Voluntary manslaughter is commonly defined as an intentional killing in which the offender had no prior intent to kill, such as a killing that occurs in the "heat of passion." The circumstances leading to the killing must be the kind that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed; otherwise, the killing may be charged as a first-degree or second-degree murder.
For example, John comes home to find his wife in bed with Randy. In the heat of the moment, John picks up a golf club from next to the bed and strikes Randy in the head, killing him instantly
Voluntary manslaughter is a form of homicide that involves the intentional killing of another person in the heat of passion, after provocation or in imperfect self-defense. Unlike murder, there is no malice aforethought involved in voluntary manslaughter, and no premeditation. Voluntary manslaughter occurs when someone intentionally kills another person, but acts in the moment with no prior malice. While it is a complicated concept, the articles below will help explain the basic elements of the crime.
Voluntary manslaughter, on the spectrum of homicides, lies somewhere in between the killing of another with malice aforethought (aka, murder) and the excusable, justified or privileged taking of life that does not constitute a crime (eg, some instances of self-defense.)
Voluntary manslaughter is a separate concept from involuntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter has several definitions depending on what state the crime occurs in, but generally it is an intentional homicide that occurs in the heat of passion or after a sufficient provocation.
Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, occurs when someone dies as a result of the defendants non-felony illegal act or as a consequence of the defendants irresponsibility or recklessness.
Federal law defines voluntary manslaughter as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice [u]pon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.
The exact meaning of the heat of passion varies depending on the situation, but the term generally refers to an irresistible emotion that an ordinarily reasonable person would experience under the same facts and circumstances. This idea of an irresistible impulse contrasts with the idea of premeditation present in first degree murder, and a showing of one necessarily negates the other.
For example, if Adam sees a perfect stranger, Bob, desecrating a religious monument and flies into a rage during which he kills Bob, the state would likely charge Adam with voluntary manslaughter, not murder. If, on the other hand, Adam had a long-standing, uncontrollable hatred for Bob because of his criticism of Adams faith, and Adam hid and waited for Bob to desecrate the monument with the intent kill Bob, then the state would most likely bring a murder charge against Adam.
States sometimes also define voluntary manslaughter as a homicide that occurs with the mistaken belief that the killing was justified. For instance, if the defendant kills in self-defense, but was the original aggressor in the situation that led to the homicide, the state would probably classify the killing as voluntary manslaughter. In addition, voluntary manslaughter can also encompass a homicide that occurs based on the defendants honest but unreasonable belief that a situation requires deadly force.
The potential defenses to a voluntary manslaughter charge are similar to the defenses that a defendant might raise for other homicide charges. A defendant facing a voluntary manslaughter charge could attempt to prove that they didnt actually commit the crime, claim that their actions were justified, or argue that their behavior didnt meet the elements of voluntary manslaughter.
What defense a person actually chooses to raise in court will vary according to the law of the state they are in and the circumstances of the case, but here is a general introduction to the types of defenses that a defendant could make to a voluntary manslaughter charge.Actual Innocence
Not committing the crime in the first place is the best defense possible. Prosecutors carry the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty of the crime charged; until then the defendant is presumed innocent. In order to refute the prosecutions accusations, a defendant can claim an alibi or attack the validity of the prosecutions evidence. If the jury finds that the defendant has raised a reasonable doubt about their guilt, they will acquit.Self-Defense
Self-defense defenses against a voluntary manslaughter charge work slightly differently than they would for a murder charge. When defendants raise self-defense in a murder case, the type of self-defense they claim can be either perfect or imperfect.
A perfect claim of self-defense occurs when there is a reasonable need for deadly force to protect ones life and involves no wrongdoing on the part of the defendant. An imperfect self-defense claim involves an unreasonable belief that deadly force is necessary, some bad behavior on the part of the defendant, or both.
For example, if the defendant was the aggressor in the situation, but still had to use deadly force to protect their life, the claim of self-defense is imperfect.
In a murder case, a successful perfect self-defense claim will result in an acquittal; an imperfect claim will usually result in a reduction to a manslaughter charge.
