Voluntary Manslaughter

You come home from work, only to find your wife in bed with another man.  In a sudden burst of rage, you kill them both.  Despite the fact that this sounds like murder, it’s probably not.  Under California law, it’s more likely to constitute voluntary manslaughter.

California’s voluntary manslaughter laws apply to killings that you commit

  1. during a sudden quarrel, or
  2. in the heat of passion.1

Prosecutors rarely file Penal Code 192 (a) voluntary manslaughter as a separate charge. The offense usually comes up in murder cases, where the accused admits to killing the victim, but seeks have the charge reduced from murder to manslaughter.

If the charge is reduced to manslaughter, the defendant faces a maximum of 11 years in prison. With murder, by contrast, he faces a potential life sentence…or sometimes even execution.

Below, our California criminal defense attorneys2 address the following:

1. The Legal Definition of Voluntary
Manslaughter in California
2. Examples
3. Legal Defenses

3.1. Self-defense / defense of others

3.2. The insanity defense

3.3. Accident

3.4. Plea bargain from murder

4. Penalties, Punishment and Sentencing
5. Related Offenses

5.1. Murder

5.2. Attempted murder

5.3. Involuntary manslaughter

5.4. Vehicular manslaughter

5.5. DUI manslaughter / Watson murder

If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

You may also find helpful information in our related articles on Penal Code 187 PC Murder; Attempted Murder; Penal Code 192(b) Involuntary Manslaughter; Penal Code 192(c) Vehicular Manslaughter; California’s Driving Under the Influence Laws; Penal Code 191.5(a) Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated; Penal Code 191.5(b) Negligent Manslaughter While Intoxicated; DUI Murder / Watson Murder; California Legal Defenses; California’s Self-Defense Laws; Accident as a Legal Defense; The Insanity M’Naghten Rule; and California’s Three Strikes Law.

1. The Legal Definition of Voluntary Manslaughter in California

When you

  1. intentionally kill another person (without a legal excuse for doing so), or
  2. act with a conscious disregard for human life,

you either violate California’s murder law or California’s voluntary manslaughter law.  The difference between the two is whether you acted with “malice aforethought”.

Malice aforethought exists when you act with (a) an intent to kill or (b) a wanton disregard for human life.  When you kill another person (or fetus).and act with malice aforethought, you are guilty of murder.  However, when you kill someone during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion, California law presumes you acted without malice, which is why we have the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter.3

Sudden quarrel or heat of passion

To kill another person during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion means

  1. you were provoked,
  2. as a result of being provoked, you acted rashly and under the influence of intense emotion that obscured your reasoning or judgment, and
  3. the provocation would have caused an average person to act rashly and without due deliberation.that is, from passion rather than from judgment.4

For Penal Code 192(a) purposes, “heat of passion” means any violent or intense emotion that causes a person to act impulsively.  If.between the time you are provoked and the time you kill.you have had enough time to “cool off” and regain your ability to think rationally, then you would more likely be guilty of premeditated murder than manslaughter.5

And.with respect to provocation.California courts haven’t established a set criteria for what constitutes “sufficient” provocation.  They have, however, ruled that it can’t be slight or remote.

The provocation must be so influential that it would cause an average person in the same situation to react emotionally rather than logically. This is an objective standard. How you personally reacted is only justifiable if it is how a fictional average person would have reacted.6

Example: Defendant picked up a young woman who was hitchhiking.  They went back to her house and had sex before he stabbed her eight or nine times and manually strangled her to death.  He claimed that he killed her because

  1. he was drunk, and
  2. upon hearing a helicopter fly overhead, he suffered Vietnam war flashbacks that caused him to “snap”.

But as the California Supreme Court stated, “Defendant’s evidence that he was intoxicated, that he suffered various mental deficiencies, that he had a psychological dysfunction due to traumatic experiences in the Vietnam War, and that he just “snapped” when he heard the helicopter, may have satisfied the subjective element of heat of passion.

But it does not satisfy the objective, reasonable person requirement, which requires provocation by the victim.  To satisfy the objective or ‘reasonable person’ element of this form of voluntary manslaughter, the accused’s heat of passion must be due to sufficient provocation.[E]vidence of defendant’s extraordinary character and environmental deficiencies was manifestly irrelevant to the inquiry.”7

2. Examples

The following are examples of some cases where courts held sufficient provocation existed to reduce murder to voluntary manslaughter under Penal Code 192 (a).

Being Accosted by an Angry Mob

In People v. Breverman, the court held that the defendant was entitled to a voluntary manslaughter jury instruction when a “mob” of young men.armed with dangerous weapons and harboring a specific hostile intent.trespassed upon his property, acting in a menacing manner.  The group’s conduct included challenging the defendant to fight and using the weapons to batter and smash the defendant’s car which was parked in the defendant’s driveway, only a short distance from his front door.

