Homicide broadly describes an act of killing another. An individual can kill a fellow human being in different ways. One of them is, through the heat of the moment, voluntary manslaughter. When a person deliberately takes another person’s life in a fit of rage or emotion without any prior planning or ill will, it is considered a legal offense known as voluntary manslaughter. Unlike murder, which is a premeditated and deliberate killing, voluntary manslaughter often results from a sudden and intense emotional response, for example, anger or fear.
Voluntary manslaughter implies a degree of willfulness in the killer’s actions but not a deliberate motive to cause death. It is a lesser offense than murder because it recognizes the absence of premeditation or intention in the killer’s mind. However, the offense remains a grave crime with significant legal consequences if convicted, including a lengthy prison sentence. This is why you need legal assistance. The Chula Vista Criminal Attorney is ready to help.
Voluntary Manslaughter Under California Law
According to Penal Code 192(a), voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person kills another person unlawfully, without planning or intending to do so, but under the influence of strong emotions or in reaction to a reasonable provocation. This section of the Penal Code clarifies that the provocation must be enough to make a person of normal temperament act impulsively or without careful thought and consideration.
In practice, prosecutors pursue most voluntary manslaughter charges as plea bargain alternatives to murder charges and not as primary charges. However, whether prosecutors charge voluntary manslaughter as a first charge or offer it as a plea bargain alternative depends on the facts of the case.
Sometimes, prosecutors could charge you with voluntary manslaughter as the primary offense. This is the case if they believe that the evidence does not justify a charge of murder. Alternatively, voluntary manslaughter could also be offered as a plea deal option. This is likely if you face a murder charge, but the evidence indicates you killed another in the heat of passion or reaction to a reasonable provocation.
In these cases, prosecutors allow defendants to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. In exchange, the defendant faces a lower sentence. However, whether or not to offer voluntary manslaughter as a plea deal option will depend on various factors, like the quality of the evidence, your criminal record, and the victim’s family’s preferences.
Voluntary manslaughter differs from murder in that it lacks malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is the mental state of intending to kill or inflict serious bodily harm. The prosecution must show that you had this mental state before or during the act of killing or while committing another felony to establish murder.
Examples of Actions that Would Result in voluntary Manslaughter Charges
- Peter arrives home to find his wife cheating on him with another man. In a fit of rage and without thinking, Peter grabs a nearby object and beats the man to death. Peter acted in the heat of passion, without premeditation, and in response to a reasonable provocation.
- During an argument, Jane pushes Sarah, causing Sarah to fall and hit her head. This results in Sarah’s death. Jane’s actions could meet the voluntary manslaughter threshold if the push was done in the heat of passion and without premeditation.
- Jim witnesses his best friend, Mark, being physically attacked by another individual. In a fit of rage, Jim grabs a nearby weapon and kills the attacker. If the killing were in the heat of passion, without premeditation, and in response to a reasonable provocation, Jim would face PC 192(a) violation charges.
Each case is unique. Whether or not a killing meets PC 192(a)’s threshold depends on the facts of the case.
Elements of the Crime
Prosecutors must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- Your actions resulted in the death of another person — Prosecutors must establish a direct causal link between what you did and the victim’s demise beyond a reasonable doubt.
- You acted with a "sudden quarrel or heat of passion" — Prosecutors must show that the victim provoked you. Additionally, the provocation must have caused a reasonable person to lose control and act impulsively.
- You did not act with premeditation or planning (malice aforethought). Prosecutors must demonstrate you did not have a plan or intent to kill the victim before the moment of the killing. Otherwise, you would be guilty of murder.
- You acted without self-defense or defense of others — Prosecutors should prove that you did not use force to prevent harm to yourself or another person.
The jury will return a guilty verdict If the prosecution proves these elements beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution bears the burden of proving all the elements mentioned above.
Defenses You Can Raise in a Voluntary Manslaughter Case
You can challenge the voluntary manslaughter charges through various defenses. Your attorney will help you settle on the ideal defense strategy likely to result in the best legal outcome. Here is a look at the most common.
a) Self-defense or Defense of Others
You can raise the self-defense or defense of others defense if you can show that the following are accurate:
- You reasonably believed that you or another individual was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily harm.
- You reasonably thought that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend against the perceived threat.
- You used no more force than was required to fend against the perceived threat.
If you show that you acted in self-defense or defense of others, you could convince the jury that you did not act with malice aforethought. If convinced, the jury will find you not guilty of the crime.
Criminal defense attorneys use various strategies to prove that a defendant’s actions meet the self-defense threshold. Here are some common approaches:
- Witness testimony — Witnesses who observed the incident can provide testimony that supports your self-defense or defense of another's claim. Witnesses could describe the victim's behavior, actions that could reasonably be perceived as threatening. Further, they would detail your response to the perceived threat.
