Involuntary manslaughter is the unintended killing of a person while committing a crime, or acting in a reckless or negligent manner. This type of homicide is committed without malice or intent, even accidentally, and is considered a less serious crime than murder. To explore this concept, consider the following involuntary manslaughter definition.
Definition of Involuntary Manslaughter
- The unintentional killing of a person as a result of a reckless or negligent act, or as a result of the commission of a non-felony crime.
1250-1300 Middle English
What is Manslaughter
The legal term for the killing of another person is “homicide,” and while every homicide is heartbreaking and tragic, not every homicide results in the same criminal charges against the perpetrator. Manslaughter is a legal term that refers to the killing another human being without forethought, malice, reckless disregard for life, or implied intent. In many situations, this type of killing may be considered accidental, though it is caused by the perpetrator’s recklessness or lack of care for human life.
While a manslaughter charge is less severe than a charge of murder, but it is still considered a very serious crime. Each state defines the crime of manslaughter a bit differently, with some breaking it down into categories, depending on the specific circumstances surrounding the killing.
What is Involuntary Manslaughter
Involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of a person by someone who has no spite or anger, and who has no intent to kill the victim. By contrast, voluntary manslaughter is very similar to murder, as the perpetrator has the intent of killing or seriously injuring the victim. There are very limited circumstances that would lower a charge of murder to a charge of voluntary manslaughter, and these may vary by jurisdiction.
In order for a person to be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecutor must prove certain elements. If any of these elements are missing, the charge is likely to be murder, rather than manslaughter.
- Someone died as a result of the defendant’s actions
- The act was done with a reckless indifference for human life, or was inherently dangerous to others
- The defendant should have known his conduct threatened or endangered the lives of others
Example of Criminally Negligent Manslaughter
Dr. Johnson is treating Mary for severe problems breathing. When he is forced to place a tube into her lungs to assist her with breathing, he fails to ensure the tube’s placement. Because air was being delivered to her stomach, rather than her lungs, Mary dies. Even though he did not intend to kill Mary, Dr. Johnson caused her death by acting in a negligent manner, and has therefore committed involuntary manslaughter.
Categories of Involuntary Manslaughter
Many states classify involuntary manslaughter charges by the circumstances of the crime. Common categories of involuntary manslaughter include:
- Criminally Negligent Manslaughter – a killing caused by a severely negligent act or omission
- Misdemeanor Manslaughter – a killing caused by or during the commission of a misdemeanor crime
Defenses to Involuntary Manslaughter Charges
When a person is charged with involuntary manslaughter, the prosecution has the burden of proving that the victim was killed by negligent, reckless, or illegal actions taken by the defendant. It must generally be proven that the defendant should have known that those actions could have threatened the life or safety of another person. There is no need to prove intent, as if the defendant intended to injure or kill the victim, the charge would be elevated to murder.
A defendant may, at trial, show affirmative defenses, in which he illustrates why he should not be held responsible for his actions, or that his culpability should be lessened. The most commonly used defenses to involuntary manslaughter charges include:
- Severity of Negligence – negligence resulting in someone’s death must rise to the level of being gross negligence, or criminal negligence. If the defendant’s actions were only slightly negligent, it may prove an effective defense. Arguing that the victim was negligent as well is not likely to help.
- Accident or Self-Defense – any defense against the underlying crime in a charge of misdemeanor manslaughter is a defense against charges for the killing itself. This might include a claim of having caused the victim’s death while acting in self defense, or in defense of another, or it might involve showing that the death was accidental when the defendant assaulted the victim, using very little force.
Example of Defense Against Criminally Negligent Manslaughter
A major league baseball player is up to bat. When he swings at a fast ball, the bat shatters into many pieces, one of which flies into the stands, impaling a fan through the chest. The fan is taken to the hospital, but dies later that day. The man’s family takes the matter to the District Attorney, asking that criminal charges be filed. The baseball player did not have any intent to harm anyone, and he did not act in a negligent manner. Likewise, the killing did not take place during the commission of a crime. Because of these facts, he cannot be charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Penalties for Involuntary Manslaughter
Penalties for involuntary manslaughter are less severe than those for murder, though the exact penalties vary by the specific circumstances, as well as by jurisdiction. Penalties for involuntary manslaughter may range from a fine, restitution, and community service, to several years in prison. In addition to criminal penalties, a person accused of involuntary manslaughter may be held civil liable, as the victim, or his family may file a civil lawsuit for monetary damages. It is not even necessary for the defendant to be convicted of a crime for the victim to be successful in a civil lawsuit, as the burden of proof is less stringent.
