manslaughter (in some states called third degree murder) is an unlawful killing that does not involve malice aforethought. The absence of malice aforethought means that manslaughter involves less moral blame than either first or second degree murder. Thus, while manslaughter is a serious crime, the punishment for manslaughter is generally less than it would be for murder.
The two main variations of manslaughter are usually referred to as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.
Voluntary manslaughter. This is often called a "heat of passion" crime. Voluntary manslaughter arises when a person is suddenly provoked (in circumstances which are likely to provoke many reasonable people) and kills in the heat of passion aroused by that provocation. That the killing is not considered first or second degree murder is a concession to human weakness. Killers who act in the heat of passion may kill intentionally, but the emotional context prevents them from having the ability to fully control their behavior. As a result, the heat of passion reduces their moral blameworthiness.
The common example of voluntary manslaughter involves a husband who comes home unexpectedly to find his wife committing adultery. If the husband is provoked into such a heat of passion that he kills the paramour right then and there, a judge or jury might very well consider the killing to be voluntary manslaughter.
Involuntary manslaughter. A killing can be involuntary manslaughter when a person's reckless disregard of a substantial risk results in another's death. Because involuntary manslaughter involves carelessness and not purposeful killing, it is a less serious crime than murder or voluntary manslaughter. The subtleties between the degrees of murder and manslaughter reach their peak with involuntary manslaughter.
Murder and Manslaughter: Case Example 1
Facts: Fast Boyle is walking along a busy street. Clay bumps into Boyle and continues walking without saying "Sorry." Angered by Clay's rudeness, Boyle immediately pulls out a gun and kills Clay.
Verdict: Boyle could probably be convicted of second degree murder, because Boyle killed Clay intentionally. A judge or jury is unlikely to conclude that the killing was premeditated, which would elevate the shooting to first degree murder. On the other hand, this was not a heat of passion killing that might reduce the conviction to voluntary manslaughter. While Boyle might personally have been provoked into killing Clay, the circumstances were not so extreme that many ordinary and reasonable people would have been provoked to kill.
Murder and Manslaughter: Case Example 2
Facts: Standing next to each other in a bookstore a few feet away from the top of a flight of stairs, Marks and Spencer argue over the proper interpretation of free will in Hobbes's philosophy. The argument becomes increasingly animated and culminates when Spencer points a finger at Marks and Marks pushes Spencer backwards. The push is hard enough to cause Spencer to fall backwards and down the stairs. Spencer dies from the resulting injuries.
Verdict: Marks would probably be guilty of involuntary manslaughter. It was criminally negligent of Marks to shove a person standing near the top of a stairway. But circumstances don't suggest that Marks's behavior was so reckless as to demonstrate extreme indifference to human life, which would have elevated the crime to second degree murder.
Murder and Manslaughter: Case Example 3
Facts: Lew Manion comes home to find that his wife Lee has been badly beaten and sexually abused. Manion takes Lee to the hospital. On the way, Lee tells Manion that her attacker was Barnett, the owner of a tavern that she and Manion occasionally visit. After driving Lee home from the hospital about four hours later, Manion goes to a gun shop and buys a gun. Manion then goes to the tavern and shoots and kills Barnett.
Verdict: Manion could be convicted of first degree murder, because his purchase of the gun suggests that the shooting was intentional and premeditated. Voluntary manslaughter is a somewhat less likely alternative. Most judges and jurors are likely to think that enough time elapsed between the time Manion found out about Lee's injuries and the time he shot Barnett for any heat of passion to have cooled. Manion should have left his gun at home and reported the crime to the police.
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