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What are Manslaughter Charges?

— May 7, 2021

Legally speaking, voluntary manslaughter is an acknowledgment that humans sometimes give in to their circumstances.

The average person has a vague idea of what manslaughter charges are and likely knows that they are different from murder charges. However, most people do not have a clear understanding of what manslaughter charges are. 

Put simply, manslaughter is when a person kills someone but without the intent to kill or do serious harm or without a reckless and extreme disregard for life. 

This intent or disregard is called malice aforethought. Without malice aforethought, there is legally and morally less blame for the death than there would be for murder (first or second degree). This means that manslaughter typically has lower punishments than murder. 

A clear understanding of manslaughter charges and what they are requires a closer look at some details. 

Types of Manslaughter Charges

There are two main categories or types of manslaughter charges, voluntary and involuntary. Some legal experts also allow for a third category, vehicular manslaughter. Others would count vehicular manslaughter as either voluntary or involuntary. 

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter is frequently explained as the perpetrator being in a “heat of passion.” Legally, that means that the person in question is provoked strongly, and the situation which provoked them would lead to a similar result in any reasonable person. Furthermore, they must have still been in that “heat of passion” from the provoking incident, meaning they could not have had enough time to calm down. 

A sample situation that lawyers commonly use is cheating. If a wife comes home to find her husband in an affair, she may be so provoked by the situation that she kills the husband and affair partner.

Image by Nsey Benajah, via
Image by Nsey Benajah, via

Legally speaking, voluntary manslaughter is an acknowledgment that humans sometimes give in to their circumstances. It acknowledges that while people should not kill others when provoked, it can happen. They carry at least slightly less blame than they would otherwise because of the situation. 

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter typically describes a situation where the victim was killed unintentionally. It can happen if someone dies unintentionally because of another person committing a crime, provided that crime was not a felony. More commonly, involuntary manslaughter comes from someone showing reckless conduct or being criminally negligent. 

A common example of involuntary manslaughter would be if someone is driving recklessly and kills someone. This could be because of driving under the influence. However, this would also be an example of the third type of manslaughter: vehicular manslaughter. 

Different Degrees of Murder and Manslaughter – Understanding the Legal Consequences

Interestingly, a similar situation, such as someone hitting another person with a car and killing that person, could be classified as murder or manslaughter, depending on specific circumstances. To better understand this, it is important to first understand the degrees of murder. 

First-degree Murder

This is also called capital murder. The legal definition can vary slightly by state and province, but it typically requires malice, premeditation, and/or planning. This means that the defendant was in a clear mind when they decided to kill the person (i.e., they were not provoked by a situation and in the “heat of passion), with at least some planning, and did so without a legal excuse. 

Depending on the state, a classification of first-degree murder may also depend on motive, context, or the way it was committed. The felony would have a higher degree if the motivation was race or the victim was targeted for being a police officer. 

Second-degree Murder

Like first-degree murder, second-degree murder requires malice. This means it does not have legal or just cause. Importantly, it is not deliberate or premeditated. 

A simple definition of second-degree murder is killing someone intentionally but without planning the murder. 

An example would be if someone keeps a gun on hand for security but suddenly becomes angry and kills someone with it for no reason. 

Third-degree Murder is Manslaughter

Manslaughter is sometimes referred to as third-degree murder. 

Felony Murder

There is also another category, felony murder. This refers to killing that occurs while committing a felony. It does not have to be planned or intentional, and it can be accidental. 

For example, some states would consider it a felony murder if someone gets scared during a robbery, falls off a ledge, and dies. 

Understanding the Legal Consequences of the Three Categories

The severity of the legal consequences of killing someone depends on the degree of the murder charge or type of manslaughter. The order from most severe to least severe would be: first-degree murder (including felony murder), second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. 

Penalties for Manslaughter Charges

The penalties for manslaughter charges can vary slightly based on location. It will also depend on whether the manslaughter is voluntary or involuntary. Other factors also play a role, including the circumstances and whether the defendant has a prior record. 

Voluntary manslaughter can result in a fine of up to $30,000 and up to 15 years in prison. 

Involuntary manslaughter can result in a fine of up to $20,000 and up to 10 years in prison. In the United States, federal sentencing guidelines require at least 10 to 16 months in prison. It is higher for situations with reckless conduct and even higher for deaths involving an automobile. 

Importantly, both federal and state or provincial laws tend to provide a range of possible penalties. The judge has the discretion to decide the appropriate penalty. 

Manslaughter Charges in the US and Canada 

In the United States, the official legal language regarding manslaughter includes a maximum prison sentence of 15 years for voluntary manslaughter and a maximum of eight years for involuntary manslaughter. Both can also come with fines. The legal language only defines voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. As mentioned, some states also define vehicular manslaughter. 

In Canada, the official legal language regarding manslaughter allows for a longer punishment. It can result in life imprisonment, especially if considered an unlawful act. The only exception is if there is a firearm used, in which case it must result in at least four years in prison and can result in a life sentence. The law also outlines that those with life sentences for manslaughter may be eligible for parole in seven years. However, this can be delayed to 10 years. 


Difference Between Civil Law and Criminal Law 

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