Killing another person can result in different levels of convictions ranging from the most serious (first-degree murder) to manslaughter. When you kill someone in a momentary heat of anger or passion or an accident, you can be charged and convicted of manslaughter. While it is a less grievous offense compared to first or second-degree murder, it still carries stiff penalties and additional negative consequences for you. Our attorneys at Michele Ferroni Pasadena Criminal Attorney Law Firm in Pasadena understand the burden of being charged with manslaughter. Therefore, we commit to helping defendants charged with manslaughter understand the charges against them and provide legal counsel.
Overview and Legal Definition of Manslaughter
Manslaughter constitutes the crime of killing another person, albeit without any prior deliberation to commit the act. Premeditation is a key distinction between manslaughter and first-degree murder, which requires premeditation.
Manslaughter murder laws categorize manslaughter into different types as follows:
- Voluntary manslaughter
- Involuntary manslaughter
- Vehicular manslaughter
1. Voluntary Manslaughter
California PC 192 makes it a crime to kill another person in the heat of passion or the middle of a sudden quarrel. Voluntary manslaughter operates on the notion that the defendant killed the victim in an act of unreasonable self-defense – for instance, by using more force than was necessary for protecting themselves from a perceived threat.
When charged with voluntary manslaughter, the prosecution must prove that the defendant:
- Was provoked
- Acted rashly without using reason or sound judgment
- The average person would have reacted similarly under the same circumstances
Voluntary manslaughter charges are often brought against people who act in a moment of passion – a period where someone experiences an intense or violent emotion that results in impulsivity.
Usually, the prosecution evaluates the time between the provocation and the killing to determine whether the act fits the definition of manslaughter or murder. This determination depends on the gravity of the situation and the normal reaction another person in a similar situation would have.
Voluntary manslaughter is a felony with a sentence of three, six, or eleven years in state prison. Alternatively, the court might sentence you to a year in county jail with formal probation. In addition to incarceration, voluntary manslaughter carries a fine of up to $10,000.
2. Involuntary Manslaughter
Involuntary manslaughter covers the crime of killing someone due to criminal negligence. The elements that define involuntary manslaughter in California include:
- You committed an infraction, misdemeanor, or a lawful act in an unlawful manner
- You acted with criminal negligence
- Killing another person
The type of action committed leading up to the victim's death significantly affects your charges. If, for instance, you committed a robbery during which a person died, the offense becomes a murder under the felony-murder rule.
In addition to committing an underlying infraction, misdemeanor, or a lawful act in an unlawful manner, the prosecution must prove that you displayed criminal negligence at the time of the act.
Criminal negligence refers to carelessness beyond the ordinary lapse in judgment or inattention. It results from acting recklessly in a manner that creates a great risk of death or serious bodily injury despite knowing that these actions create a risk of death or serious injury.
The prosecution also establishes the contribution your actions had towards the victim's death. An action could be the natural, direct, or probable cause of someone's death – meaning that, had you not committed the act, the victim could not have died.
In some cases, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to exercise a legal duty to the victim. A legal duty towards another person arises due to having a certain relationship. This could be a relationship between:
- A parent and their child
- A paid caregiver and their patient
- Any relationship where one assumes responsibility for another
Failing to exercise your legal duty to someone could arise in situations such as:
- A parent failing to take their child to the hospital
- Failing to call emergency help for a person injured in your home
Involuntary manslaughter is also a felony with a maximum jail term of four years. You could also be placed on formal probation and be required to pay up to $10,000 in fines. Involuntary manslaughter also carries the possibility of a civil lawsuit by the victim’s family.
3. Vehicular Manslaughter
Killing another person while driving results in charges of vehicular manslaughter. Vehicular manslaughter under PC 192 (c) refers to driving a vehicle negligently or unlawfully killing another person.
Vehicular manslaughter charges are common when someone causes an accident that kills one or more people. These accidents are often a result of negligence, gross negligence, and drunk driving.
These actions differ from intentionally hitting someone with your car to kill them. You are guilty of first or second-degree murder if you intentionally hit another person with a car to kill or injure them.
Negligent actions are those that:
- You know or should have known are dangerous and carry the risk of killing someone
- You did not have the intention to kill or harm another person
In vehicular manslaughter, the law looks at the level of negligence you displayed, resulting in the victim's death. It could be ordinary or gross negligence.
Gross negligence is highly careless conduct that a reasonable person understands creates a high risk of death or serious injury. Ordinary negligence, on the other hand, refers to regular carelessness, inattentiveness, or an error in judgment.
For you to be convicted of vehicular manslaughter, the prosecution has to prove that:
- You drove a vehicle
- You committed an infraction, misdemeanor, or lawful act in an unlawful way
- That act created the risk of death
- You acted with negligence
- Thus killing another person
Vehicular manslaughter is a wobbler offense based on the level of negligence you displayed when committing the act. Vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence is a misdemeanor with a sentence of up to one year in jail. For vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, you face a maximum of six years in prison.
