Although they are terms we have all heard many times, many people don’t actually know if manslaughter and murder are the same things or what makes them different in the eyes of the law. Manslaughter, like murder, is unlawful killing, but the difference is that there was no intent to kill or seriously harm the other individual and no reckless, extreme disregard for life. This is known as “malice aforethought.”
When the killing occurs without malice aforethought, there is less moral blame placed upon the killer than there would be with murder. Manslaughter typically falls into one of two categories — either voluntary or involuntary. The crime is serious, but due to the absence of malice aforethought, the punishment is typically less severe than it would be for first- or second-degree murder.
What Is Voluntary Manslaughter?
This type of crime often occurs when an individual acts under circumstances that would provoke a reasonable individual. They kill in the heat of passion due to this strong provocation. For this reason, many refer to voluntary manslaughter as a “heat of passion crime.” For this circumstance to exist, there needs to have been no time for the individual to “cool off” from the time they were provoked until the crime occurred.
Human weakness is acknowledged by the fact that this type of crime is not considered to be first- or second-degree murder. Although those who kill in the heat of passion may do so intentionally, the emotional factors that incited the killing act as mitigating factors, which reduces the blame that we place on them morally.
An example of voluntary manslaughter that most people can relate to is that of a spouse who comes home to find their partner in bed with another person. In the heat of the moment, the discovery provokes the individual into such a frenzy that they kill the person their spouse is cheating with right on the spot. In many cases, a judge and jury will look at this type of killing as voluntary manslaughter.
When Is Manslaughter Involuntary?
When a homicide occurs due to reckless or criminally negligent conduct, it is usually referred to as involuntary manslaughter. In some cases, it also refers to a killing that happens unintentionally during the commission of another crime (one that is not a felony).
There are nuances amongst these terms. However, that can be difficult to differentiate. For instance, an unintentional homicide that occurs due to extreme recklessness is, at times, considered to be second-degree murder.
What Does the Killer’s State of Mind Have to Do With It?
Laws have been created to help the courts determine how morally blameworthy an individual is when there is a question of whether the crime is unintentional second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. These laws relate to the differences in the mental state of individuals who commit these crimes.
Consider a situation in which a person is driving down the road and runs over a pedestrian, killing them. This individual’s crime may fall into any of the following categories:
- Second-degree murder conviction. If the individual’s driving behavior is such that a judge or jury considers it to be an extreme disregard for human life, it may fall under malice aforethought. In this case, second-degree murder would be an appropriate conviction. This may be the case with repeat drunk drivers who have had their license revoked and still drove while intoxicated and killed someone.
- Involuntary manslaughter conviction. Unlike the situation above, which involves a repeat DUI offender, a situation in which an individual kills someone during a first-offense drunk driving incident may be considered involuntary manslaughter. This is due to the fact that they were acting recklessly, but the situation did not fall under malice aforethought.
- No conviction. It is possible that the individual who ran over the other person did so completely by accident and did not commit a crime at all. In this scenario, however, the family of the person who was killed may still make a claim against the individual in a civil case and be awarded damages.
Examples of Manslaughter and Murder Cases
- An accidental killing as a result of an intentional act. Two individuals who happen to be having a conversation that leads to a heated discussion may result in minor physical contact, such as pushing or shoving. If the argument occurs near a stairway, and one of those involved falls down the stairs to their death as a result of being shoved, the one who shoved the other may be guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The individual here would be criminally negligent because they should not have been pushing someone near a stairway. However, they likely did not have an extreme indifference to human life. If the judge and jury determine that the individual intended to kill the other by pushing them down the stairs, the crime may be elevated to voluntary manslaughter but would still not likely be considered second-degree murder.
- A provoked killing. An individual is irritated by another person who bumps into them on the street and doesn’t apologize, so they pull out a knife and kill the person. This is not first-degree murder because it was not premeditated, but it would fall under second-degree murder because the killing was intentional. At the same time, this is not a voluntary manslaughter case because although you may say the individual was provoked, the situation was not so heated that you could say it reasonably led to the individual losing control.
- Killing someone after there has been time to cool off. Consider an example in which a husband finds out that his wife was raped, and she knows the person who committed the crime against her. He may take his wife for medical care, and later buy a gun, and proceed to kill the rapist. This would be considered first-degree murder because the husband had a reasonable amount of time to process his anger and “cool off.” If he proceeds to buy a weapon and kill the person after reflecting on the situation, that is considered to be premeditation. In rare cases, this scenario may also be considered to be voluntary manslaughter, as the husband would certainly have still been angry at the time of the killing. The nuance, in this case, is whether the heat of passion had cooled or not.
What If You Have Been Charged With a Killing?
If you have been involved in a situation that led to the loss of another individual’s life, it is crucial to speak to an experienced attorney as soon as possible. The team at The Law Office of Stein & Markus has the knowledge to handle your case with skill and walk you through the legal process. Visit our website today to find out how we can help you.
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