Voluntary manslaughter is a form of homicide that occurs without premeditation, deliberation, or malice aforethought. It is defined as an intentional killing committed in a “heat of passion” that results from provocation. Because the killing is adequately provoked as a matter of law, the criminal charges are reduced from murder to manslaughter. The provocation must be substantial enough to warrant the killing; if not, the defendant will likely be charged with second-degree murder.
Proving that a crime occurred in the “heat of passion” is a difficult standard to meet. Defendants cannot simply assert that the victim provoked their anger. First, a charge of voluntary manslaughter requires a showing that the provocation was such that a reasonable person in similar circumstances would also lose control and be subject to irresistible impulses. Although this is a very fact-specific determination, courts in many states have held that certain acts constitute adequate provocation. For instance, most states have found that catching a spouse in the act of adultery is sufficient, as is assault when it is severe. However, courts have also held that words alone, without more, are never adequate provocation, nor is a battery when it is only minor.
Second, the provocation must actually have provoked the defendant. A defendant who is not actually in a “heat of passion” when he kills another cannot later claim that the victim’s acts provoked him into killing.
Third, the killing must have happened within a reasonable time after the provocation such that the defendant did not have time to calm down. There cannot be a long lapse in time between the two actions during which a reasonable person would have regained his senses. For example, if a husband comes home early and finds his wife in bed with another man, the husband claiming “heat of passion” cannot have left the house, taken a long walk around the block and then returned to kill the other man. The time between the provocation (witnessing the adultery) and the actual killing is too long to support a charge of voluntary manslaughter and is more likely to be charged as murder.
Imperfect Self Defenses
In some states, the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter is also applied to imperfect self defense. Imperfect self defense occurs when an individual honestly believes that lethal self defense is justified under the circumstances, but that belief is unreasonable. Had the self-defense been reasonable and proportional, the killing would have been justified. Instead, because the belief is unreasonable, the individual can be charged with voluntary manslaughter. California is one state that allows for a reduced charge for imperfect self defense.
Punishment and Defenses
Sentencing for the crime of voluntary manslaughter varies greatly by state, but is usually less than that imposed for first-degree murder or second-degree murder. Federal criminal law allows defendants to be sentenced to a fine or imprisonment, but the imprisonment cannot be more than ten years. Similarly, Michigan law restricts punishment for voluntary manslaughter to imprisonment of no more than fifteen years.
Because voluntary manslaughter requires a showing that the defendant intended to kill (as do first-degree murder and second-degree murder), a defendant is entitled to present any defenses to voluntary manslaughter that would show that he did not intend to commit the crime. For instance, a defendant may argue that the crime was accidental, or that he was incapable of intending to kill by reason of insanity or intoxication. In such circumstances, the defendant will not be excused from the crime entirely, but may have his charges reduced to involuntary manslaughter if he can show that his actions, while dangerous or negligent, were not intentional.