Voluntary manslaughter is a crime that occurs when someone kills another person with no prior intent to harm or kill, but under a sudden circumstance that made him mentally or emotionally distraught. Voluntary manslaughter is often referred to as killing in the “heat of passion.” The difference between voluntary manslaughter and murder is often the provocation to kill. To explore this concept, consider the following voluntary manslaughter definition.
Definition of Voluntary Manslaughter
- The intentionally killing of a person by another who had no prior intent to kill.
7th Century B.C. The concept of manslaughter vs. murder was first introduced by Ancient Athenian lawmaker Graco.
What is Voluntary Manslaughter
Voluntary manslaughter is a criminal act that occurs when a person kills without premeditation, and after serious provocation. The act takes place when there has been adequate action that causes an ordinarily reasonable person to lose control and commit the crime in passion. It can also occur when a person kills another without malice, which means he did not have a prior intent to harm the victim, or to cause his death. The exact definition of voluntary manslaughter varies by state, but in any jurisdiction, it is a very serious criminal offense.
John comes home early one evening to find his wife Sharon having extramarital affairs with another man. John is normally level headed, but seeing his wife with another man causes him to become so distressed and angry that he picks up the heavy lamp by the bed, and hits the other man over the head with it, killing him. In this example of voluntary manslaughter, John faces voluntary manslaughter charges, as he had no prior ill will toward the man, but acted in the heat of passion.
Federal Definition of Manslaughter
Manslaughter is generally considered to be the killing of another person “in the heat of passion.” While the laws of each jurisdiction may vary, federal law defines “manslaughter” as:
(a) 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.
(b) Within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,
Whoever is guilty of voluntary manslaughter, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both;
Whoever is guilty of involuntary manslaughter, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six years, or both.
Manslaughter in the Heat of Passion
Manslaughter is generally considered to be the killing of another person “in the heat of passion.” The specific definition of “heat of passion” varies, depending on the situation, and potentially by the laws of the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed. To consider charging a killing as voluntary manslaughter, there are four elements that must be met. If any of these elements are not met, the individual may be charged with murder.
Required Elements of Voluntary Manslaughter
- The provocation or goading must have been sufficient to incite any reasonable person to lose control.
- The provocation must have ACTUALLY caused the defendant to lose control. The loss of control cannot have been triggered by something else, even if the proven provocation was sufficient.
- The amount of time that passes between the act of provocation and the actual killing must be very brief. So brief as to not allow a reasonable person to cool down and reclaim his or her composure.
- The defendant must have personally failed to compose himself before the act of killing. If the defendant did in fact composed himself after the provocation, and before the killing, the act may be considered premeditated, and a murder charge may apply.
Difference Between Voluntary Manslaughter and Involuntary Manslaughter
There is a difference between voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter occurs when the perpetrator intentionally kills another person without prior intent to do so, such as in the heat of passion. The perpetrator could be described as having malice, though only at the time the killing occurs, not prior to the incident.
Involuntary manslaughter occurs when the perpetrator unintentionally kills another person when committing another crime, or when engaging in reckless behavior, with an indifference to human life, that caused the person’s death. In involuntary manslaughter, there is no intent to kill, no malice, even at the time the killing occurs.
Example of Involuntary Manslaughter
Dr. Robert is treating an older patient for complaints of breathing problems. Dr. Robert fails to notice that the man’s oxygen tube is not properly hooked up, and the man stops breathing. As a result, the patient dies, and the doctor is charged with criminally negligent manslaughter, which is a form of involuntary manslaughter. The charges are based on his negligent care of the patient, even though he did not intend to kill or harm him.
Vehicular manslaughter differs from voluntary manslaughter in the fact that the perpetrator had no intention of harming another, even at the time of the killing. Vehicular manslaughter is the killing of another person while operating a motor vehicle in a reckless manner. Vehicular manslaughter does not only apply in cases of DUI, but any time a driver is aware that he is driving in a dangerous or reckless manner that could harm others, but ignores the risk.
In some jurisdictions, causing a death by driving recklessly is also known as “vehicular homicide.” Texting, or using any device, while driving is known to be dangerous, and ignoring that risk could subject a driver to charges of vehicular manslaughter.
Example of Vehicular Manslaughter
A large group of high-schoolers is hanging around in a vacant field one day, racing their cars, and generally showing off. Martin drives his car out into the middle of the small field and begins racing in circles, doing “donuts.” He’s having a great time, with all of the girls screaming and cheering him on, as they step back with each expanding rotation. Suddenly, Martin hits a small rock in the dirt, loses control of the steering wheel momentarily, and his car spins out, striking two teens, killing one of them, and putting the other in the hospital for several days.
Martin had no intention of harming anyone … all of the kids were just having fun. He did know, or should have known, that the activity was dangerous, but he ignored the potential danger. Martin was voluntarily engaging in a dangerous activity which was the direct cause of someone’s death. This is a type of voluntary manslaughter, classified as vehicular manslaughter in most states.
