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Voluntary Manslaughter Overview

Voluntary Manslaughter: Definition

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, Dan comes home to find his wife in bed with Victor. In the heat of the moment, Dan picks up a golf club from next to the bed and strikes Victor in the head, killing him instantly.

On the spectrum of homicides, this offense 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, such as some instances of self-defense.

Voluntary manslaughter is a separate concept from involuntary manslaughter and has several definitions depending on what state the crime occurs in. Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, occurs when someone dies as a result of the defendant's non-felonious illegal act or as a consequence of the defendant's irresponsibility or recklessness.

A Killing in the "Heat of Passion"

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 could potentially charge the killing as voluntary manslaughter. In addition, voluntary manslaughter can also encompass a homicide that occurs based on the defendant's honest but unreasonable belief that a situation requires deadly force.

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