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Voluntary Manslaughter: Sentencing and Penalties

Generally, a voluntary manslaughter conviction follows a killing that takes place after a strong provocation. For example, voluntary manslaughter charge may result after a husband walking in to find his wife in the act of cheating shoots her lover. The sentencing for voluntary manslaughter varies state to state.

What Is Voluntary Manslaughter?

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). Voluntary manslaughter, unlike involuntary manslaughter, requires the intent to kill.

Voluntary manslaughter is usually a lesser included offense to murder. This means if you acted in the heat of passion, you could be convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

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

To establish the charge of manslaughter, the following conditions typically must be met:

  • You were reasonably fearful or angry
  • You were actually provoked
  • There was insufficient time between provocation and the killing for a reasonable person to calm down
  • You 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 provocations 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 consists of fines, 10 years or less in prison, or both. Again, the exact sentencing you may receive will depend on your history, the facts of the case, and the jurisdiction.

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:

  • Your acceptance of responsibility for the crime
  • Mental capacity
  • Age
  • Criminal history

Aggravating factors can increase the severity of a criminal sentence. Courts will often consider such factors including:

  • Brutality of the crime
  • Your criminal record
  • Vulnerability of the victim

Many state statutes state that crimes involving underage victims or law enforcement officers are considered aggravated.

States May Have Their Own Sentencing Guidelines

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.

Some states may also layout specific aggravating or mitigating factors in their statutes. Under Florida law, for example, for 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.