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Voluntary Manslaughter: An Overview

The definition of voluntary manslaughter under federal law is the unlawful killing of a human being upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Typically, this means that the defendant had no prior intent to kill.

Voluntary manslaughter is a lesser-included charge of murder. So, when a prosecutor brings a murder charge, the jury can find the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter without the prosecutor having to bring those charges.

Reducing a Murder Charge to Voluntary Manslaughter

The definition of voluntary manslaughter varies from state to state. However, for a murder charge to be reduced to voluntary manslaughter, you need to show there was a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Generally, in order for a murder charge to be reduced to voluntary manslaughter, four elements must be met:

  • A provocation must be present that would cause a reasonable person to lose control
  • You must have been provoked
  • The time period between the provocation and the killing must not be long enough for a reasonable person to calm down
  • You must not have calmed down between the provocation and the killing

Heat of Passion Killings

A heat of passion killing refers to a murder in which the circumstances would have caused a reasonable person to become unable to control their actions. For example, let’s say you came home and discovered your spouse in bed with another person. In that situation, you lose control and kill the third person. If the required elements are met, you may face a voluntary manslaughter charge rather than a murder charge.

What Constitutes Heat of Passion?

Ordinarily, heated words alone are not enough to mitigate murder to voluntary manslaughter. The provocation needs to be an action aimed specifically at you.

Minor battery is also generally not enough. However, if the battery is violent and causes you great pain, the provocation may be adequate to charge you with voluntary manslaughter.

Assault attempts that are severe, such as an attempt to shoot you, can be enough to mitigate a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter.

Self-Defense and Imperfect Self-Defense

In some states, such as California, the concept of imperfect self-defense can also reduce a charge from murder to voluntary manslaughter. To use this defense you must show:

  • You believed that you or someone you were defending were in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death
  • You believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to defend against danger

However, in imperfect self-defense cases, one of these beliefs is unreasonable.

Imagine that you live home alone and hear someone moving in the next room. When the intruder begins to move towards your room and attempts to open the door, you use a gun to shoot through the door, killing them. This case may be considered imperfect self-defense since it is unreasonable to shoot through the door without knowing who was on the other side or what their intentions were.

Penalties for Voluntary Manslaughter

The exact penalty you can get for a voluntary manslaughter conviction depends on a number of factors. These include:

  • The specific state law that governs the punishment
  • Whether there are aggravating or mitigating factors

To determine what penalty is appropriate, judges usually look into aggravating and mitigating factors. Some of these include:

  • Your criminal history
  • The brutality of the crime
  • Whether you accept responsibility for the crime

If you are convicted under federal law, you could be facing prison for not more than ten years, fines, or both.

Hiring an Attorney Can Help Your Chances

If you have been charged with murder or voluntary manslaughter, you should talk to an attorney right away. An experienced criminal defense attorney can evaluate your case, negotiate on your behalf and present the best defense for your case.

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