Voluntary Manslaughter: An Overview

What is Manslaughter?

The definition of voluntary manslaughter varies from state to state. Generally, in order for a murder charge to be reduced to voluntary manslaughter, four elements must be met:

The definition of voluntary manslaughter under federal law is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Typically, this means that the defendant had no prior intent to kill.

Voluntary manslaughter is a lesser-included charge of murder, meaning that when a prosecutor brings a murder charge, the jury can find the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter without the prosecutor needing to bring those charges.

Heat of Passion Killings

A heat of passion killing refers to a murder in which the circumstances would have caused a reasonable person to be unable to control their actions. A commonly used example of a heat of passion killing depicts a person coming home and discovering his or her spouse in bed with another person. In that situation, the defendant may lose control of his or her actions and kill the third person. If the required elements are met, the defendant may face a voluntary manslaughter charge rather than a murder charge.

Ordinarily, heated words alone are not enough to mitigate murder to voluntary manslaughter. The provocation needs to be an action aimed at the defendant. Minor battery is also generally not enough. However, if battery occurs that is violent and causes the defendant great pain, the provocation might be adequate to charge someone with voluntary manslaughter.

Assault attempts that are severe, such as an attempt to shoot the defendant, can be enough to mitigate a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter. As in the above example, adultery is commonly accepted as an adequate provocation for voluntary manslaughter. In some cases, a spouse simply hearing about the adultery was enough to be considered provocation.

One well-known example of a crime of passion killing can be found in the death of late musician Marvin Gaye. Mr. Gaye and his parents became embroiled in a heated argument over a misplaced insurance letter, and during the heat of the altercation, Mr. Gaye reportedly kicked his father. Marvin Gaye Sr. then shot Mr. Gaye in the chest, ultimately causing his death. Marvin Gaye Sr. faced criminal charges of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six years of suspended prison time.

Self-Defense and Imperfect Self-Defense

In some states, such as California, the concept of imperfect self-defense can also reduce a charge from murder to voluntary manslaughter. In these cases, the defendant must have believed that they or someone they were defending were in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death. They must have also believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to defend against danger. However, in imperfect self-defense cases, one of these beliefs is unreasonable.

Imagine that someone lives at home alone and hears someone moving in the next room. When the intruder begins to move toward the defendant's room and attempts to open the door, the defendant uses a gun to shoot through the door, killing them. Because it may be considered unreasonable to shoot through the door without knowing who was on the other side or what their intentions were, this case may be considered imperfect self-defense.

  • A provocation must be present that would cause a reasonable person to lose control.
  • The defendant must have been provoked.
  • The time period between the provocation and the killing must not be long enough for a reasonable person to calm down.
  • The defendant must not have calmed down between the provocation and the killing.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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