There are times when someone kills another person and their criminal charges can be diminished from murder to the lesser charge of manslaughter. Situations, where a defendant commits murder because of provocation or acts out of intense and uncontrollable emotions that impair the defendant’s ability to reason, are seen differently in a court of law. If the act was spur-of-the-moment and not done by someone who calculated or premeditated their actions, the murder might be seen as a justifiable homicide. Manslaughter is a charge that is used when someone acts out of emotion without the ability to reason or withhold judgment.
From Brian’s interview for the Masters of the Courtroom series on ReelLawyers.com.
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To prove that a murder was manslaughter, a jury has to agree that any other person in a similar circumstance encountering the same conditions would have taken the same actions without rationality or deliberation. Manslaughter does not have to involve any defined emotion such as rage or anger. The only time murder can be charged as manslaughter is if the murder was directly provoked by the victim. Provocation, in this case, is broad and does not have any specific definition or qualification. It can be short-lived or long-lasting. Although provocation is the cornerstone of any manslaughter case, it alone is not enough to reduce a murder charge to manslaughter. To prove manslaughter, the defendant must be able to show the jury that their actions were warranted due to the provoking circumstances and that, if any other reasonable person were in a similar circumstance, they likewise would have retaliated with the same force or similar action.
Another factor considered when determining manslaughter is the length of time between being provoked and the homicide itself. If there is enough time in between for a defendant to reasonably have calmed themselves, then the argument of irrational thought and lack of judgment would not hold up against a jury. If there is a heated argument, fight or other situation that results in someone’s murder, then the prosecutor will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant reacted with sound reason and purpose, not in the heat of the moment.
To be charged with voluntary manslaughter instead of murder, the defendant has to show that they killed another person because they acted in defense of themselves or another person. The difference between self-defense plea and imperfect self-defense is the state of mind of the reasonability of the claim. Imperfect self-defense occurs when someone truly believes they or someone else was in imminent danger, but this belief was proved to be unreasonable. In this case, the murder would not be justified and would be labeled as voluntary manslaughter. If the defendant can prove that they believed that their life or the life of another was in danger or that great bodily harm was imminent, they could build a case on self-defense. The jury has the job of weighing all of the facts that were available to the defendant at the time in order to decide if any reasonable person would have, likewise, believed that they were in danger.
If a person kills another human without the intent to do so or does not act with callous disregard for the life of another, then it is possible for the murder to be reduced to involuntary manslaughter. During involuntary manslaughter, the defendant must not be aware that their actions could result in a homicide or consciously act in a manner with disregard for the life of someone else. If they acted with disregard and were aware that their actions could lead to death, it is not involuntary manslaughter. Someone has to consciously act in a manner that endangers another human being in order for an act leading to death to be considered murder. An involuntary manslaughter charge indicates negligence, which is legally defined as committing an act that is beyond carelessness, poor judgment or lack of proper attention. Negligence involves a human being not acting how a reasonable person would in the same circumstance and without regard for life.
In short, to be accused of involuntary manslaughter it must be shown that the defendant:
- Engaged in a lawful act or crime in an unlawful way
- Engaged in the act or a crime with criminal negligence
- Caused of someone else’s death due to their unlawful act
- Was criminally negligent
If you are being accused of either murder or manslaughter, hiring a seasoned criminal defense attorney can help you decide what defense works best for your case.