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The unjustifiable, inexcusable, and intentional killing of a human being without deliberation, premeditation, and malice. The unlawful killing of a human being without any deliberation, which may be involuntary, in the commission of a lawful act without due caution and circumspection.
Manslaughter is a distinct crime and is not considered a lesser degree of murder. The essential distinction between the two offenses is that malice aforethought must be present for murder, whereas it must be absent for manslaughter. Manslaughter is not as serious a crime as murder. On the other hand, it is not a justifiable or excusable killing for which little or no punishment is imposed.
At common law, as well as under current statutes, the offense can be either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. The main difference between the two is that voluntary manslaughter requires an intent to kill or cause serious bodily harm while involuntary manslaughter does not. Premeditation or deliberation, however, are elements of murder and not of manslaughter. Some states have abandoned the use of adjectives to describe different forms of the offense and, instead, simply divide the offense into varying degrees.
In most jurisdictions, voluntary manslaughter consists of an intentional killing that is accompanied by additional circumstances that mitigate, but do not excuse, the killing. The most common type of voluntary manslaughter occurs when a defendant is provoked to commit the homicide. It is sometimes described as a heat of passion killing. In most cases, the provocation must induce rage or anger in the defendant, although some cases have held that fright, terror, or desperation will suffice.
If adequate provocation is established, a murder charge may be reduced to manslaughter. Generally there are four conditions that must be fulfilled to warrant the reduction: (1) the provocation must cause rage or fear in a reasonable person; (2) the defendant must have actually been provoked; (3) there should not be a time period between the provocation and the killing within which a reasonable person would cool off; and (4) the defendant should not have cooled off during that period.
Provocation is justifiable if a reasonable person under similar circumstances would be induced to act in the same manner as the defendant. It must be found that the degree of provocation was such that a reasonable person would lose self-control. In actual practice, there is no precise formula for determining reasonableness. It is a matter that is determined by the trier of fact, either the jury or the judge in a nonjury trial, after a full consideration of the evidence.
Certain forms of provocation that frequently arise have traditionally been considered reasonable or unreasonable by the courts. A killing that results from anger that is induced by a violent blow with a fist or weapon might constitute sufficient provocation, provided the accused did not incite the victim. It is not reasonable, however, to respond similarly to a light blow. A killing that results from mutual combat is often considered manslaughter, provided it was caused by the heat of passion aroused by the combat. An illegal arrest of one who knows of or believes in his or her innocence may provoke a reasonable person, although cases are in dispute on the issue of whether such an arrest would justify a killing. An attempt to make a legal arrest in an unlawful manner by the use of unnecessary violence might also constitute a heat of passion killing that will mitigate an intentional killing. Some cases have held that a reasonable belief that one's spouse is committing adultery will suffice. An injury to persons in a close relationship to the accused, such as a spouse, child, or parent, is often held to constitute reasonable provocation, particularly when the injury occurs in the accused person's presence.
Mere words or gestures, although extremely offensive and insulting, have traditionally been viewed as insufficient provocation to reduce murder to manslaughter. There is, however, a modern trend in some courts to hold that words alone will suffice under certain circumstances, such as instances in which a present intent and ability to cause harm is demonstrated.
The reasonable person standard is generally applied in a purely objective manner. Unusual mental or physical characteristics are not taken into consideration. The fact that a defendant was more susceptible to provocation than an average person because he or she had a previous head injury is not relevant to a determination of whether the person's conduct was reasonable. There has, however, been a trend in some cases that indicates a willingness to consider some subjective factors.
If a reasonable period of time passed between the provocation and the killing so that the defendant had sufficient time to cool off, a homicide will not be reduced to manslaughter. Most courts will reduce the charge if a reasonable person would not have cooled off. Some, however, look solely at the defendant's temperament and make a subjective decision as to whether the person had sufficient time to regain self-control.
In some states, there is a case-law trend in which a killing that is committed under a mistaken belief that one is justified constitutes voluntary manslaughter. It is reasoned that although the crime is not justifiable, it is not serious enough to be murder.
It is a general rule that a defendant who acts in self-defense may only use force that is reasonably calculated to prevent harm to himself or herself. If the person honestly, but unreasonably, believes deadly force is necessary and, therefore, causes another's death, some courts will consider the crime voluntary manslaughter. Similarly when a defendant acts under an honest but unreasonable belief that he or she has a right to kill another to prevent a felony, some courts will find the person guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Although it is generally considered a crime to kill another in order to save oneself, the justification of coercion or necessity may, likewise, reduce murder to manslaughter in some jurisdictions.
Involuntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another human being without intent. The absence of the intent element is the essential difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Also in most states, involuntary manslaughter does not result from a heat of passion but from an improper use of reasonable care or skill while in the commission of a lawful act or while in the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony.
Generally there are two types of involuntary manslaughter: (1) criminal-negligence manslaughter; and (2) unlawful-act manslaughter. The first occurs when death results from a high degree of negligence or recklessness, and the second occurs when death is caused by one who commits or attempts to commit an unlawful act, usually a misdemeanor.
Although all jurisdictions punish involuntary manslaughter, the statutes vary somewhat. In some states, the criminal negligence type of manslaughter is described as gross negligence or culpable negligence. Others divide the entire offense of manslaughter into degrees, with voluntary manslaughter constituting a more serious offense and carrying a heavier penalty than involuntary manslaughter.
Many statutes do not define the offense or define it vaguely in common-law terms. There are, however, a small number of modern statutes that are more specific. Under one such statute, the offense is defined as the commission of a lawful act without proper caution or requisite skill, in which one unguardedly or undesignedly kills another or the commission of an unlawful act that is not felonious or tends to inflict great bodily harm.
Criminally Negligent Manslaughter A homicide resulting from the taking of an unreasonable and high degree of risk is usually considered criminally negligent manslaughter. Jurisdictions are divided on the question of whether the defendant must be aware of the risk. Modern criminal codes generally require a consciousness of risk, although, under some codes, the absence of this element makes the offense a less serious homicide.
There are numerous cases in which an omission to act or a failure to perform a duty constitutes criminally negligent manslaughter. The existence of a duty is essential. Since the law does not recognize that an ordinary person has a duty to aid or rescue another in distress, an ensuing death from failure to act would not be manslaughter. On the other hand, an omission in which one has a duty, such as the failure of a lifeguard to attempt to save a drowning person, might constitute the offense.
When the failure to act is reckless or negligent, and not intentional, it is usually manslaughter. If the omission is intentional and death is likely or substantially likely to result, the offense might be murder. When an intent to kill, recklessness, and negligence are present, no offense is committed.
In many jurisdictions, death that results from the operation of a vehicle in a criminally negligent manner is punishable as a separate offense. Usually it is considered a less severe crime than involuntary manslaughter. Although criminal negligence is an element, it is generally not the same degree of negligence as that which is required for involuntary manslaughter. For example, some vehicular homicide statutes have been construed to require only ordinary negligence while, in a majority of jurisdictions, a greater degree of negligence is required for involuntary manslaughter.
Unlawful-Act Manslaughter In many states, unlawful-act manslaughter is committed when death results from an act that is likely to cause death or serious physical harm to another person. In a majority of jurisdictions, however, the offense is committed when death occurs during the commission or attempted commission of a misdemeanor.
In some states, a distinction is made between conduct that is malum in se, bad in itself and conduct that is malum prohibitum, bad because prohibited by law. In these states, the act that causes the death must be malum in se and a felony in order for the offense to constitute manslaughter. If the act is malum prohibitum, there is no manslaughter unless it was foreseeable that death would be a direct result of the act. In other states that similarly divide the offense, the crime is committed even though the act was malum prohibitum and a misdemeanor, especially if the unlawful act was in violation of a statute that was intended to prevent injury to other persons.
The penalty for manslaughter is imprisonment. The precise term of years depends upon the applicable statute. Usually the sentence that is imposed for voluntary manslaughter is greater than that given for involuntary manslaughter. In most states, a more serious penalty is imposed for criminally negligent manslaughter than for unlawful-act manslaughter.
Milgate, Deborah E. 1998. "The Flame Flickers, but Burns On: Modern Judicial Application of the Ancient Heat of Passion Defense." Rutgers Law Review 51 (fall): 193–227.
Miller, Emily L. 2001. "(Woman) slaughter: Voluntary Manslaughter, Gender, and the Model Penal Code." Emory Law Journal 50 (spring): 665–93.
Miller, Henry. 1975. Human Error: The Road to Disaster. Chatsworth, Calif.: Canyon Books.
Related Resources on FindLaw
- Manslaughter Definition from FindLaw.com's Legal Dictionary