The court held that this scenario was enough to cause fear and panic and that defendant.and more importantly, an ordinary reasonable person…could have been aroused to passion which would have obscured his reasoning when he tried to scare the group away by firing random shots through his door and towards the men.8

Confronting Your Brother’s Murder Suspect

In People v. Brooks, the defendant was at the crime scene where his brother had just been stabbed to death.  People at the scene told the defendant who the alleged murderer was, and this person was also present at the scene.  The defendant attacked the alleged suspect, but police broke up the fight.  Defendant then left and returned two hours later with his gun when he shot and killed the alleged suspect.

The court held that “the disclosure of information that the victim murdered a family member of the defendant is legally adequate provocation for voluntary manslaughter.”  It further reasoned that even though two hours had passed between the time the defendant learned the information and shot the victim, the defendant still acted in the “heat of passion” based on the testimony of two police witnesses who stated that the defendant was “very upset” and “extremely upset” when he was questioning all the bystanders at the scene of his brother’s murder.9

Being Tormented by One’s Lover

In People v. Borchers, the defendant was prompted to kill his lover based on a series of events that included admitting to infidelity, trying to jump out of his moving car, taking a gun and threatening to kill herself, pleading with the defendant to kill her, and taunting him by asking if he was too “chicken” to pull the gun’s trigger.

As the court opined, “It may fairly be concluded that the evidence on the issue of not guilty supports a finding that defendant killed in wild desperation induced by Dotty’s long continued provocatory conduct.”10

In contrast, the following are examples of cases where courts held that there was not sufficient provocation to reduce murder to voluntary manslaughter.

  • People v. Lucas (name calling, smirking, “dirty looks” and general taunting are not sufficient to reduce a murder charge to that of California voluntary manslaughter)11
  • People v. Kanawyer (although provocation can arise from a series of events over time, that doesn’t include the 14-15 year period during which the defendant was subject to criticism and ridicule by his grandparents whom he later killed when he broke into their home and shot them at close range with a sawed-off shotgun)12
  • People v. Fenenbock (evidence that the defendant and a group of others took the victim into the woods and killed him in retaliation for allegedly molesting one of the codefendant’s daughters two days after the alleged molestation was sufficient to support a deliberated and premeditated murder)13
  • People v. Rich (when you are in the act of committing a crime against another person.and that person predictably resists the crime.that resistance does not constitute the kind of sufficient provocation necessary to reduce a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter should you ultimately end up killing the victim).14
3. Legal Defenses

There are a variety of legal defenses to Penal Code 192(a) voluntary manslaughter that a skilled California criminal defense lawyer can present on your behalf.  The following are some of the most common examples.

3.1. Self-defense / defense of others / imperfect self-defense

California’s self-defense laws justify your killing another person when you kill to protect yourself or another from

  • being killed,
  • suffering great bodily injury, or
  • being raped, maimed, robbed, or the victim of some other “forcible and atrocious crime”.

These laws permit you to take whatever steps are reasonably necessary to protect against this harm.15

Example:  You and your friend are at a bar.  A drunk patron picks a fight with your friend.  The two of you try to leave, but the aggressor follows you outside and lunges toward your friend with a knife, threatening to kill him.  You attack the aggressor, manage to grab his knife and stab him instead.  He subsequently dies from the knife wound.

Given these circumstances, California’s self-defense laws would likely excuse your conduct.

Imperfect self-defense

However, if you kill another because you

  1. believed that you or another was in imminent danger of being seriously hurt or killed, and
  2. believed that deadly force was necessary to defend against that danger, but
  3. at least one of those beliefs was unreasonable,

this is what’s known as imperfect self-defense.  Imperfect self-defense does not absolve you of criminal liability altogether.  It does, however, act as a mitigating factor that can reduce a murder charge to Penal Code 192(a) PC voluntary manslaughter.16

Example:  Let’s use the example from above but change some of the facts.  Let’s say that the drunk patron still picks a fight with your friend.  The two of you try to leave, but the aggressor.who is considerably larger than your friend.follows you outside.  He pushes your friend and taunts him, in effect challenging him to a fight.  He doesn’t appear to have a weapon.  Because you fear that the aggressor will hurt your friend, you pull out your knife and stab and kill him.

Given these facts, while it’s true that your friend may have been seriously hurt, it was unreasonable to believe that deadly force was necessary to prevent that danger.  As a result, this type of imperfect self-defense would not excuse voluntary manslaughter.

3.2. Insanity

If you kill another person, because you

  1. don’t understand the nature of your act, and/or
  2. can’t distinguish between right and wrong,

you may be entitled to a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.  This California insanity defense, governed by the M’Naghten test.which comprises the two elements just set forth.excuses your otherwise criminal conduct.17

Example:  Mary.who has a history of severe mental illness.has a fight with her mother.  Her mother, who truly can’t deal with Mary’s illness, screams out, “Oh, God, why don’t you just kill me!”  Mary, believing that she would be helping her mother by complying with what she believes is a “wish”…strangles and kills her mom.                    Given this type of scenario, Mary.who would otherwise be guilty of violating California’s voluntary manslaughter law .would likely prevail on the insanity defense.

