Most people think of voluntary manslaughter as an intentional killing that occurs when a person takes a human life while in the "heat of passion." Standard definitions say the person who commits voluntary manslaughter did not intend to kill. Instead, the person reacted to circumstances immediately before the killing. Those circumstances would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally agitated or disturbed mentally. Such circumstances are often called "sufficient provocation." Otherwise, the state may charge the crime as a first-degree or second-degree murder.
For example, Dan comes home to find his wife in bed with Victor. In the heat of the moment, Dan picks up a golf club next to the bed. He strikes Victor in the head, killing him. Dan did not intend to kill anyone when he arrived home. Finding Victor in bed with his wife, Dan committed the killing in the "heat of passion."
On the spectrum of homicides, this offense lies somewhere between killing with malice aforethought in murder and the justified taking of life in some instances of self-defense. There is a range of potential sentences and penalties for voluntary manslaughter. If the state and the defense do not reach a plea agreement, the judge will decide and issue the sentence upon a conviction.
Voluntary manslaughter is a separate concept from involuntary manslaughter. It has several definitions depending on the state law at issue. Involuntary manslaughter happens when someone dies due to the defendant's non-felonious illegal act. It may also happen due to the defendant's irresponsibility or recklessness.
What Is Voluntary Manslaughter?
Federal law defines voluntary manslaughter as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.
The exact meaning of the heat of passion varies depending on the situation. It may refer to an agitated state of mind or irresistible emotion that a reasonable person would experience under the same circumstances. This idea of the heat of passion contrasts with the idea of premeditation found in first-degree murder. A showing of one negates the other.
For example, Adam sees a perfect stranger, Bob, desecrating a religious monument. Adam flies into a rage, during which he kills Bob. The state would likely consider a charge of voluntary manslaughter for Adam, not murder. Now, change the facts. Adam has a long-standing, uncontrollable hatred for Bob because Bob mocks Adam's faith. Adam hid and waited for Bob to desecrate the monument. Adam intended to kill Bob and did so. Now, the state would most likely bring a murder charge against Adam.
State and federal laws offer different types of manslaughter offenses. These include:
- Voluntary manslaughter — Intentionally causing the death of another person in the heat of passion after serious provocation by the victim
- Involuntary manslaughter — Unintentionally causing the death of another person or accidental killing, resulting from recklessness or criminal negligence
- Vehicular manslaughter — Unintentionally causing the death of another person by the driver of a motor vehicle, resulting from recklessness or criminal negligence. This is often used in DUI cases that result in a death
Criminal penalties for voluntary manslaughter vary depending on federal or state law. In most states, a voluntary manslaughter conviction will bring a definite prison sentence of three to 20 years. The court sentence will likely be harsher when a defendant has a prior criminal record that includes violent crime. In vehicular manslaughter cases based on DUI, a previous history of drunk driving may lead to mandatory prison time.
Defenses to Voluntary Manslaughter
Potential defenses for voluntary manslaughter are like other homicide charges.
Wrong person —A defendant facing a voluntary manslaughter charge could try to prove that they didn't commit the crime. They may offer evidence of an alibi, showing they could not be at the location where the killing happened. They may argue that the state or a key witness has incorrectly identified.
Justification or self-defense — A defendant may also raise the legal defense of justification. Self-defense is an example of justification often raised in cases of violent crime. In a self-defense claim in a homicide case, the defendant says they believed that another person was about to cause them harm or kill them They claim the circumstances justified their use of deadly force to repel the attack, resulting in the other person's death.
Imperfect self-defense — Some states recognize a legal defense in some homicide cases called imperfect self-defense. In a claim of imperfect self-defense, the defendant says they believed the other person was about to cause serious physical harm or kill them. But, in hindsight, their belief, although honestly held, was not one society would accept as reasonable. This defense does not justify the killing. It may provide a mitigating factor to cause the state to reduce the charges or the court to reduce the sentence. Imperfect self-defense is rarely raised as a defense to voluntary manslaughter. By its terms, imperfect self-defense represents an admission to voluntary manslaughter. The defendant's mistaken belief is like the heat of passion.
Intent — The defense strategy will often include a claim that the state has failed to prove all the elements of voluntary manslaughter. For example, the defendant may claim they did not have the intent required. They may claim that they did not know their actions would result in serious physical harm or the other person's death. This is hard to prove when you shoot someone. Yet, it may merit discussion when the parties engage in a mutual fight. For example, one person strikes the other with an object or lands a punch so hard that the other person hits the ground and dies of a head injury.
Other defenses — Other defenses may be available according to the specific state law that applies. For example, many states have expanded their self-defense law to end the common law duty to retreat. The Castle Doctrine, adopted in most states, allowed a person to use deadly force against an intruder into the home (one's castle) without retreat. The newer Stand Your Ground laws take the Castle Doctrine into public places or anywhere a person has a right to be. In homicide cases where the defendant raises a Stand Your Ground claim, the state may have to prove the killing was unjustified.
A defendant should always consult with a criminal defense lawyer. Seeking a case evaluation allows you to understand all available defenses best.
State Voluntary Manslaughter Laws
Different state laws may have different definitions of voluntary manslaughter. The state penal code in California defines voluntary manslaughter as "the unlawful killing of a human being without malice, upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion." On conviction, the court can sentence the offender to three, six, or 11 years in state prison.
The state of New York has several different manslaughter crimes. Under manslaughter in the first degree (voluntary manslaughter), a defendant commits the crime when they intentionally cause the death of another while under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance. A conviction of this crime can lead to a sentence of five to 25 years in state prison.
Some states, like Texas, do not have a separate crime that aligns with traditional forms of voluntary manslaughter. Texas law authorizes the reduction of murder from a first-degree felony to a second-degree felony when the defendant proves the affirmative defense at the punishment phase of a case. For example, a defendant facing a murder conviction proves they committed the killing "under the immediate influence of sudden passion arising from an adequate cause." In Texas, punishment for a second-degree felony includes prison time of two to 20 years.
In Illinois, the state no longer has a traditional voluntary manslaughter statute. Like Texas, it allows the reduction of first-degree murder to second-degree murder when the killing occurs "under a sudden or intense passion resulting from serious provocation from the individual killed ...". A second-degree murder conviction has a sentence of four to 20 years in prison. Illinois allows intentional homicide and voluntary manslaughter in circumstances where the defendant caused the death of an unborn child.
Some states have changed their laws due to recent hate crimes directed at people based on gender identity or sexual orientation. California and Illinois limit claims of sudden quarrel or heat of passion. The California Penal Code states:
"The provocation was not objectively reasonable if it resulted from the discovery of, knowledge about, or potential disclosure of the victim's actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation, including under circumstances in which the victim made an unwanted nonforcible romantic or sexual advance towards the defendant, or if the defendant and the victim dated or had a romantic or sexual relationship."
Get Legal Help With Your Voluntary Manslaughter Case
If you or one of your family members faces charges as serious as voluntary manslaughter, speak to a criminal defense attorney. A case evaluation from a competent attorney will help you understand the penalties and defenses available. To learn more about voluntary manslaughter and other homicide laws in your state, take the next step. Consider meeting with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.