Voluntary Manslaughter Overview

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

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. There is a range of potential sentences and penalties for voluntary manslaughter and it is often left up to the judge to decide the sentence.

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.

Defenses to Voluntary Manslaughter

Potential defenses for voluntary manslaughter are similar to other homicide charges. A defendant facing a voluntary manslaughter charge could attempt to prove that they didn't actually commit the crime, claim that their actions were justified, or argue that their behavior didn't meet the elements of voluntary manslaughter. There may be other defenses available according to the specific state law that applies. 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.

State Voluntary Manslaughter Laws

Different state laws have different definitions of voluntary manslaughter. The California laws defines voluntary manslaughter as "the unlawful killing of human without malice, upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion." A person in New York is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree (voluntary manslaughter) when they have intended to caused the death of another, but did so under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance.

Some states like Texas, do not have a separate definition for voluntary manslaughter, but rather, murder can be downgraded to second degree if the defendant proves the affirmative defense of a sudden passion. as a homicide that occurs with the mistaken belief that the killing was justified. Some states have specific circumstances that they define as a voluntary manslaughter. For instance, Illinois lists the intentional killing of an unborn child as a voluntary manslaughter.

Get Legal Help with Your Voluntary Manslaughter Case

If you're facing charges as serious as voluntary manslaughter, you have most likely spoken with an expert criminal defense attorney already. If you haven't, you should do so immediately to understand the penalties for the charges you're facing and the defenses available to you as you move forward. Even for less severe crimes or for evaluations of family members' convictions and plea agreements, your best option is to reach out to a criminal defense attorney in your area.

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