Manslaughter is a criminal variation of homicide that normally carries a lesser sentence than murder, due to its lack of malicious intent. Most legal systems differentiate between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, based on the level of culpability of the perpetrator. When a person acts in such a way that can reasonably be expected to cause serious injury and possible death to others, despite lack of such intention, this is classified as the crime manslaughter—generally known as involuntary manslaughter—albeit less serious than voluntary manslaughter. In the latter case, the perpetrator acted with intent to kill, but under provoking circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed. In such a situation the intent is considered to be caused by the circumstance, and thus the perpetrator is less culpable than in the case of intentional murder.
Despite the lesser culpability of manslaughter compared to murder, the taking of another's life remains a serious infraction of the victim's human rights, namely the right to life. As such, manslaughter is an unfortunate consequence of the fact that human beings do not always follow their conscience to act in the best interests of others. When we recognize that all people are part of the same human family, and when that family becomes healthy and harmonious, all forms of homicide, including manslaughter, will become a thing of the past.
The law generally differentiates between levels of criminal culpability based on the presence or absence of mens rea (guilty mind), or the state of mind of the perpetrator. This is particularly true within the law of homicide, where murder requires either the intent to kill, or a state of mind called malice (the intention to do injury to another), or malice aforethought, which may involve an unintentional killing but with a "willful disregard" for life. The less serious offense of manslaughter, on the other hand, is the taking of human life but in a manner considered by law as less culpable than murder.
Black's Law Dictionary defines manslaughter as "the unjustifiable, inexcusable and intentional killing of a human being without deliberation, premeditation or malice ... the unlawful killing of a human without deliberation, which may be involuntary, in the commission of a lawful act without due causation and circumspection." In this context, "involuntary" is defined as "that which is performed under duress, force, or coercion" as opposed to "accidental" killing which is "an act which is lawful and lawfully done under a reasonable belief that no harm is possible."
Thus, murder is a homicide committed intentionally or as a result of the commission of another serious offense (felony murder) and so contains the element of malice, whereas manslaughter includes killings that are the result of recklessness or a violent emotional outburst, such as when the killer is provoked by the victim, and are thus conducted without malice.
Voluntary Manslaughter is the intentional killing of a human being in which the offender had no prior intent to kill and under circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed, such as during the "heat of passion." In the Uniform Crime Reports prepared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation it is referred to as "nonnegligent manslaughter."
Circumstances that are deemed voluntary manslaughter include the following.
Heat of passion
In this situation, the actions of another cause the defendant to act in the heat of the moment and without reflection. Some examples include a defendant provoked into a loss of control by unexpectedly finding a spouse in the arms of a lover, or witnessing an attack against his or her child.
Provocation consists of the reasons for which one person kills another. "Adequate" or "reasonable" provocation is what makes the difference between voluntary manslaughter and murder. According to the book Criminal Law Today, “provocation is said to be adequate if it would cause a reasonable person to lose self-control.”
In some jurisdictions malice can also be negated by imperfect self-defense. Self-defense is considered imperfect when the killer acted from his belief in the necessity for self-defense, but that belief was not reasonable under the circumstances. If the belief in self-defense were reasonable, then the killing would be considered justified and not unlawful. Where the belief is unreasonable the homicide is considered to be voluntary manslaughter.
Intent to kill
Intent to kill is normally present during a voluntary manslaughter, but is not required. Since most heat of passion and imperfect self-defense killings involve intent to kill, typically voluntary manslaughters involve intentional killings. However, there are occasions when intent to kill is not present, although malice is. For example, a person responds to oral provocation by engaging in physical altercation. The provocation is sufficient so that his response is justified. He intends only to beat up those who have teased him, but someone unfortunately dies. The crime is voluntary manslaughter despite the absence of intent to kill.
Involuntary manslaughter, sometimes called criminally negligent homicide in the United States or culpable homicide in Scotland, occurs where there is no intention to kill or cause serious injury but death is due to recklessness or criminal negligence. Recklessness and negligence are mental states, however the former is subjective while the latter is objective—Subjective fault is usually said to be worse than objective fault. If you are aware of a risk and ignore it or you are certainly doing something and you don't care, that's worse, morally speaking, than if you don't know. And it's worse legally speaking too.
