Involuntary manslaughter usually refers to an unintentional killing that results from recklessness or criminal negligence, or from an unlawful act that is a misdemeanor or low-level felony (such as DUI). The usual distinction from voluntary manslaughter is that involuntary manslaughter (sometimes called "criminally negligent homicide") is a crime in which the victim's death is unintended.
For example, John comes home to find his wife in bed with Randles. Distraught, John heads to a local bar to drown his sorrows. After having five drinks, John jumps into his car and drives down the street at twice the posted speed limit, accidentally hitting and killing a pedestrian.
Involuntary manslaughter, also called "criminally negligent homicide," is the unintentional killing of another human. This differs from first or second degree murder in that the killing is accidental -- resulting from recklessness, criminal negligence or in the commission of a misdemeanor or low-level felony. An unintentional killing committed in the commission of an "inherently dangerous" felony, however, is treated as first degree murder in most states.
Charges of involuntary manslaughter often come in the wake of a deadly car crash caused by a motorist under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. While the motorist never intended to kill anyone, his or her negligence in operating a car while impaired is enough to meet the requirements of the charge.
Legal activities can also result in involuntary manslaughter charges when carried out irresponsibly or recklessly. For example, if the operator of a dangerous carnival ride recklessly fails to ensure that all passengers are strapped in and people die as a result, a prosecutor may decide to bring involuntary manslaughter charges against the operator.
Three elements must be satisfied in order for someone to be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter:Someone was killed as a result of act by the defendant.The act either was inherently dangerous to others or done with reckless disregard for human life.The defendant knew or should have known his or her conduct was a threat to the lives of others.
Involuntary manslaughter often is defined as the unlawful killing of a human without malice aforethought, which is just another way of saying "without criminal intent." Acts leading up to this charge range from running a red light and accidentally killing a pedestrian to cases of more serious negligence, such as a building manager's failure to install smoke detectors before the occurrence of a deadly fire.
Prosecutors attempting to convict a defendant on involuntary manslaughter charges need not prove intent, since malice is not an element of the crime. But the prosecution must show that someone was killed as a result of an act by the defendant, that this act was inherently dangerous or done recklessly and that the defendant should have known the act threatened the lives of others. Generally speaking, a criminal attorney will attempt to cast doubt on at least one of these three elements to defend his or her client from an involuntary manslaughter charge.
Different states define involuntary manslaughter differently, while some states don't even use the term and base the severity of unintentional homicide charges on the defendant's degree of negligence or recklessness. In all such cases, the burden falls on the prosecution to prove that the defendant somehow caused another person's death.
Here are some common legal defenses to involuntary manslaughter charges:It Was in Self-Defense
Some state jurisdictions allow for the acquittal of involuntary manslaughter charges if defendants are able to prove they reasonably suspected they were protecting themselves or another person from imminent death or serious harm. California's self-defense statutes, for instance, require those using this defense to prove they acted reasonably under the circumstances and did not use more force than was necessary.
Example: An armed intruder enters your work; you reach for a pair of scissors and fatally stab him just as he cocks his gun to shoot. The same defense would not hold up if the intruder was unarmed, since there was no reasonable expectation that your life was in imminent danger.It Was an Accident
Sometimes accidents happen in the absence of negligence or recklessness. Referring to the elements of involuntary manslaughter, this particular defense would challenge the claim that the defendant acted irresponsibly or had any idea that his or her action could have resulted in another person's death.
Example: A professional baseball player's bat smashes into pieces upon making contact with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball; the largest piece hurtles into the stands and strikes a fan in the temple, killing him. In this case, the batter had no criminal intent, was not acting negligently and was otherwise acting lawfully at the time of the killing.Prosecution Has Insufficient Evidence
Although involuntary manslaughter cases are easier to prove than murder cases, which require the element of criminal intent, prosecutors still have the burden of proof. A criminal defense attorney may challenge the state's case through investigations, reexamination of the evidence, interviews with witnesses and expert witnesses and other legal tactics. If the evidence doesn't support a causal link between the defendant and the unintended killing, or if the evidence was not obtained properly, then it might not not secure a conviction.
Example: A woman is arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter after her car struck and killed a pedestrian at night. Some eyewitnesses claim that the driver was speeding, while others claim the opposite. The judge also decides to throw out witness testimony from a friend stating that the driver likes to drive fast. In addition, the defense brings witnesses who state that the victim was wearing dark clothing and walked unexpectedly into the path of the defendant's car. Having this evidentiary record will make it hard for the prosecutor to secure a conviction.I Was Falsely Accused / Wrongfully Arrested
This defense basically claims that the prosecution has the wrong suspect -- the "I didn't do it" defense. Sometimes individuals who in fact did commit the crime accuse others in order to cover their tracks; other times the defendant was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. In addition, individuals occasionally are arrested by overzealous police officers anxious to present a suspect to the district attorney. In any event, the prosecution has to be able to prove that the defendant is indeed the one who committed the crime.
Example: A car speeds through a red light, striking and killing a boy who was crossing the street, and then flees the scene. Witnesses differ in their statements to police, but the officers decide to go with the majority opinion and arrest an individual who fits that description. Do they have the right suspect? Prosecutors will need some better evidence to convict.
Causing another person's death through reckless behavior, or in the commission of another crime but without intent to kill, carries a lighter sentence than most other forms of homicide. Sentencing guidelines for involuntary manslaughter differ quite a bit among the various state judicial systems, however. Involuntary manslaughter at both the federal and state level is treated as a felony and usually carries a jail or prison sentence of at least 12 months, plus fines and probation.
The base sentence for involuntary manslaughter under federal sentencing guidelines is a 10 to 16 month prison sentence, which increases if it was committed through an act of reckless conduct. The minimum sentence for involuntary manslaughter committed with an automobile is higher still, although judges may use a certain amount discretion.
While states often take their cues from the federal courts when drafting their own sentencing guidelines, states vary widely on this issue. States will generally give a range of possible sentences and allow judges discretion in determining what sentence to actually impose. In making their determination, judges look at aggravating and mitigating factors to decide how harsh of a sentence to hand down. Aggravating factors are those that increase the severity of the crime and include things such as the defendant's history of reckless behavior. Mitigating factors tend to decrease the sentence, and typically involve factors such as the defendant's acceptance of responsibility for the crime and lack of criminal history.
Two examples illustrate the difference in sentences among different jurisdictions. Former police officer Johannes Mehserle, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after he accidentally drew his pistol instead of his stun gun and fatally shot an unarmed man, received a two-year California prison sentence in 2010. The state's sentencing guidelines mandated a two- to four-year sentence. Tommy Morgan, a member of the Navajo Nation residing in New Mexico, was sentenced to a 12-month prison term and three years' probation by a federal court in 2011 after he was found guilty of killing a man while operating a car under the influence of alcohol.
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