Homicide, the unlawful killing of a human being, may result in a criminal charge of murder or manslaughter. In a murder case, the prosecutor must establish the defendant's "malice aforethought," which refers to the defendant's intentions, decisions, and planning related to the homicide. Malice may be shown through deliberate planning or participation in reckless, dangerous activity. When an individual commits a homicide without malice, the state might charge the defendant with manslaughter instead of murder. The difference between murder and voluntary manslaughter often focuses on the defendant's state of mind at the time of homicide.
California state laws define three types of manslaughter: voluntary, involuntary, and vehicular. For a voluntary manslaughter charge, the prosecutor must show that the defendant committed homicide during a sudden quarrel or while in the heat of passion. The events and circumstances surrounding the homicide -- the quarrel or provocation -- establish a lack of malice that would otherwise result in a murder charge. The prosecutor still must show that the defendant had the intent to inflict severe bodily injury or death on the victim in order to prove voluntary manslaughter.
Acts that qualify as provocation depend on the circumstances surrounding the homicide. Some common acts of provocation include:
- Mutual combat between the defendant and victim;
- Murder of a family member; or
- Adultery committed by the defendant's spouse.
If a period of time has passed between the act of provocation and the homicide, California laws provide the prosecutor with the basis for a murder charge as murder can be found where the defendant had a sufficient "cooling period." If the defendant committed the homicide after the cooling period, the prosecutor may be able to show that the defendant had enough time to premeditate or plan the killing.
California Voluntary Manslaughter Laws At A Glance
The chart below contains more information on California voluntary manslaughter laws, including the relevant statutes, possible penalties and common defenses.
California Penal Code Section 192 (defining voluntary, involuntary and vehicular manslaughter)
California Penal Code Section 193 (penalties for manslaughter)
California state laws set separate punishments for voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and vehicular manslaughter. A conviction for voluntary manslaughter generally requires a term of imprisonment for 3, 6, or 11 years in state prison.
Defenses can include:
- Imperfect self-defense (the defendant actually and reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary to avoid imminent death or severe bodily injury, but that belief was incorrect)
- Involuntary intoxication
- Insanity or lack of mental capacity
See Voluntary Manslaughter Defenses for more details.
Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.
California Voluntary Manslaughter Laws: Additional Resources
Get Immediate Legal Help With Your California Criminal Case
California's voluntary manslaughter laws are a recognition that, even where a person is killed, there are certain situations which can reduce the level of one's culpability and punishment. In homicide cases, this can mean the difference between a few years in prison or the death penalty. Whether you're seeking a plea deal or vindication at trial, speaking with an experienced criminal defense attorney can make all the difference.