Negligence consists of conduct by an individual which is not reasonable—that is, the individual did not act with the care and caution of a reasonable person in similar circumstances. This "reasonable person" is fictitious, of course, but reflects the standard of conduct which society wishes to impose. Violation of this standard may lead to civil liability for the consequences of the negligent behavior.
Negligence rises to the level of criminal negligence where the conduct reaches a higher degree of carelessness or inattention, perhaps to the point of indifference.
Recklessness or willful blindness is defined as a wanton disregard for the known dangers of a particular situation. An example of this would be throwing a brick off a bridge onto vehicular traffic below. There exists no intent to kill, consequently a resulting death may not be considered murder. However, the conduct is probably reckless, or criminally negligent, which may subject him to prosecution for involuntary manslaughter—the individual was aware of the risk of danger to others and willfully disregarded it.
In many jurisdictions, if the unintentional conduct amounts to such gross negligence as to amount to a willful or depraved indifference to human life, the mens rea may be considered to constitute malice. In such a case, the offense may be murder, often characterized as second degree murder.
Vehicular or intoxication manslaughter
Vehicular manslaughter is a kind of misdemeanor manslaughter, which holds persons liable for any death that occurs because of criminal negligence or a violation of traffic safety laws. A common use of the vehicular manslaughter laws involves prosecution for a death caused by driving under the influence (or driving with .08% blood alcohol content), although an independent infraction or negligence is usually also required.
In some US states, Intoxication Manslaughter is a distinctly defined offense. A person commits intoxication manslaughter if he or she operates a motor vehicle in a public place, operates an aircraft, a watercraft, or an amusement ride, or assembles a mobile amusement ride while intoxicated, and by reason of that intoxication causes the death of another by accident or mistake.
Intoxication manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, and other similar offenses require a lesser mens rea than other manslaughter offenses. Furthermore, the fact that the defendant is entitled to use the alcohol, controlled substance, drug, dangerous drug, or other substance is not a defense. For example, in Texas, to prove intoxication manslaughter it is not necessary to prove the person was negligent in causing the death of another, only that they were intoxicated and operated a motor vehicle and someone died.
In the United States, this is a lesser version of felony murder that covers a person who causes the death of another while committing a misdemeanor—that is, a violation of law that does not rise to the level of a felony. This may automatically lead to a conviction for the homicide if the misdemeanor involved a law designed to protect human life. Many safety laws are infractions, meaning that a person can be convicted regardless of mens rea.
- Violent Crime Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Criminal Law Today. Schmalleger, 2006. p. 302.
- Strathclyde University Scots law course Retrieved August 2, 2007.
- Matthew Pauley Criminal Law: Its Nature and Sources. Wilmington, DE: Griffon House Publications, 1999 ISBN 0918680743)
- Texas Penal Code § 49.08.
- Texas Penal Code § 49.10; see also Nelson v. State, 149 S.W.3d 206, 211 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2004, no pet.).
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Collins, Karen-Michelle. Negligent Homicide / Manslaughter (Involuntary) International Journal of Justice Studies, 2002. Retrieved August 2, 2007.
- Duff, R. A. "Virtue, Vice, and Criminal Liability: Do We Want an Aristotelian Criminal Law?" Vol. 6. Buffalo Criminal Law Review, 147, 2003. Retrieved August 2, 2007.
- Duff, R. A. Intention, Agency and Criminal Liability: Philosophy of Action and the Criminal Law (Philosophical Introductions). London: Blackwell, 1990. ISBN 0631153128
- Gardner, Simon. "Manslaughter by Gross Negligence". 111 Law Quarterly Review 22, 1995.
- Garner, Bryan A. (Ed.) Black's Law Dictionary, Eighth Edition. Thomson West, 2004. ISBN 0314151990
- Pauley, Matthew. Criminal Law: Its Nature and Sources. Wilmington, DE: Griffon House Publications, 1999. ISBN 0918680743
All links retrieved November 5, 2022.
- Manslaughter, Voluntary 'Lectric Law Library.
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