughter

There are two kinds of manslaughter, voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful and intentional killing of another human being, without malice or deliberation, upon a sudden heat of passion caused by adequate provocation. Of these several elements, the defining characteristic of voluntary manslaughter is the requirement that the killing be committed upon a sudden heat of passion. The stereotypical scenario is that of a defendant who arrives home to find his or her spouse in bed with another person, whom the defendant then kills in an emotional rage triggered by the unexpected discovery of the spouse’s infidelity.

Keeping with this example, whether the defendant will be guilty of murder or manslaughter will be determined to a large extent by the precise sequence of events that took place once the defendant found the spouse in bed with someone else. If the defendant can establish that there was little or no “cooling off period” before the killing, the defendant may be guilty of voluntary manslaughter. However, if the prosecution can show that the defendant took time to contemplate the situation before acting (by going to retrieve a gun and coming back, for example), the conduct will likely qualify as murder.

The Issue of Adequate Provocation

One way to understand manslaughter is to think of the crime as filling the grey area between a murder and an excusable killing. Determining guilt requires the jury to measure the defendant’s actions in degrees. With respect to the cooling off period, for example, every second that passes between the provoking event and the killing makes it more likely the defendant will be convicted of murder instead of manslaughter, but there is no exact time threshold that applies to every case. The jury must consider the facts of the case and evaluate the defendant’s conduct accordingly.

Similarly, the outcome of a voluntary manslaughter case can also come down to the question of the adequacy of the provocation that led the defendant to kill. The provoking event must have been one that would have created a sudden heat of passion in an average person in the defendant’s position. This rules out situations in which the defendant overreacted in an irrational manner.

For instance, a gardener who kills a trespasser for trampling over prized rose bushes would be guilty of murder, not manslaughter. This is true even if, on a subjective level, the gardener’s sudden fit of rage was absolutely genuine. Viewed objectively, the actions of the trespasser do not amount to adequate provocation, because a reasonable person in the gardener’s position would not have lost control to the point of taking the trespasser’s life. Again, this places a duty on the jury to measure the defendant’s conduct against common sense notions of human behavior.

Criminal Negligence and Involuntary Manslaughter

The second kind of manslaughter is known as involuntary manslaughter. This crime occurs when the defendant kills the victim by accident, but under circumstances that justify some amount of punishment. It is often said that involuntary manslaughter amounts to “criminal negligence.” In other words, the defendant acted so recklessly that the law imposes criminal liability, even though the defendant did not intend to kill. A common example of involuntary manslaughter is a drunken driver who causes an auto wreck resulting in death.

Hire a Manslaughter Defense Lawyer

If you have been charged with murder, there may be circumstances that make the reduced offense of manslaughter more appropriate. Moreover, if you have been charged with manslaughter instead of murder, it may be a sign that the prosecution has a weak case, and that the facts of your case do not justify any criminal liability whatsoever. Contact a defense attorney to learn more.

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Manslaughter Law - US

  • 2009 Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual - Manslaughter

    Sentencing guide regarding offenses against the person.

  • ABA - Criminal Justice Section

    Founded in 1920, the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association has over 20,000 members including prosecutors, private defense counsel, appellate and trial judges, law professors, correctional and law enforcement personnel, law students, public defenders, and other criminal justice professionals. With its diverse, multi-disciplinary membership, the Criminal Justice Section is uniquely situated to address the pressing issues facing today's criminal justice system.

  • FBI - Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program - Murder and Nonnegligent Manslaughter

    The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program defines murder and nonnegligent manslaughter as the willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another. The classification of this offense is based solely on police investigation as opposed to the determination of a court, medical examiner, coroner, jury, or other judicial body. The UCR Program does not include the following situations in this offense classification: deaths caused by negligence, suicide, or accident; justifiable homicides; and attempts to murder or assaults to murder, which are scored as aggravated assaults.

  • Manslaughter - Definition

    Manslaughter is a legal term for the killing of a human being, in a manner considered by law as less culpable than murder. The law generally differentiates between levels of criminal culpability based on the mens rea, or state of mind. This is particularly true within the law of homicide, where murder requires either the intent to kill, a state of mind called malice, or malice aforethought, which may involve an unintentional killing but with a wilful disregard for life. Manslaughter is usually broken down into two distinct categories: voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

  • US Code - Manslaughter

    Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of two kinds: Voluntary—Upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Involuntary—In the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or in the commission in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection, of a lawful act which might produce death.

  • Voluntary Manslaughter vs Involuntary Manslaughter - Overview

    At Common Law, as well as under current statutes, the offense can be either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. The main difference between the two is that voluntary manslaughter requires an intent to kill or cause serious bodily harm while involuntary manslaughter does not. Premeditation or deliberation, however, are elements of murder and not of manslaughter. Some states have abandoned the use of adjectives to describe different forms of the offense and, instead, simply divide the offense into varying degrees.

Organizations Related to Manslaughter Law

  • Victim's Law - About Victims' Rights

    Thirty years ago, victims had few legal rights to be informed, present and heard within the criminal justice system. Victims did not have to be notified of court proceedings or of the arrest or release of the defendant, they had no right to attend the trial or other proceedings, and they had no right to make a statement to the court at sentencing or at other hearings. Moreover, victim assistance programs were virtually non-existent. Since then, there have been tremendous strides in the creation of legal rights and assistance programs for victims of crime. Today, every state has an extensive body of basic rights and protections for victims of crime within its statutory code. Victims' rights statutes have significantly influenced the manner in which victims are treated within the federal, state, and local criminal justice systems.

Publications Related to Manslaughter Law

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