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What Is Voluntary Manslaughter?

Voluntary manslaughter is when a murder is committed without any pre-meditation.
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  • Written By: Charity Delich
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 August 2014
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Voluntary manslaughter is a crime involving the unlawful killing of another human being. It occurs when the defendant had no pre-meditated intent to kill the victim; rather, the decision was made spontaneously. Many jurisdictions characterize it as a crime that happens during the “heat of passion.” In other words, the defendant was provoked to kill the victim due to circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to act recklessly and without thought. A classic example of a “heat of passion” moment is a man who comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, who he then kills on the spot.

In order to secure a conviction for voluntary manslaughter, the prosecution generally must prove several elements beyond a reasonable doubt. First, the prosecution usually needs to show that the defendant caused the death of another human being. Secondly, it must be demonstrated that, when the defendant took action, he or she unlawfully and intentionally killed the victim. Finally, they must prove that the defendant was adequately provoked into the killing.

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What constitutes adequate provocation depends on the particular facts surrounding the killing. Generally, it requires the circumstances to be egregious enough that they would provoke a reasonable person into killing the victim in the same situation. It may also require the victim’s actions to be sufficient enough to cause a reasonable person to lose control or to act in the heat of passion. When a defendant acts in the heat of passion, he or she ordinarily experiences strong emotions, like rage, fear, or resentment. Additionally, his or her act of passion is in direct response to the victim’s behavior.

Voluntary manslaughter is distinct from both murder and involuntary manslaughter. Murder involves an element called malice aforethought, which is simply killing with intent, deliberation, or pre-meditation. For example, malice aforethought would be present if a woman bought a gun, concocted an alibi, drove her husband out to a remote area and then shot him. With voluntary manslaughter, while the defendant intends to kill the victim, his or her intent is usually based on a state of inflamed passion rather than on malice aforethought. Ordinarily, voluntary manslaughter involves a lesser amount of prison time than murder.

With involuntary manslaughter, the defendant typically has no intention to kill the victim at all. For instance, a reckless driver who kills another person in a car accident may be charged with involuntary manslaughter. It usually carries a lesser prison sentence than voluntary manslaughter. In most jurisdictions, statutes prescribe sentencing guidelines for murder and both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

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