Voluntary Manslaughter: Sentencing and Penalties

'Heat of Passion'

Voluntary manslaughter, often referred to as a "heat of passion" crime, is generally defined as the intentional taking of another person’s life without premeditation (or malice aforethought). Generally, voluntary manslaughter sentencing follows a killing that takes place after a strong provocation. A common example is a husband walking in to find his wife in the act of cheating.

Voluntary manslaughter is usually a lesser included offense to murder (someone is charged with both crimes). If they are found to have acted in the heat of passion, they could be convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder. Voluntary manslaughter differs from involuntary manslaughter in that someone who commits involuntary manslaughter takes the life of another without the intent to kill.

Note that in some states, the exact definition of voluntary manslaughter will differ. For example, many states choose not to separate manslaughter into involuntary and voluntary and instead hold both as one general crime of manslaughter. In Illinois, voluntary manslaughter refers specifically to the killing of an unborn child.

Establishing a Case for Manslaughter

  • In order to establish the charge of manslaughter, the following conditions typically must be met:
  • A reasonable incitement of fear or anger in the perpetrator
  • The perpetrator was actually provoked
  • Insufficient time between provocation and the killing for a reasonable person to calm down
  • The perpetrator did not calm down

The court must find that a reasonable person would have been provoked to kill by the incident in question. Extremely insulting gestures or words are generally not sufficient provocation to reduce a charge from murder to manslaughter.

Sentencing

Voluntary manslaughter sentencing will vary by case and jurisdiction, but most convictions result in prison time. According to federal sentencing guidelines, the penalty for voluntary manslaughter should consist of fines, 10 years or less in prison, or both. Again, the exact sentencing a defendant receives is dependent upon the defendant, the facts of the case and the jurisdiction.

Some state statutes present one single sentence for all offenders while others denote a range or set of possible penalties. California law, for instance, requires either 3, 6 or 11 years in prison. In Florida, however, manslaughter is considered a second-degree felony, resulting in a fine of up to $10,000, up to 15 years in prison, or both.

Mitigating and Aggravating Factors

A judge can consider mitigating and aggravating factors when determining the sentence for a manslaughter conviction. Mitigating factors generally reduce a sentence. These factors may show that the defendant does not pose a great risk to society. Typical mitigating factors include the defendant's acceptance of responsibility for the crime, mental capacity, age or a lack of a criminal history.

Aggravating factors can increase the severity of a criminal sentence. Courts will often consider such factors as how brutal the crime was, the defendant's criminal record and how vulnerable the victim was. Many state statutes state that crimes involving underage victims or law enforcement officers are considered aggravated.

Some states may lay out specific aggravating or mitigating factors in their statutes. Under Florida law, for example, for a voluntary manslaughter committed with the use of a weapon or firearm, the charge goes up to a first-degree felony.

In Pennsylvania, if the act of involuntary manslaughter is a defendant’s third or more violent offense, the sentence increases from up to 20 years to a minimum of 25 years in prison. The judge can increase the sentence to life in prison if necessary for public safety.

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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