Other circumstances can affect the conviction you receive in a vehicular manslaughter case. These circumstances include drunkenness and staging an accident for financial gain. Intentionally causing an accident for financial gain and killing a person is a felony offense resulting in a maximum prison term of ten years and $10,000 in fines.
Committing vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated results in one of two charges:
- Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated can be charged as a misdemeanor (up to one year in jail) or felony (up to four years in prison).
- Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a felony with a state prison sentence of up to ten years.
Note: all felony manslaughter charges result in losing your gun rights. If you are a legal immigrant, you risk deportation if convicted of the offense. The victim's family could also sue you in civil court for wrongful death damages.
Legal Defenses for Manslaughter
The prosecution must convict you of a crime if your actions fulfill the elements of the offense. When charged with manslaughter, you should work with your defense attorney to develop a defense strategy to fight these charges.
Defenses that apply to manslaughter charges in California include:
1. False Accusations
Although manslaughter is a less severe offense than first- and second-degree murder, it still carries a stigma that can significantly affect your life.
This stigma is experienced even if you are innocent of the offense. If you are falsely accused of manslaughter, do not delay finding a good criminal defense attorney. Most people mistakenly believe they do not need an attorney since they are innocent.
However, your innocence should drive you to get a good defense attorney to avoid spending time for a crime you did not commit.
In homicide cases, the stakes are usually very high, and the slightest link between you and the victim could result in a charge and trial for manslaughter – or worse, murder. In most manslaughter cases, false accusations arise due to:
- Mistaken identity
- Malicious false accusations where someone intentionally accuses you of the crime
- Misconduct by police officers and other officials handling the case. Official misconduct may involve a police officer forcing a confession out of a suspect or asking witnesses leading questions that result in false recollections of the event.
- Misleading forensic evidence
- Errors by witnesses when recollecting information about an offense
If you are falsely accused of manslaughter, the first step is to hire a criminal defense attorney. Your attorney will help you take the next steps, which may include:
- Taking a polygraph test
- Conducting a pre-file investigation
- Starting a motion to impeach the person accusing you of the offense
You might also take it an extra step and file a civil lawsuit for malicious prosecution.
The law allows you to protect yourself or another person from imminent danger of harm. To protect yourself, you can use a reasonable amount of force to protect yourself or another person.
To use self-defense as a legal defense for manslaughter, you must prove that:
- You had a reasonable belief that you or another person was in imminent danger of suffering an injury
- You reasonably believed that the use of force was necessary to defend yourself or another person from the danger
- You used an amount of force that was reasonable to fend off the danger
Self-defense can either be complete or incomplete (imperfect self-defense). Imperfect self-defense is used when you believe you were in danger but used more force than was reasonably necessary to protect yourself or another person.
Imperfect self-defense is used mostly in murder cases to have the prosecution reduce the charges to voluntary manslaughter.
When fighting manslaughter charges, complete self-defense is the best if you are looking for your charges to be acquitted.
Some states require you to demonstrate you made efforts to flee the aggressor. However, in California, you have no legal duty to retreat from an aggressor – the same applies when someone intrudes on your home.
When using the "self-defense" defense, the court will look at the source of the initial aggression that led you to believe you were in imminent danger. In most cases, this defense is less likely to work for you if you are the aggressor. However, if you made attempts to stop the aggression and the victim escalated it, you may cite self-defense as a response to the escalated aggression.
3. Insufficient Evidence
Manslaughter is a serious offense in California. When convicted, you face years of incarceration and additional consequences that result from a conviction. Due to these consequences, the law requires that the prosecution prove that you committed manslaughter beyond a reasonable doubt.
This means that the evidence present should point to the charge against you being true. This means that the prosecution must prove each element of manslaughter to be true beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction.
If the evidence is insufficient to prove any element, it provides your attorney an opportunity to challenge it. Suppose, for instance; the police report says that you confessed to killing the victim. However, the prosecution cannot provide proof that you gave a taped or recorded confession of the crime. Then, your lawyer can argue that the prosecution does not have sufficient evidence to secure a conviction for manslaughter.
4. Accidental Killing
Accidents occur, and these can result in an accidental killing. An accidental death occurs when someone performs a lawful act with a reasonable belief that no one will be harmed. Accidental killing is not a crime.
One case demonstrating an accidental killing is the 2020 Massachusetts incident where a man accidentally killed a neighbor with a crossbow. The man was trying to save another person from a pit-bull attack, but the bolt from the crossbow went through the dog and a closed door, eventually striking the neighbor.
In this case, the man could not have predicted the outcome of the bolt going through the dog, then the closed door and killing another person.
In California, accidental killing does not lead to criminal liability. When using the defense of accidental killing, you must prove that the act you committed was lawful and did not act with ordinary or criminal negligence.