- Forensic evidence — Forensic evidence like DNA, ballistics, and medical reports can help support your version of events. For example, if you claim you acted in self-defense because the victim was attacking you, forensic evidence, including bruises, cuts, or broken bones on your body, could support this claim.
- Expert testimony — Expert witnesses like psychologists, physicians, or use-of-force experts can provide testimony that supports your self-defense or defense of others' claims. For example, a use-of-force expert could testify that your response to the perceived threat was reasonable.
- Circumstantial evidence — Circumstantial evidence, including the location of the incident, the time of day, and the presence of weapons, can help support your claim of self-defense or defense of others. For example, if the incident occurred in a high-crime area and the victim was known to carry weapons, your actions to protect yourself could be justified.
Using deadly force in self-defense or the defense of others is only justifiable in limited circumstances. Legal and factual nuances could affect the applicability of this defense. It is best to engage your attorney to assess the applicability of this defense in your case.
b) Lack of Intent
Voluntary manslaughter requires some level of intent or recklessness. Voluntary manslaughter requires that you had the purpose of harming the victim when you acted. The prosecution has to prove that this was your mental state when the incident occurred. You can also be found guilty if prosecutors establish that you acted recklessly. That is, without caring about the possible outcomes of your actions.
Intent refers to the mental state or purpose behind your actions. Prosecutors could claim that you had the purpose of harming the victim. This offense does not need the intention to kill.
For instance, you and the victim could have violently struggled. While engaged in the confrontation, your intention could be to inflict harm. However, not with the intent to kill them. For your actions, you will face prosecution under PC 192(a) if the victim dies.
Recklessness means acting without caring about the possible outcomes of your actions.
For example, if you were driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and caused a fatal accident, you could face PC 192 violation charges. The burden of proof lies with the prosecution. They must show that you acted indifferent to the outcome and that their conduct led to the victim's death.
You can assert a lack of intent in your defense against voluntary manslaughter charges, which requires your lawyer to present proof that you lacked the purpose of killing or injuring the victim. This could include testimony from witnesses who observed the incident. Alternatively, he/she may present evidence indicating that you did not act with the necessary intent. This could involve proving that you were impaired by substances or alcohol.
c) Imperfect Self Defense
Imperfect self-defense is also called the imperfect defense of self or the imperfect use of force.
This defense requires you to demonstrate that you felt that your life or well-being was at immediate risk. This means you genuinely believed the victim threatened your life or safety. Further, your response was necessary to protect yourself. It helps your case to present evidence of the victim's prior violent behavior or threats to support your claim that you had reason to believe you were in danger.
Additionally, your response was objectively reasonable under the circumstances. This implies that an ordinary person in your situation would have also felt that your life or well-being was at immediate risk. Further, he/she would have responded similarly. However, the defense acknowledges that your response could have been excessive or unreasonable. Meaning you used more force than was necessary to protect yourself.
For example, suppose you perceived that the victim would attack you with a deadly weapon and you responded by using deadly force to defend yourself. In that case, the imperfect self-defense defense could be used to argue that you acted in self-defense. However, your actions could have been excessive and unreasonable under the circumstances.
Ultimately, you are responsible for showing that you acted in self-defense. The court will consider all the evidence presented to determine whether your belief in imminent danger and your response were reasonable. If the court deems your reaction disproportionate or irrational, you will be convicted of a crime.
d) The Insanity Defense
The insanity defense is rare and difficult to use successfully. You bear the burden of proving that you were not responsible for your actions at the time of the offense due to a severe mental illness or defect. Your defense attorney could argue that you lack the mental capacity to form the intent to commit voluntary manslaughter.
The standard for proving insanity is high. You must meet the legal requirements for the insanity defense. This includes demonstrating that you did not understand the nature and consequences of your actions at the time of the offense. Alternatively, you can also assert that you could not conform your behavior to the requirements of the law.
Here is a look at the evidence you can provide supporting your claim:
- Testimony from mental health experts — A psychiatrist or psychologist could examine you and testify about your mental state during the commission of the offense. This testimony could include diagnosing a mental illness or defect, explaining how it affected your ability to understand the nature and consequences of your actions, and how it impaired your judgment or impulse control.
- Police report — Police reports could provide information about your behavior or mental state when you committed the offense. The report details statements you made about your mental health or your reasons for committing the crime.
- Medical records — Medical records could provide evidence of your mental health history, including diagnoses, treatments, and hospitalizations.
- Witness testimony — Witnesses who knew you before the offense could testify about changes in your behavior or mental state leading up to the crime. Witnesses present when you committed the offense could testify about your behavior or mental condition.