Voluntary manslaughter is the killing of a person without prior intent, but which happens during the “heat of passion.” This means that, during a circumstance that would likely cause any reasonable person to become so severely emotionally distressed, as to act without thinking, resulting in the victim’s death. Voluntary manslaughter is more serious then involuntary manslaughter, as it refers to the commission of the killing during a fit of rage.
Example of Voluntary Manslaughter
John comes home to find his wife engaged in sexual relations with another man, and he immediately becomes enraged. John picks up a heavy lamp next to the bed and hits the man over the head. The blow causes a bleed in the man’s brain, from which he dies in the hospital the next day. Ordinarily, John would never harm another person, but learning that his wife was involved in an affair caused him to become so emotional, he acted in the heat of passion.
John is certainly responsible for killing the man, though the crime doesn’t rise to the level of murder. John’s actions in at least causing injury to the man were intentional, although they occurred in the heat of the moment, and he certainly didn’t intend to kill him.
Vehicular manslaughter may be charged as either involuntary or voluntary manslaughter, depending on the circumstances, and the jurisdiction in which it occurs. This crime is defined as the killing of another person while driving in a negligent manner, including driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In most jurisdictions, vehicular manslaughter is likely to be charged as voluntary when the driver intentionally engaged in actions considered to be severely negligent or reckless, which he should have known would endanger others. In addition, driving under the influence (“DUI”) is usually considered to be a voluntary or intentional act.
Example of Voluntary Vehicular Manslaughter
Rick, a professional truck driver, unloads and accepts another load after lying to his dispatcher about his driving log, and his level of fatigue. While driving on the highway with the new load, Rick falls asleep, running over another vehicle on his way to crash into the center divider. The driver of the other vehicle is killed in the accident.
Although Rick did not intend to injure or kill anyone, he knows of the dangers of driving while fatigued, as well as the regulations requiring truck drivers to stop and rest at specific intervals. Rick may be charged with Voluntary Manslaughter in the form of Vehicular Manslaughter or “Vehicular Homicide.”
Examples of Involuntary Manslaughter
Criminal charges are brought in jurisdictions around the country every single day. These stem from deaths caused by a wide variety of accidents in which one party was acting negligently, recklessly, or without proper regard for human life. The following examples of involuntary manslaughter illustrate both negligent acts, and simply not taking adequate care.
DUI Leads to Death of Native American Passenger
On March 15, 2015, Jason Kimmel, Sr. was driving recklessly and erratically when he lost control and crashed. Kimmel’s friend, Keith Sun Bear, was killed when he was thrown out of the vehicle. Kimmel’s blood alcohol concentration was .345 – more than four times the legal limit.
Because the victim was a Native American, the case fell into the purview of the federal legal system. A federal grand jury indicted Kimmel on charges of involuntary manslaughter only a few weeks later. The man pled guilty in the death of his friend, and was sentenced to two years in prison, followed by two years probation.
Negligence Leads to Death of Bicyclist
In September 2015, Caroline Wortham was riding her bicycle along a road, when she was hit from behind by a car, and killed. After an investigation, the driver, Stanley Dawson, was charged with involuntary manslaughter, failure to yield to a bicyclist, and a handful of other crimes.
The prosecutor stated that there was no evidence that Dawson was intoxicated, or even that he was using his cell phone when he hit the cyclist. There was evidence, however, that he wasn’t paying close attention as he was driving down that roadway.
This example of involuntary manslaughter illustrates the fact that every driver should know that not taking proper care while driving, or not paying close attention to everything around him while driving, poses a danger to other people.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
- Culpability – Blameworthiness, deserving of blame or censure.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Forethought – The thinking of something beforehand, the planning out in advance.
- Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Malice – The intention to do evil, inflict injury, or cause suffering of another.
- Negligence – Failure to exercise a degree of care that would be taken by another reasonable person in the same circumstances.
- Reckless – To act with no concern for the consequences, without caution, or carelessly.
- Restitution – The restoration of rights or property previously taken away or surrendered; reparation made by giving compensation for loss or injury caused by wrongdoing.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.