In a manslaughter case, the only type of self-defense claim available is a perfect self-defense claim. An imperfect self-defense claim in effect is an admission that the defendant did in fact commit voluntary manslaughter. Insanity
If a defendant meets the legal definition for insanity at the time of the homicide, the justice system will not hold them accountable for their actions. Usually jurisdictions base the insanity defense on the defendants inability to understand the nature of their actions or distinguish between right and wrong.
The exact standards for the insanity defense vary between jurisdictions, but FindLaws Insanity Defense Section contains explanations of the different tests currently in use.Accidental Killing
By showing that the homicide occurred as the result of an accident, a voluntary manslaughter defendant could possibly achieve a reduction to an involuntary manslaughter charge.
Like the name suggests, a voluntary manslaughter has an element of intent to it. Even if occurring in the heat of passion, a person who commits a voluntary manslaughter had the full intent to kill or cause great bodily harm to the victim.
An involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, results from negligent or reckless behavior. The perpetrator of an involuntary manslaughter might act carelessly, but they did not have the intent to kill or cause the victim great bodily harm. If the defendant can show that the victims death resulted from an accident rather than an intentional act, they may be able to reduce the charge to one of involuntary manslaughter.
For example, Adam and Bob get into an argument in a parking lot and Adam, enraged, jumps in his car and starts to peel out of the lot. Because hes so angry, Adam isnt paying attention and hits Bobs girlfriend with his car and kills her. Adam didnt intend to hit her, the prosecutors charge Adam with voluntary manslaughter. If Adam can show that his carelessness caused her death, rather than any intent to hit her, the charges should be reduced to involuntary manslaughter.Intoxication
Intoxication wont usually excuse a person from criminal behavior, unless the intoxication was involuntary (if they were drugged against their will, for instance). This is especially true for a voluntary manslaughter charge. In a murder charge, an intoxication defense might succeed in dropping the charge to one of manslaughter, but intoxication doesnt offer a very good defense to a manslaughter charge. Indeed, an intoxicated homicide is one of the situations the crime of manslaughter was developed to address.
Once a jury has convicted a defendant of voluntary manslaughter, the court will hand down the punishment that the state or federal government will impose upon the defendant.
The exact punishment depends on a number of factors. The most important factor is the actual language of the law that governs the punishment for manslaughter in the jurisdiction. Statutes will generally contain a single punishment or a range of punishments that courts can choose from when setting a penalty for a conviction. But the inquiry doesnt end there.
Judges can also consider aggravating and mitigating factors when handing down sentences. Aggravating factors will usually add to a sentence, while mitigating factors generally reduce the severity of a punishment.
It's important to note, though, that the judges should only consider factors that have been tried before a jury, or else risk running afoul of the right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.The Statutory Language
The actual laws that prohibit voluntary manslaughter will often contain specific sentences, but it is more likely that they will list a range of potential penalties for the crime. These laws often leave the exact punishment up to the judge in the case.
In both instances, judges have some leeway to determine the specific sentence that they will give a particular defendant. This is where aggravating and mitigating factors come into play.Aggravating and Mitigating Factors
In order to settle on an exact sentence, courts will examine the circumstances surrounding the crime in order to determine the appropriate penalty. These circumstances fall into two categories: aggravating factors and mitigating factors.
Aggravating factors are those facts about the crime, the defendant or the victim that tend to make the crime more serious, and thus more deserving of a harsher sentence. Courts typically consider such aggravating factors as the brutality of the crime, the defendants criminal history and the vulnerability of the victim, among others. The more aggravating factors there are, the more likely it is that the defendant will receive a tough sentence.
Mitigating factors, on the other hand, tend to reduce sentences. Mitigating factors show that the defendant poses less risk to society than they would otherwise, so a lengthy sentence is unnecessary. Typical mitigating factors include the lack of a criminal history and the defendants acceptance of responsibility for the crime. Sentencing Procedure
The exact procedure will depend on the rules of the jurisdiction that is holding the trial, but there will generally be a hearing to allow the prosecution and defense to present aggravating and mitigating factors. After that, the judge will consider all the factors present in the case then determine the sentence and announce it in court.
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