A homicide offense is generally the most serious charge anyone can face in a criminal case. But within the category of homicide, there are a number of possible charges. Those charges differ in their definition – what are the elements of the offense – as well as the penalties you face if you are convicted. Homicide includes murder (capital murder, first and second degree murder, as well as felony murder), and manslaughter. And within the category of manslaughter, there are several different offenses with which you could be charged.
Murder is the unlawful killing of another person with malice. Malice is defined essentially as the deliberate killing of another person. The killing of another person without malice is known as manslaughter. But as with the case of murder, the label “manslaughter” does not provide the specifics of the charge, or the possible penalty if you are convicted.
A charge of manslaughter (PC 192) could actually be any one of several different offenses. Most of them are felonies. They include:
- Voluntary manslaughter. This consists of the killing of another person which is not premeditated but is nevertheless deliberate and willful. The most common example used to describe this form of manslaughter is the killing of a person in the heat of passion. An example would be a where person arrives at his or her home only to find their spouse having sexual relations with another person. The defendant grabs a weapon and kills the spouse, the other person or both. The law requires for a voluntary manslaughter conviction that (a) the defendant was provoked; (b) that the provocation caused the defendant to act under the influence of extreme emotion that altered that person’s judgment; and (c) that the provocation was such that an average person would have acted rashly – out of passion – if presented with the same situation. If you are convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the sentence is 3, 6 or 11 years in prison.
- Involuntary manslaughter. The statutory definition of involuntary manslaughter is the killing of another while performing an unlawful act (other than a felony), or during the commission of an act that is lawful but performed in an unlawful manner. Involuntary manslaughter does not apply to an act that is committed while you are driving a motor vehicle. To better understand the meaning of an involuntary manslaughter charge, it is helpful to look at the criminal jury instructions on the issue. CALCRIM no. 581 states that in order to be convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the act you committed had to amount to criminal negligence, which is a conscious disregard of an obvious risk to the life and safety of others. An example might include firing a gun in the air at a celebration, leading to death. Unlike negligence in civil cases, criminal negligence involves a drastic departure from appropriate behavior. A conviction for involuntary manslaughter could lead to a prison sentence of two, three or four years.
- Vehicular manslaughter. The law in California draws a distinction between homicides that are committed, for example, in the heat of passion or through certain types of criminal negligence, on the one hand, and deaths caused as the result of the operation of a car or other motor vehicle. In the latter case, you could be charged with vehicular manslaughter, which is defined as driving a vehicle while committing a non-felony unlawful act, or a lawful act in an unlawful manner, with gross negligence, and causing death; or doing so without gross negligence; or causing a vehicular accident for financial gain (e.g., insurance fraud), leading to death. Other variations include vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (a wobbler), and gross vehicular homicide while intoxicated (a felony), the difference being whether the driver was guilty of negligence or gross negligence.
As you can see, while the differences between the various types of homicide and manslaughter are in some cases obvious – involuntary manslaughter vs. gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated – in others there are fine lines distinguishing two or more possible charges. And in many cases, that distinction involves your state of mind, which is usually open to varying interpretations. As an example, the difference between a murder charge and a voluntary manslaughter charge may simply be the level of provocation, and the jury’s view of how it might cause an average person to react.
The law in California regarding manslaughter, both the different types and how manslaughter is distinguished from murder, is complex. If you are facing a manslaughter charge, you want an experienced, aggressive, and hard-working attorney in your corner.
At RJT Criminal Lawyer, we can analyze the charge(s) against you, find any deficiencies in the prosecution’s case, raise any defenses that may apply, and provide you with the best possible outcome under all the circumstances. To find out how we can help in your case, contact us at 619-577-0868 for a free consultation.