The possible defenses to a charge of voluntary manslaughter are similar to those a defendant might raise for other homicide charges. A defendant facing a voluntary manslaughter charge could attempt to prove that they didn't actually commit the crime. In the alternative, they may claim that their actions were justified or argue that their behavior didn't meet the elements of voluntary manslaughter.
What defense a person actually chooses to raise in court will vary according to the law of the state they're in and the circumstances of the case. The following article provides an overview of voluntary manslaughter and an introduction to voluntary manslaughter defenses.
What Is Voluntary Manslaughter?
Before discussing defenses to voluntary manslaughter, it makes sense to review the elements of the crime itself. Under federal and many state laws today, voluntary manslaughter occurs when someone:
A voluntary manslaughter conviction will often result in a prison sentence. Under federal law, a conviction can bring up to 15 years in prison. State statutes will vary and may carry less time.
Voluntary manslaughter cases involve an intentional killing. For example, a spontaneous bar fight erupts, and one person uses excessive force and causes a death. In these crimes, the State claims the defendant intended to cause serious harm or death, and death resulted. The State need not prove malice aforethought or premeditation consistent with first-degree murder.
The definition of "sudden quarrel or heat of passion" may vary between statutes. These cases begin with provocation that is objectively reasonable and would cause an ordinary person to act rashly without proper reflection. The defendant then subjectively reacts and kills while under the actual influence of passion or emotion. Words alone will not suffice for provocation. There cannot be a significant gap in time or a cooling-off period before the fatal attack.
Recently, California and a number of states have clarified that provocation is not objectively reasonable when it is based on the discovery of the victim's actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. This includes circumstances where the victim made an unwanted, nonforcible romantic or sexual advance towards the defendant.
Prosecutors carry the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty in all criminal cases. Unless that happens, the defendant retains a presumption of innocence. The defendant can claim they did not commit the crime. This may be the best possible voluntary manslaughter defense.
To refute the prosecution's accusations, a defendant can provide an alibi. This means the defendant will present evidence they were somewhere else at the time of the crime. They may testify or call witnesses to establish where they were and what they were doing.
In a related defense, the defendant may claim mistaken identity, attacking the validity of witness accounts. The defense can call an expert witness to demonstrate the unreliability of eyewitness identifications. They can also cross-examine prosecution witnesses and emphasize shortcomings in such testimony.
If the defense can raise reasonable doubt in the mind of the prosecutor or the judge, there will be an opportunity to request dismissal of the case before trial. If the case goes to trial, the defense can point to reasonable doubt, seeking an acquittal.
The claim of self-defense in a voluntary manslaughter case may work differently than it would for a murder charge. When a defendant raises self-defense in a murder case, the type of self-defense they claim can be either perfect or imperfect.
A perfect claim of self-defense occurs when there is a reasonable need for deadly force to protect one's life or another human life. It involves no wrongdoing on the part of the defendant.
An imperfect self-defense claim arises from a defendant's unreasonable belief that deadly force is necessary or some bad behavior on the part of the defendant. For example, if the defendant started the fight, but then had to use deadly force to protect their life, the claim of self-defense is imperfect.
In a murder case, a perfect self-defense claim will result in an acquittal. The judge or jury concludes that the defendant responded as a reasonable person would when faced with the same circumstances. It demonstrates justification for the homicide.
An imperfect self-defense claim will usually result in a reduction to a manslaughter charge. In a manslaughter case, the only type of self-defense claim available is a perfect self-defense claim. An imperfect self-defense claim amounts to an admission that the defendant did in fact commit voluntary manslaughter.
Many states have adopted Stand Your Ground laws. These laws can have an impact on how the self-defense claim goes forward. In states that include Stand Your Ground in their statutes, a person has no duty to retreat from a violent crime or act before using appropriate or even deadly force to repel the attack. If a defendant finds themselves in imminent danger, they can remain in place and fight off whoever started the fight.
In situations where a defendant raises self-defense, some states require the prosecution to prove the defendant was not acting in self-defense as part of the State's case.
In other states, self-defense is an affirmative defense which the defendant must show by a preponderance of the evidence.
In almost all states, if a defendant meets the legal definition of insanity at the time of the killing, they will qualify for a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity. Such a result is not a criminal conviction, but it also is not likely the defendant will immediately leave the courthouse with their freedom.
When a judge or jury makes a finding of insanity, state law will permit them to commit the defendant to treatment in a mental health care institution. This may be in-patient or out-patient care depending on the circumstances.
Usually, jurisdictions base the insanity defense on the defendant's inability to understand the nature of their actions or to distinguish between right and wrong. The exact standards for the insanity defense vary among jurisdictions, but generally fall into one of the following categories:
Insanity claims involve particular skill and experience for a criminal defense lawyer. They often involve delays in prosecution while the defendant undergoes an evaluation by a mental health care professional.
Showing that the homicide occurred as the result of an accident can sometimes be a convincing voluntary manslaughter defense. If the facts support a claim of pure accident, there may be no criminal liability. In the alternative, an accidental killing may cause a reduction in the charge to involuntary manslaughter. Depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances, involuntary manslaughter may be a felony or a misdemeanor offense.
As discussed earlier, voluntary manslaughter has an element of intent to it. Even if occurring in the heat of passion, a person who commits voluntary manslaughter had the full intent to kill or cause great bodily harm to the victim. Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, results from criminal negligence or recklessness. To some, it amounts to an unintentional killing.
The perpetrator of involuntary manslaughter might act carelessly, but they didn't have the intent to either kill or cause the victim great bodily harm. If the defendant can show that the victim's death resulted from an accident rather than an intentional act, they may be able to reduce the charge to one of involuntary manslaughter. This may result in a lesser sentence.
For example, Adam and Bob have a dispute at work. Later, while leaving work, they get into a loud argument in the parking lot. Adam, enraged, jumps in his car and starts to peel out of his spot. Because he's so angry, Adam isn't paying attention and is unaware that Bob followed him over to the car, continuing a loud tirade. Adam backs up and hits Bob with his car, causing a fatal injury.
The police charge Adam with voluntary manslaughter. They conclude in the heat of passion, he intended to hit Bob and cause him harm. If Adam can show he did not know Bob was there and that his recklessness caused the death, the charges could be reduced to involuntary manslaughter.
Intoxication does not excuse a person from criminal behavior unless the intoxication was involuntary, such as if they were drugged against their will. This is especially true for voluntary manslaughter defenses. At best, intoxication may support a defense request to reduce a voluntary manslaughter charge to one of involuntary manslaughter.
For example, let's say Adam and Bob ended their dispute in the parking lot and went out to have a few beers at the local bar. Feeling no pain, Adam drives Bob home. Adam is DUI and loses control of the vehicle. He hits a guardrail, killing Bob. In many jurisdictions, the defense would argue that voluntary manslaughter is not an appropriate charge because Adam had no intent to kill Bob. Many states provide a separate offense for DUI manslaughter.
More Questions About Voluntary Manslaughter Defenses? Get Legal Help
Anyone facing voluntary or involuntary manslaughter charges will need sound legal advice. These are serious charges that require a competent defense. If you have further questions or need more information, consider reaching out to an experienced criminal defense attorney today.