As you might expect, murder is a very serious charge with serious penalties. If charged with murder, you could face 15 years to life in prison.
However, and this depends heavily on the facts of your case, your attorney may be able to have your charges reduced to voluntary manslaughter, a lesser charge with much lighter penalties. A manslaughter conviction is punishable by a maximum of only 11 years in prison.
Because of the dramatic difference in the severity of the crimes and their penalties, prosecutors almost always file murder as the original charge in homicides. Later, they might agree to a plea bargain to reduce the charges to voluntary manslaughter if there isn’t sufficient evidence to support the original murder charge.
A knowledgeable and skilled defense attorney can examine the details of your case and determine if it might be possible to reduce the charges against you.
- What is voluntary manslaughter?
- Examples of voluntary manslaughter
- What’s the difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter?
- Other crimes related to voluntary manslaughter
- How to get your murder charges reduced
- Legal defenses against voluntary manslaughter charges
What is voluntary manslaughter?
If you intentionally kill another person in California without a legal excuse for doing so, you are guilty of committing either murder or voluntary manslaughter.
There is an important difference between the two crimes that makes murder the more serious charge. That difference is what California law calls “malice aforethought.” Malice aforethought means the intent to kill or the wanton disregard for human life.
Someone who commits an unlawful killing with malice aforethought has committed murder under California Penal Code 187 PC. In a case where there was no malice aforethought, charges of voluntary manslaughter under California Penal Code 192 PC are more appropriate.
To have killed someone “without malice” means that
- You acted out of sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Your actions were an impulsive reaction to being provoked and were due to a lack of judgment from extreme emotions, or
- You Honestly but unreasonably felt the need to use deadly force in order to defend yourself.
Examples of voluntary manslaughter
Below are two examples of cases where California courts would likely rule that charges of voluntary manslaughter are appropriate:
Example 1: In the past, Chad’s wife Melissa has used infidelity as a way of getting back at him when she is angry about something. One evening, Chad comes home to find Melissa engaging in an intimate act with another man. Overwhelmed by emotions, Chad picks up a blunt object in the room and strikes Melissa with it, killing her.
In cases involving infidelity and an act taking place in the heat of passion such as this one, courts have ruled that manslaughter charges are appropriate.
Example 2: Brandi is in her home and sees her ex boyfriend out the window approaching her front door. He is holding a firearm and begins yelling at her to come outside. He fires his gun at her car and shoots the windshield, causing it to shatter. Brandi opens her front door and shoots the man, killing him.
In the past, courts have ruled in some cases similar to this one to reduce charges from murder to manslaughter due to the intensity of the situation.
In the following example, California courts do not consider this to be adequate provocation and would be unlikely to reduce a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter:
Example 3: Pete’s neighbor Jake frequently sits on his front porch drinking in the afternoon and often, after becoming intoxicated, shouts insults at Pete about his appearance when he sees him in his front yard. One morning after being insulted by Jake the night before, Pete decides he’s had enough. Pete enters Jake’s home and kills him.
In a scenario like this one, a reasonable person would judge that Pete did not act in the heat of passion. Courts would be unlikely to reduce a murder charge to manslaughter. While Pete may have been provoked by Jake’s rude remarks, insults are not considered grounds to reduce charges.
What’s the difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter?
Under California law, voluntary manslaughter involves intentionally killing someone without premeditation, often during a sudden emotional disturbance like a heated argument. The killer’s judgment is impaired by strong emotions, leading to the act.
In contrast, involuntary manslaughter occurs when a person is killed due to someone’s reckless or negligent actions, but without the intent to harm. This can happen during lawful activities conducted in a dangerous way or unlawful acts not amounting to felonies. The key distinction is the absence of intent to kill in involuntary manslaughter.
Other crimes related to voluntary manslaughter
There are a number of California crimes that are related in various ways to voluntary manslaughter. Below are two of the most common related crimes.
In California, you are guilty of attempted murder if you:
- You intend to kill another person
- You take at least one direct but ineffective step toward killing that person
If you are charged with attempted murder, your defense attorney may be able to have your charges reduced to attempted voluntary manslaughter, a lesser offense.
According to California Penal Code 192(b) PC, a person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter if they:
- Kill another person without malice, intent to kill, or conscious disregard for human life
- Are knowingly involved in an unlawful act or an act which involves high risk of death or injury at the time that the other person is killed
Involuntary manslaughter is punishable by two, three, or four years in county jail.
Penalties for voluntary manslaughter
Penalties for voluntary manslaughter are significantly less severe than penalties for murder, which could potentially result in life in prison. In California, voluntary manslaughter is a felony and could result in the following penalties:
- Three, six, or eleven years in California state prison
- A fine of up to $10,000
- A strike on your record pursuant to California’s three strikes law and a possible increase in penalties if you have previous strikes on your record
- Community service
- Mandatory counseling services
- The loss of your right to own firearms
How to get your murder charges reduced
Charges can be reduced prior to trial during plea bargaining or during trial by convincing the jury that you are guilty of voluntary manslaughter and not murder.
If your charges are reduced during plea bargaining, your murder charges are dropped and new charges of voluntary manslaughter are filed.
Legal defenses against voluntary manslaughter charges
Reducing your charges to voluntary manslaughter is a legal defense against murder charges, but you will still need a defensive strategy to fight the new, lesser charges. Below are some of the most common defense strategies used in voluntary manslaughter cases.
You are not guilty of manslaughter, voluntary or involuntary, if you kill a person by accident. In California, you kill a person by accident if
- You had not intent to harm the person
- You were not engaged in unlawful behavior at the time of the accident
- You were not acting negligently or engaging in a dangerous act without taking proper caution at the time of the accident.
Self-defense or defense of others
In California, it is not illegal to kill another person in order to defend yourself or others from being killed, raped, robbed, or greatly injured. If you can prove that you were acting justifiably in defense, you may not be convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
The California insanity defense excuses criminal conduct, including killing another person, if you were unable to distinguish between right and wrong or understand the nature of the act due to mental illness or another type of impairment.
If you are facing murder charges, you need a serious and dedicated criminal defense attorney on your side. As a Los Angeles based attorney with over 30 years of experience defending clients against some of the most serious charges, I am confident that I can help find you the best possible outcome.
Me and my team will methodically examine all of the evidence and details of your case to find the best defense strategy for you. Call today for your free case evaluation – 805-273-5611.
Published May 17, 2020. Updated November 17, 2023.