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Manslaughter in general is an act or omission that results in the death of another. Manslaughter does not rise to the level of murder due to mitigating circumstances and carries a lesser sentence than the crime of murder. The law distinguishes between two types of manslaughter; voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.


Voluntary manslaughter


Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional killing of another under circumstances that mitigate but do not excuse the killing. Malice aforethought that is a prerequisite in a murder charge is not present in voluntary manslaughter.

The elements of voluntary manslaughter are met when the defendant (1) unlawfully kills (2) another person (3) through an act or an omission and (4) at the time of the killing the defendant intended to kill or inflict great bodily harm on the person killed. 


The most common type of voluntary manslaughter includes the intentional killing of another in the heat of passion caused by adequate provocation. Heat of passion may result from both fear and rage. A killing is committed in the heat of passion if the defendant was provoked into acting.


For provocation to be adequate three elements must be satisfied; (1) There must have been provocation that is considered legally adequate;   (2) The killing must have been done in the heat of passion, which means that the killing must have followed the provocation before there was opportunity for the person provoked to cool off       (3) There must have been a connection between the provocation, the passion, and the killing.


“Legally adequate” provocation includes adultery of a spouse, attempted battery or mutual combat (when both parties “agree” to fight). In deciding whether the killing was committed in the heat of passion there is both an objective and a subjective test. The objective test determines whether the provocation would have caused an average (reasonable) person to lose his temper and act unreasonably out of passion. The subjective test determines whether the particular person in question was in fact provoked. For example if the person in question has a cooler temperament than the average person he might not feel provoked in a situation where an average person would already lose his temper. Both the objective and subjective test have to be satisfied in order for a provocation to be found legally adequate. In other words the provocation has to be such that both an average person and the person in question would lose his temper as a result.


It is important to note that even if the killer was adequately provoked but he had actually cooled off prior to the killing (for example a longer stretch of time has passed between the provocation and the killing) then the killing was not committed in the heat of passion in the eyes of the law.


In a heat of passion voluntary manslaughter case as described above the defendant has to meet all four elements of voluntary manslaughter, all three elements of provocation and the “objective”/”subjective” test of whether an act was done in the heat of passion. Once all of these elements and tests are met will the defendant the lesser charge of manslaughter as opposed to being found guilty of murder.


Voluntary manslaughter charges also come up in imperfect self defense cases. Imperfect self defense means that a person who originally had the right of self defense has either somehow exceeded this right or did not meet all the requirements for self dense and is now guilty of manslaughter. As an example if a person believed that he had the right of self defense but the situation did not qualify or if he used unpermitted excessive force to defend himself, such as deadly force. In both situations the person who believed to be defending himself could be held guilty for voluntary manslaughter.


Involuntary manslaughter


Involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of another committed through recklessness or criminal negligence. The elements of involuntary manslaughter are met when a person (1) unintentionally (2) kills another (3) through an act or an omission which amounts to culpable negligence or which act or omission has occurred while perpetrating or attempting an offense directly affecting the other person.


The basis for involuntary manslaughter could be negligence or an omission (failure to do something that is required by a duty between the parties like failure of a doctor to treat his patient). The act or omission amounts to culpable negligence if, in light of the common human experience, an average person would have foreseen that it will result in the death of another. For example leaving dangerous poisons where they can endanger human life or target shooting carelessly towards an inhabited house within range. Culpable negligence generally requires more than ordinary negligence and involves a total disregard for the foreseeable consequences of the act or omission.

It is important to note that there has to be a legal duty in order for a court to find neglect. When for example a stranger makes no effort to save someone who has been in an accident the stranger has committed no crime by not helping.


A much repeated example of involuntary manslaughter would be reckless driving. If a defendant ignores traffic laws and drives at an excessive speed which causes the death of a pedestrian he is guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Even though he has not intended for the pedestrian to die his reckless conduct make him liable.


The penalty for both involuntary and voluntary manslaughter is imprisonment. Since manslaughter is governed by state law the term of the prison sentence depends on the applicable state statute.


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