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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