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What Is Manslaughter?

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By Kellie Pantekoek, Esq. on April 13, 2020 3:08 PM

There are a lot of legal categories under the topic of the unlawful killing of another person: 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 a murder charge in terms of legal penalties, manslaughter charges still arise after someone's death. The difference in the definition of manslaughter, especially when compared to murder, lies in the defendant's state of mind when the homicide took place.

Murder or Manslaughter?

Before we get into the difference between murder and manslaughter, we have to understand why state of mind is important.

In most cases, a person has to be intentionally doing something prohibited by law in order to be committing a crime according to the U.S. legal system. This state of mind is generally referred to as "mens rea," which is Latin for "guilty mind."

That means people typically can't be convicted for simply being stupid or careless, but there is a limit on that. "Recklessness" or "criminal negligence" can create the necessary mens rea to be charged with a crime. That is the important distinction to make when talking about manslaughter charges.

Legally speaking, murder involves killing with malice aforethought or with some heinous intention behind the person's 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, their actions were reckless or negligent enough to create mens rea and the reasonable belief that they could have avoided killing if they had 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 they did intend to cause serious harm in the moment, and that resulted in death.

With involuntary manslaughter, the killing is unintentional and could be called accidental. But the "accident" is caused by the defendant's reckless behavior, such as drunken driving or DUI.

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 the unintentional killing.

That doesn't mean persons convicted of involuntary manslaughter escape without punishment. But their sentence is often lighter than those convicted of murder, and they could be charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

Differences Between Jurisdictions

In the U.S., the law varies by state jurisdiction on most topics, including murder. Some states base their laws on the Model Penal Code, which is a set of model laws that were created to provide a standard and universal text to help states define criminal offenses.

Most states qualify all murder — intentional and unintentional — as homicide and have different levels of homicide charges. The most common levels are:

  • First-degree murder
  • Second-degree murder
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Involuntary manslaughter

However, there are also three states -- FloridaMinnesota, and Pennsylvania -- that have made classifications for third-degree murder. There are also states that have classifications for first- and second-degree manslaughter.

What Are First- and Second-Degree Manslaughter?

Minnesota is a state that uses the terms first- and second-degree manslaughter. In this state, first-degree manslaughter applies to killing someone in the heat of passion, but without premeditation. For example, a person who catches a spouse having an affair and kills the paramour would likely be charged with first-degree manslaughter in Minnesota.

On the other hand, second-degree manslaughter applies to killing someone as a result of criminal negligence or recklessness. For example, a person playing with a gun when they accidentally shoot someone could be charged with second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota.

New York in another state that uses first- and second-degree manslaughter charges. In New York, first-degree manslaughter refers to a killing that results when a person intends on hurting someone but ends up killing them instead, such as in a fight. First-degree manslaughter can also apply to "heat of passion" killings.

Second-degree manslaughter refers to a personal who recklessly causes the death of another person in the Empire State.

In Illinois, the term “voluntary manslaughter" is only used for the voluntary killing of an unborn child, while other types of voluntary manslaughter are considered second-degree murder.

Potential Penalties for Manslaughter

Penalties for involuntary manslaughter, or second-degree manslaughter, generally include less than two years in prison. In some cases, incarceration is not part of the sentence at all. However, penalties vary by state.

The penalties for voluntary manslaughter, or first-degree manslaughter, are much steeper and often involve several years in prison. While this charge is not as serious as murder, the law still seeks to discourage losing control and engaging in reckless behavior 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. If charged with any level of manslaughter, you will need an experienced criminal defense lawyer to avoid the most serious consequences.

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