Homicide, the unlawful killing of a human being, may result in a criminal charge of murder or manslaughter. Although the charge itself is less severe than murder, manslaughter is a crime with serious, potentially life-altering consequences. While both crimes involve causing the death of another person, a manslaughter charge is different than a murder charge. The crime of murder requires malicious intent to cause the death of another, whereas manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another without malice.

Murder cases require the element of the defendant’s “malice aforethought,” which refers to the defendant’s intentions, plans, and decisions related to the criminal act. The prosecution may prove the element of malice by showing the defendant’s deliberate planning or participation in a reckless, dangerous activity. When these circumstances are absent, a defendant may be charged with manslaughter instead of murder. The difference between murder and voluntary manslaughter often depends on the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the criminal act.

California Penal Code § 192 sets forth three types of manslaughter and defines it as “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice.” Manslaughter “is of three kinds” – voluntary, involuntary, and vehicular. For a voluntary manslaughter charge, the defendant must have committed homicide “upon a sudden quarrel or while in the heat of passion.”

It is this “quarrel” that results in provocation thereby establishing a lack of malice that would otherwise result in a murder charge. The defendant must still have the intent to inflict severe bodily injury or death on the victim to be guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

For an act to qualify as provocation depends on the circumstances surrounding the homicide. Some common acts of provocation include:

  • Mutual combat between the defendant and victim;
  • Murder of a family member; or
  • Adultery committed by the defendant’s spouse.

For purposes of determining sudden quarrel or heat of passion, provocation is not objectively reasonable if it resulted from the discovery of, knowledge about, or potential disclosure of the victim’s actual or perceived gender or sexual orientation, including under circumstances in which the victim made an unwanted nonforcible romantic advance towards the defendant, or if the defendant and victim had a romantic relationship. Despite this language in the statute, juries are not precluded from considering all relevant facts to determine whether the defendant was, in fact, provoked for purposes of establishing subjective provocation.

Manslaughter is a felony in most cases, punishable by substantial fines and long prison sentences. California state law set separate punishments for voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and vehicular manslaughter. A conviction for voluntary manslaughter is punishable by imprisonment in a California state prison for 3, 6, or 11 years.

A charge of voluntary manslaughter carries severe consequences for a defendant, his or her family, and career. It is important to have an experienced attorney who will obtain the best possible results. John Patrick Dolan is a California State Bar Certified Specialist in Criminal Law. Certification as a Specialist in Criminal Law is the highest achievement awarded by the State Bar of California to attorneys in the field of criminal law. The attorneys at the Dolan Law Offices have decades of experience defending individuals charged with drug possession, domestic violence, DUI, and violent felonies. Call us today at (760) 775-3739 or find out more online here.

Voluntary Manslaughter Defined

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