Defenses to Voluntary Manslaughter
A charge of voluntary manslaughter is a felony and, in its prosecution, very much like a charge of murder. Possible defenses to voluntary manslaughter are also similar to those for a murder charge. Virtually all of the possible defenses to manslaughter, attempt to convince the jury that the defendant did not commit the crime, or that it was somehow someone else’s fault. Some of the most common defenses to voluntary manslaughter include:
While a claim of self-defense may absolve a person from a charge of manslaughter, there are a number of elements that must be met. Self-defense refers to the act of protecting oneself, or another person, from severe bodily harm or death. Violence takes many forms, and each person’s perception and level of fear is different. It is not always necessary to kill the perpetrator in order to protect oneself or another.
This is where the two types of self-defense claims come in. Self-defense is divided into two types, “perfect,” and “imperfect” self-defense. The difference between self-defense and imperfect self-defense hinges on whether the defendant’s belief that deadly force was necessary is reasonable to other people. If a jury does not think the defendant’s belief would have been held by another reasonable person, the defense is imperfect. In such a case, the defendant’s charges or punishment may be mitigated or reduced, but not dismissed.
Andrew and Martin are across-the-street neighbors. They get into a heated argument outside one evening, and Andrew picks up a medium-size rock and tosses it across the street yelling obscenities. Martin becomes enraged, picks up the rock, then charges across the street and begins bashing the rock against Andrew’s head. Andrew dies from his injuries, and Martin is charged with voluntary manslaughter.
Martin’s defense attorney attempts to claim he was defending himself against Andrew’s violent actions, and that he didn’t intend to kill the man. Testimony leads the jury to believe that Martin actually believed his life was in danger, and that he needed to use deadly force to protect himself. The jury must consider whether other reasonable people, in the same situation, would also feel deadly force was necessary. In this example of voluntary manslaughter, the jury found Martin’s defense imperfect, and recommended he be sentenced to the lesser of the 5-10 years in prison.
The best defense to voluntary manslaughter is not having committed the crime in the first place. When a person is charged with a crime, the prosecution has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty. If the prosecution fails to do this, or if the jury doesn’t believe that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant is presumed innocent. It may not be necessary to actually prove actual innocence, but to create doubt about the prosecution’s claim that the defendant committed the crime.
If the defendant can prove he met the legal definition of insanity at the time of the killing, the court may not hold him accountable for his actions. The specific definition of insanity varies by jurisdiction, but in any case, such a claim requires the defendant be evaluated by court-appointed psychiatric professionals. In generally, an insanity defense is based on whether the defendant understood his actions, and their consequences, and whether he was able to distinguish between right and wrong. Not all states have an insanity defense to criminal acts.
If the defendant can show that the killing occurred due to an accident, the charges may be reduced to involuntary manslaughter.
Penalties for Voluntary Manslaughter
In most jurisdictions, voluntary manslaughter is a first-degree felony, so it carries a serious sentence. Criminal penalties for voluntary manslaughter may include:
- A prison sentence of up to 30 years
- A steep fine
- Mandatory counseling or anger management classes
There may also be civil penalties for voluntary manslaughter, as the victim’s family may file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator. The family may ask the court to award them damages based on the wrongful death of their loved one. These damages may also include payment for infliction of emotional distress. The civil court can award the victim’s family damages even if the perpetrator is acquitted in criminal court, or if he is not criminally charged with voluntary manslaughter.
Voluntary Manslaughter Example
In Orlando, California, police had frequented the home of Daniel Byers, on reports of child abuse, child neglect, domestic abuse, and drug-related offenses. In early July, 2015, Daniel’s daughter, 19-year old Dusti Byers, claimed she attempted to protect herself and her sister from their father during a domestic dispute. Dusti picked up her father’s gun and shot him in the back. Unfortunately, the bullet passed through him, and struck her 16-year old sister Jennifer in the face. Both Daniel and Jennifer died.
Police arrived at the residence and found Dusti on the far side of the lot with a gunshot wound to the head. She had apparently tried to commit suicide after shooting her father, and accidentally killing the sister she was trying to protect. Dusti lived, and was eventually charged with murder of both family members. As the case progressed, Dusti was offered a plea bargain. If should would plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter of both victims, the district attorney would drop the murder charges, which may have gotten her more than 40 years in the state prison. Pleading guilty to manslaughter reduced her maximum possible sentence to 27 years.
Dusti’s actions in the heat of the moment constitute voluntary manslaughter of her father. While the accidental killing of her sister might not appear to meet the elements of voluntary manslaughter, apparently Dusti’s attorney agreed to the charge under a theory of “transferred intent.” In this example of voluntary manslaughter, the doctrine of transferred intent allows a person who intended to harm or kill one person, but whose actions accidentally killed another person, to be held criminally responsible for the second victim’s death.
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.
- 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.
- Emotional Distress – A negative emotional reaction, such as anguish, humiliation, or grief, resulting from the conduct of another individual. Also referred to as “mental anguish.”
- Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
- Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
- 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.
- Jury – A group of people sworn to render a verdict in a trial, based on evidence presented.
- Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
- Restitution – The restoration of rights or property previously taken away or surrendered; reparation made by giving compensation for loss or injury caused by wrongdoing.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.