- Expert reports — These reports could be prepared by mental health experts or other professionals who have evaluated your mental state and ability to understand your actions during the commission of the offense.
If you succeed in using the insanity defense, you may be found not guilty by reason of insanity. This means that you will be committed to a mental health institution rather than being sentenced to prison.
Penalties of Voluntary Manslaughter
Voluntary manslaughter is a felony offense. A conviction would result in the following penalties:
- Formal probation instead of prison time and up to one year in jail.
- Three, six, or eleven years in prison.
- A fine of up to $10,000.
- A strike under California’s Three Strike law.
California’s Three Strikes Law
California's Three Strikes Law, codified in Penal Code 667, is a sentencing enhancement law that mandates a minimum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for defendants convicted of three or more serious or violent felonies.
Under the Three Strikes Law, a defendant convicted of two or more prior serious or violent felonies will face a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years to life in prison if convicted of a third serious or violent felony. Individuals with two strikes for prior offenses are third strikers if convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
If you are convicted of voluntary manslaughter as a second strike, the judge will double your prison sentence.
Impact of a Conviction on Gun Rights and Immigration
Additionally, you will lose your gun rights. According to Penal Code 29800, individuals convicted of felony violations cannot own a firearm. Violating PC 29800 is a felony offense, punishable by imprisonment in a state prison for 16 months, two or three years, and a maximum fine of $10,000.
Voluntary manslaughter is considered a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT). CIMT is a category of offenses that can make non-citizens deportable or inadmissible.
Offenses related to voluntary manslaughter include the following:
- Murder, a PC 187 violation.
- Attempted murder, a PC 664/187 violation.
- Involuntary manslaughter, a PC 192(b) violation.
Murder, under Penal Code 187, is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought refers to the defendant's mental state at the time of the killing, indicating an intent to kill or a conscious disregard for human life.
Murder is divided into two categories:
- First-degree murder and,
- Second-degree murder.
First-degree murder occurs when the killing is deliberate, premeditated, and willfully committed with malice aforethought. It also includes killings that occur during the commission of certain serious felonies, including arson, rape, or robbery. The ultimate crime of intentionally taking another’s life carries the most severe consequences: permanent incarceration or execution.
Note: Gavin Newsom, California’s Governor, issued an executive order in March 2019 that imposed a moratorium on California's use of the death penalty. The ruling halted the use of the death penalty. All offenses punishable by death would be punishable by a life sentence.
Second-degree murder is an intentional killing that is not premeditated or deliberate or a killing that occurs during the commission of a non-felonious dangerous act. Second-degree murder is punishable by 15 years to life in prison.
b) Attempted Murder
Attempted murder under Penal Code 664/187 is attempting to kill another person with malice aforethought unlawfully but failing to do so.
Prosecutors must establish that you took a direct step toward the commission of the crime of murder and had the specific intent to kill. Only then will the courts find you guilty. An immediate step is any act that goes beyond mere preparation. You must put your plan to kill the victim into action.
Attempted murder is a serious crime. You can face attempted murder in the first or second degree. You will face life imprisonment if convicted of attempted murder in the first degree. If convicted of attempted murder in the second degree, you will face imprisonment for 5, 7, or 9 years.
c) Involuntary Manslaughter
Involuntary manslaughter under Penal Code 192(b) is the unintentional killing of another person while committing an unlawful act that is not inherently dangerous or a lawful act that could unlawfully cause death or without due caution and circumspection.
The prosecution must establish that you committed an unlawful act, or a lawful act in an illegal manner, that caused the death of another person. Only then will the courts find you guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The prosecution must also establish that you did not intend to kill and did not act with malice aforethought.
Involuntary manslaughter is typically prosecuted as a felony. Convictions result in sentences of two, three, or four years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.
Here are some examples of involuntary manslaughter under Penal Code 192(b):
- An individual driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs causes an accident, which results in the death of another person.
- A store owner sets a trap to catch a shoplifter that unintentionally causes the shoplifter's death.
- A person playing with a gun, thinking it is unloaded, accidentally shoots and kills another person.
- A construction worker who fails to secure a heavy object properly causes the object to fall and kill a passerby.
- A person who recklessly handles a dangerous weapon, such as a firearm or a knife, unintentionally causes another person's death.
Contact a Reputable Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
If you are facing charges of voluntary manslaughter, you should seek the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney. A skilled attorney can help protect your rights and build a strong defense strategy tailored to the specific circumstances of your case.
If you are looking for a defense attorney in a voluntary manslaughter case, choose an attorney with a track record of successfully defending clients facing similar charges. Additionally, you should seek an attorney who is responsive, communicative, and committed to providing the best legal representation.
Our team at Chula Vista Criminal Attorney is ready to offer legal assistance and representation. Get in touch with our team at 619-877-6894 for more information.