The law punishes offenders based on the assumption that they were aware that their actions were wrong. You may plead not guilty because of insanity because of a temporary or permanent mental illness that makes it impossible for you to understand the nature of your crime or distinguish between right and wrong.
The insanity defense asserts that your mental illness (temporary or permanent) kept you from understanding the nature of your actions. Suppose, for instance, a person suffering from paranoid delusions.
Their mental illness makes it hard for them to distinguish between threatening and non-threatening situations. Due to their condition, they may respond with unwarranted violence to a misunderstood situation.
There are certain exceptions to using the insanity defense:
- You were addicted to drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense
- You were intoxicated when you committed the crime
Before the court can find you not guilty because of insanity, it conducts a sanity hearing. During the hearing, psychiatrists and other expert witnesses will testify on whether you were "insane" at the time of the trial.
Suppose the court determines that you are not guilty because of insanity. In that case, you will be committed to a state mental hospital for rehabilitation and treatment and to keep you and society safe. The length of commitment depends on:
- The maximum imprisonment term for the offense
- Whether you have regained sanity
- Whether your doctors believe you would do well in an outpatient treatment facility
Other crimes that you might be charged with other than manslaughter include:
1. Attempted Murder
When you try to kill someone, but they end up surviving, you could be charged with attempted murder. Attempted murder includes two elements:
- You took a direct step toward killing the victim
- You intended to kill the victim
Taking direct steps means making a plan and setting it in motion. Some of the direct steps that indicate you took a direct step to murder the victim include:
- Shooting at someone
- Paying another person to kill the victim
- Stabbing someone
- Any step that puts your murder plan into action
In addition to taking a direct step towards killing another person, the prosecution must prove that you intended to kill the person. It could have succeeded had another factor not intervened. Some of the evidence that could point to your intent to kill the victim include:
- The location of the injury
- Shooting at an inhabited dwelling
- Drive-by shootings
Attempted murder is an aggravated felony. It can be charged as either first or second-degree attempted murder. First-degree attempted murder carries a life sentence with the possibility of parole. If the victim of the attempted murder was a peace officer or a protected person, the minimum sentence is fifteen years in prison.
Attempted second-degree murder carries a sentence of five, seven, or nine years in state prison. You are also required to pay a fine of up to $10,000. Other consequences of attempted murder include:
- Deportation of legal aliens
- A strike on your record
- Loss of firearm rights
Murder is the unlawful killing of another person with malice aforethought. Murder in California is categorized as first-degree or second-degree murder.
Malice aforethought is a major distinguishing factor between voluntary manslaughter and murder. Malice arises when a person commits an intentional act that is dangerous to human life and commits that act knowing that it is dangerous to human life.
First-degree murder is the most aggravated form of murder in California. It occurs when the killer:
- Lies in wait for their victim
- Tortures the victim
- Commits willful and premeditated killing
- Kills someone in the commission of a felony (felony-murder)
- Uses a destructive device, a weapon of mass destruction, or poison to kill the victim
First-degree murder can also be charged as capital murder in the presence of special circumstances such as:
- Multiple murder victims
- Killing a witness
- Gang killing
- Killing based on a victim's race, nationality, or religion (hate crime)
- Killing a protected person (peace officer or an elected official)
- Killing for financial gain
Second-degree murder is any murder that does not qualify as first-degree murder due to the lack of premeditation.
A conviction for first-degree murder results in a sentence of 25 years to life without the possibility of parole. The penalty for capital murder is life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Second-degree murder carries a sentence of 15 years to life.
3. Watson Murder
Repeat DUI offenders can be charged with a Watson murder if they cause a fatal accident. A Watson murder is a type of second-degree murder which allows a defendant to be charged with murder for acting with implied malice.
Implied malice arises when:
- One commits an intentional act (drunk driving)
- The act is inherently dangerous to human life
- The defendant is aware of the danger of their actions to human life
- The defendant acts with a conscious disregard for human life
A Watson murder is more serious than vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
This charge is typically brought against defendants who have a previous DUI conviction and went to DUI school or were read a Watson admonition following their previous DUI conviction.
The Watson admonition is a warning DUI convicts are given regarding the dangers of drunk driving to human life and the possibility of facing murder charges for killing someone while drunk driving. Even if you were never read the Watson admonition, you could still be charged with second-degree murder if you were aware of the risks of drunk driving and showed a wanton disregard for the safety of others.
A Watson murder results in a sentence of fifteen years to life in state prison, a fine of up to $10,000, and a strike on your criminal record.
Find a Pasadena Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
Manslaughter is an offense that could result in the loss of your freedom, firearm rights, and the risk of deportation for immigrants. Contact an attorney as soon as you learn that the prosecution has filed charges against you. Whether innocent or not, you should always secure a trustworthy defense team to help you navigate the court process and defend yourself in court. Contact Michele Ferroni Pasadena Criminal Attorney Law Firm in Pasadena for legal representation if you or a loved one is facing manslaughter charges. Book your free consultation at 626-628-0564.