There are a lot of legal categories under the topic of homicide: first degree murder, second degree murder, felony murder, and that doesn't even start on the issue of manslaughter.
What is manslaughter anyway?
While it's not as serious as murder in terms of legal penalties, manslaughter charges still begin with someone's death. The difference in the definition of manslaughter, especially when compared to murder, lies in the defendant's state of mind.
Murder or Manslaughter?
Legally speaking, murder involves killing with malice or with some nasty intention behind your actions. But with manslaughter, there is no malice and also, by definition, no premeditation.
Essentially, manslaughter charges indicate that the defendant had no intention to kill the victim and didn't plan it beforehand. However, his actions were reckless or negligent enough that he could have avoided killing if he'd acted appropriately.
Voluntary or Involuntary?
Manslaughter is further separated into two categories, voluntary and involuntary.
In voluntary manslaughter, the death happened "in the heat of passion," often after the defendant was provoked or when self-defense gets out of hand.
The defendant has no prior malice towards to the victim and didn't plan the killing at any point. But he or she did intend to cause serious harm in the moment, and that resulted in death.
With involuntary manslaughter, the killing is unintentional and could be termed accidental. But the "accident" is caused by the defendant's reckless behavior, such as drunken driving.
The law then serves to discourage that kind of unsafe action by punishing people who cause serious harm as a result. The charges penalize the inappropriate behavior, rather than punish the defendant for killing someone.
That doesn't mean persons convicted of involuntary manslaughter escape without punishment. But their sentence is often lighter.
Potential Penalties for Manslaughter
Penalties for involuntary manslaughter generally include less than two years in prison. In some cases, incarceration is not part of the sentence at all.
The penalties for voluntary manslaughter are much steeper and often involve several years in prison. While it's not as serious as murder, the law still seeks to discourage losing control in the way that voluntary manslaughter describes.
Murder may get more newspaper headlines, but manslaughter is also a serious offense. It's still a charge you want to avoid.