The murder of George Floyd recently in Minneapolis, Minnesota by police officer(s) has brought up the question of unlawful killings. There are a numerous legal categories under the topic of the unlawful killing of another person: felony first-degree murder, felony second-degree murder, (in some states third-degree murder), and that doesn’t even start on the issue of manslaughter.
While it’s not as serious as a murder charge in terms of legal penalties, manslaughter charges still arise after someone’s death. The difference in the definition of manslaughter, especially when compared to murder, lies in the defendant’s state of mind when the homicide took place.
Before we get into the difference between murder and manslaughter, we have to understand why state of mind is important.
In most cases, a person has to be intentionally doing something prohibited by law in order to be committing a crime according to the U.S. legal system. This state of mind is generally referred to as “mens rea,” which is Latin for “guilty mind.”
That means people typically can’t be convicted for simply being stupid or careless, but there is a limit on that. “Recklessness” or “criminal negligence” can create the necessary mens rea to be charged with a crime. That is the important distinction to make when talking about manslaughter charges.
Legally speaking, murder involves killing with malice aforethought or with some heinous intention behind the person’s actions. But with manslaughter, there is no malice and also, by definition, no premeditation.
Essentially, manslaughter charges indicate that the defendant had no intention to kill the victim and didn’t plan it beforehand. However, their actions were reckless or negligent enough to create mens rea and the reasonable belief that they could have avoided killing if they had acted appropriately.
Manslaughter is further separated into two categories, voluntary and involuntary. In voluntary manslaughter, the death happened “in the heat of passion,” often after the defendant was provoked or when self-defense gets out of hand.
The defendant has no prior malice towards to the victim and didn’t plan the killing at any point. But they did intend to cause serious harm in the moment, and that resulted in death.
With involuntary manslaughter, the killing is unintentional and could be called accidental. But the “accident” is caused by the defendant’s reckless behavior, such as drunken driving or DUI.
The law then serves to discourage that kind of unsafe action by punishing people who cause serious harm as a result. The charges penalize the inappropriate behavior, rather than punish the defendant for the unintentional killing.
That doesn’t mean persons convicted of involuntary manslaughter escape without punishment. But their sentence is often lighter than those convicted of murder, and they could be charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
In the U.S., the law varies by state jurisdiction on most topics, including murder. Some states base their laws on the Model Penal Code, which is a set of model laws that were created to provide a standard and universal text to help states define criminal offenses.
Penalties for involuntary manslaughter, or second-degree manslaughter, generally include less than two years in prison. In some cases, incarceration is not part of the sentence at all. However, penalties vary by state.
The penalties for voluntary manslaughter, or first-degree manslaughter, are much steeper and often involve several years in prison. While this charge is not as serious as murder, the law still seeks to discourage losing control and engaging in reckless behavior in the way that voluntary manslaughter describes.
Murder may get more newspaper headlines, but manslaughter is also a serious offense. It’s still a charge you want to avoid.
If you or a loved one is in a bind as a result of a criminal charge, immediately contact a Seattle Criminal Attorney. A Criminal lawyer is not going to judge you, and understands that everyone makes mistakes. Hiring a Seattle Criminal Lawyerto help can – at a minimum – reduce penalties, and can help direct people on how to best deal with their criminal charge, and many times even get them dismissed. So it should go without saying that someone cited for a misdemeanor or felony should hire a qualified Seattle Criminal Lawyer as soon as possible. Criminal charges can cause havoc on a person’s personal and professional life. Anyone charged with a crime in Washington State should immediately seek the assistance of a seasoned Seattle Criminal Lawyer.