Manslaughter is an unlawful killing that doesn’t involve malice aforethought—intent to seriously harm or kill, or extreme, reckless disregard for life. The absence of malice aforethought means that manslaughter involves less moral blame than either first or second degree murder. (But plenty argue that some instances of felony murder, a form of first degree murder, involve less blameworthiness than some instances of manslaughter.) Thus, while manslaughter is a serious crime
, the punishment for it is generally less than that for murder.
The two main variations of manslaughter are usually referred to as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.
This is often called a “heat of passion” crime. Voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person:
- is strongly provoked (under circumstances that could similarly provoke a reasonable person) and
- kills in the heat of passion aroused by that provocation.
For “heat of passion” to exist, the person must not have had sufficient time to “cool off” from the provocation
. That the killing isn’t 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 is a mitigating factor that reduces their moral blameworthiness.
The classic example of voluntary manslaughter involves a husband who comes home unexpectedly to find his wife committing adultery. If the sight of the affair provokes the husband 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 often refers to unintentional homicide from criminally negligent or reckless conduct. It can also refer to an unintentional killing through commission of a crime other than a felony.
The subtleties between murder and manslaughter reach their peak with involuntary manslaughter, particularly because an accidental killing through extreme recklessness can constitute second degree murder.
Involuntary Manslaughter Penalties and Sentencing: Federal Level
The base sentence for involuntary manslaughter under federal sentencing guidelines is a 10 to 16 month prison sentence,
which increases if the crime was committed through an act of reckless conduct. The minimum sentence for involuntary manslaughter committed with an automobile is higher still, although judges may use a certain amount discretion in those cases.
Involuntary Manslaughter Penalties and Sentencing: State Level
While states often take their cues from the federal courts when drafting their own sentencing guidelines, they do vary widely on this issue. States will generally give a range of possible sentences and allow judges discretion in determining what sentence to actually impose.
In making their determination, judges will also look to any aggravating and mitigating factors to decide how harsh of a sentence to hand down. Aggravating factors are those that increase the severity of the crime and include things such as the defendant’s history of reckless behavior. Mitigating factors tend to decrease the sentence, and typically involve factors such as the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime and lack of criminal history.