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Involuntary Manslaughter Defenses

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.

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