The Legal Construct of Manslaughter

by tylercook on March 10, 2013

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Killing a human being without premeditation or so-called malice aforethought, meaning without any prior intention to do so, is known as manslaughter. It is not tried as a lesser degree of murder, but as a crime in itself. The difference is that murder must have malice and manslaughter lacks that component. The crime of manslaughter is punishable in varying degrees, generally with less severe penalties than murder.

There are early cases of trials for manslaughter, such as the Eastbourne trial in England in 1860. A 15-year-old student died as a result of corporal punishment by his teacher, Thomas Hopley, who said he wanted to erase the boy’s stubborn attitude. Hopley was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison. That started a heated debate over the manslaughter charge.

Types of Manslaughter

There are two types of manslaughter in U.S. courts: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary means a killing that is intentional without a prior intent to kill. An example is a person who kills someone while in the act of robbing a home, or a person who kills in what is called the heat of passion, such as walking into a bedroom to find a spouse with another person.

Involuntary manslaughter is a killing without intent. As an example, two friends, drunk at a bar, get into an argument and one hits the other with a beer bottle, inadvertently causing his death. In another case, a thief without a gun robs an office building and is surprised by a guard. They fight and the guard is killed. If the thief had a gun the charge would likely be murder.

There are two kinds of involuntary manslaughter. Criminal-negligence means there is a high degree of negligence or risk in an act from which death results. Unlawful-act manslaughter refers to a death that occurs through an act that is likely to cause death or great harm to a person. In some states, it is charged when death occurs during an act that is otherwise a misdemeanor.

Vehicle homicide is also known as vehicular manslaughter and is charged in all states except Alaska, Arizona, and Montana. It is charged when a death occurs because of the driver’s negligence in operating a vehicle. In California, the driver may be charged with “gross negligence,” and, if a drunk-driving charge is involved, may face 4-10 years. The victim in such a homicide does not have to be in the car but may be another motorist, a pedestrian, or cyclist.


The punishment for manslaughter is imprisonment and/or fines, and the times vary from state to state. The charge is generally greater for voluntary than for involuntary manslaughter and greater for criminal-negligence than for unlawful-act crimes. Courts examine aggravating and mitigating factors when handing down a sentence. Greater numbers of aggravating factors, such as criminal history of the offender and the brutality of the crime, results in a tougher sentence. Mitigating factors, such as no criminal history on the part of the offender, tend to reduce the sentence.

In the Revised Code of Washington State Statutes, Manslaughter in the First Degree is charged when a person is reckless in causing the death of another or kills an unborn child intentionally by injuring the mother. It is a class A felony, which brings a penalty of life in a state correctional institution or a fine of $50,000 or both. Manslaughter in the Second Degree is charged when a person causes a death with criminal negligence or assault without a deadly weapon. It is a class B felony, which brings a penalty of 10 years, a fine of $20,000, or both.


Seymour Brenner writes on legal topics such as Motor Vehicle Injury, Intellectual Property, Real Estate Law, Taxation, Criminal Defense and other important topics as well.




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