Manslaughter is a legal term for the killing of a human being, in a manner considered by law as less culpable than murder.
The law generally differentiates between levels of criminal culpability based on the mens rea, or state of mind. This is particularly true within the law of homicide, where murder requires either the intent to kill—a state of mind called malice—or malice aforethought, which may involve an unintentional killing, but with a wilful disregard for life.
Manslaughter is usually broken down into two distinct categories: voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.
describes cases where the defendant may have an intent
to cause death or serious injury, but the potential liability for the person is mitigated by the circumstances and/or state of mind. The most common example is the so-called passion
, or heat of the moment
killing, such as where the defendant is provoked
into a loss of control, by, for instance, unexpectedly finding his or her spouse in the arms of another lover, or witnessing an attack against his or her child.
There have been several types of voluntary manslaughter recognized in law, although they're so closely related, and, in many cases, indistinguishable, that many jurisdictions don't differentiate between them.
These types of defenses include:
- Provocation. This is a killing caused by an event or situation which would probably cause a reasonable person to lose self-control and kill.
- Heat of Passion. In this situation, the actions of another cause the defendant to act in the heat of the moment, and without reflection. This falls under the provocation heading.
- Imperfect self-defense. This is a third type, which is allowed only in some US states. By default, self-defense is a complete defense to any charge of murder. However, if a person acted in the honest but unreasonable belief that self-defense justified the killing, many US states will define this as deliberate homicide committed without criminal malice: a manslaughter. The word "malice" is used in the definition of murder where the act is both an intentional killing, and without legal excuse or mitigation. The honest belief in the need for self-defense mitigates the crime so that one acts intentionally, but without the legal "malice." Therefore, Imperfect Self-Defense refers to an intentional killing which is unlawful, but doesn't rise to the level of being a murder.
- Diminished Responsibility is another defense to murder that will negate the charge down. Most US states require an almost complete mental breakdown to eliminate the culpable mental state of "malice". If a jurisdiction recognizes that a person can kill with justification, but also without any evil intent, that jurisdiction is free to define the crime as something less than murder. Not all US states do this; in many, a mental defect, or even mental illness, won't reduce the seriousness of the offense whatsoever. However, if a US state legislature chooses, a diminished mental state may justify the finding of a lesser crime.
Another form of voluntary manslaughter in some countries is infanticide. This offense was created by statute in some countries during the 20th century. Generally, a conviction of infanticide will be made where the court is satisfied that a mother killed her newborn child while the balance of her mind was disturbed as a result of childbirth; for instance, in cases of post-natal depression. It's a form of manslaughter, and carries the same range of sentences as a manslaughter conviction. Theoretically, it's a separate offense to murder, and not a reductive defense to murder (such as the defenses listed above), but, in practice, it works in much the same way as a reductive defense.
Insanity is a different defense as it completely negates any criminal culpability, although the mental health consequence can result in as much confinement time as a murder conviction.
, sometimes called criminally negligent homicide
in the United States
, gross negligence manslaughter
in England and Wales
or culpable homicide
, occurs where there's no intention to kill or cause serious injury, but death is due to recklessness
or criminal negligence
, or willful blindness
, is defined as a wanton disregard for the known dangers of a particular situation. An instance of this would be a defendant throwing a brick off a bridge, into vehicular traffic below. There exists no intent to kill; consequently, a resulting death wouldn't be considered murder. However, the conduct is probably reckless
, sometimes used interchangeably with criminally negligent
, which may subject the principal to prosecution for involuntary manslaughter: the individual was aware of the risk of injury to others and willfully disregarded it.
In many jurisdictions, such as in California, 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 charged 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 which 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 (determined by excessive blood alcohol content levels set by individual states), although an independent infraction (such as driving with a suspended driver's license), or negligence, is usually also required.
In some U.S. states, such as Texas, 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 no 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, nor that they unlawfully used the substance that intoxicated them, but only that they were intoxicated, and operated a motor vehicle, and someone died as a result. The same rule of law applies in New York for vehicular manslaughter in the second degree.
In the United States, this is a lesser version of felony murder
, and covers a person who causes the death of another while committing a misdemeanor
that is, a violation of law which doesn't 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 violations of safety laws are infractions
, which means a person can be convicted regardless of mens rea
In some U.S. states, assisted suicide
is punishable as a second degree of manslaughter.