3.3. Accident

If you accidentally kill someone, you are not guilty of voluntary manslaughter – period.  But as Rancho Cucamonga criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi18 explains, “Accident as a California legal defense generally only applies when you

  1. had no criminal intent to do harm,
  2. were not acting negligent at the time of the accident, and
  3. were otherwise engaged in lawful behavior at the time of the accidental killing.”19

Example:  Again, taking the bar fight example from above.but changing it slightly.let’s say that after the aggressor followed your friend out of the bar, the aggressor took a swing at your friend.  Your friend then takes a swing at the aggressor, connects his punch, and hits him so hard that he falls back and hits his head on the back step outside the bar.  He becomes unconscious and dies the next day.

Given these facts, the death was truly an accident.  Even though the fight took place in the heat of passion and with sufficient provocation.which would ordinarily be sufficient to reduce a murder charge to manslaughter.this accidental nature of the death completely absolves your friend of either charge.

3.4. Plea bargain from murder

Again, it is important to understand that the crime of California voluntary manslaughter is, in itself, a legal defense in a murder case.  If you are charged with Penal Code 187 PC murder.but can prove that you acted in the heat of passion or during a sudden quarrel.your potential state prison sentence, as well as your other penalties (discussed in the next section).will be reduced significantly.

4. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing

If convicted of violating Penal Code 192(a) PC California’s voluntary manslaughter law, you face three, six, or eleven years in the California state prison.20 By contrast, the penalty for committing Penal Code 187 PC murder is a minimum of 15-years-to-life and could even result in execution.

A voluntary manslaughter conviction could also trigger the following punishment and penalties:

  • a potential strike on your record pursuant to California’s three strikes law (which could serve to increase your penalties if you have been convicted of any prior felonies or are convicted of any future felonies),
  • a maximum $10,000 fine,
  • the loss of the right to own or possess a firearm pursuant to Penal Code 29800 PC California’s “felon with a firearm” law,
  • community service or labor (such as CAL-TRANS roadside work),
  • counseling services (such as anger management classes), and
  • any other conditions that the court believes are logically related to the circumstances surrounding the case.21
5. Related Offenses

There are several offenses that are related to California’s voluntary manslaughter laws as they, too, involve unlawful killings.  Some examples are described below.

5.1. Murder

Penal Code 187 PC California’s murder law and voluntary manslaughter are very closely related.  Both crimes involve an intent to kill.  The difference between the two is that murder requires malice, that is, a willful and wanton disregard for human life.  Voluntary manslaughter does not.

And although a murder charge may be reduced to manslaughter when there is substantial evidence of provocation in a “heat of passion” or “sudden quarrel” situation, manslaughter may be charged on its own when the prosecution doesn’t believe it can establish murder.

Example: Mahone and Reed began taunting Ricardo and Steven, two men whom they believed were a homosexual couple.  At first, Ricardo and Steven ignored the taunts and began walking home.  When they reached Ricardo’s home, Ricardo returned the insults.  Ricardo and Steven entered the house and Mahone and Reed walked away.

As Mahone and Reed were leaving, Ricardo reappeared, holding a gun behind his back.  He confronted Reed and the two began arguing at close range.  Ricardo fired a shot into the air, and then pointed the gun directly in Reed’s face.  After Reed told Ricardo to “go ahead and pop him”, Ricardo shot him in the eye.  He later died.22

In a case such as this, where the prosecutor may be unsure about securing a murder conviction, he/she could opt to instead charge voluntary manslaughter.  Both charges require a common element.that is, that the defendant unlawfully killed another person.but he/she is more likely to obtain a manslaughter conviction without having to prove the additional element of malice that is required for murder.

5.2. Attempted murder

California’s attempted murder laws apply when you

  1. take at least one direct (but ineffective) step towards killing another person (or fetus), and
  2. you intend to kill that person.23

The significance of attempted murder to California’s voluntary manslaughter law is that if you are charged with attempted murder, your California criminal defense attorney could seek to have the charge reduced to the lesser offense of “attempted voluntary manslaughter.”

This would be the case if there is evidence that you had an intent to kill but didn’t have the malice necessary to constitute murder.24

Example: Defendant and his girlfriend went to defendant’s drug dealer’s house to buy drugs.  When he and his girlfriend got in a fight, the dealer interjected which upset the defendant.  Further angered by the fact that the defendant believed he was being “cheated” in the deal, he challenged the dealer to a fight outside.  As they were getting ready to go outside, the defendant pulled out a gun and said “I should kill you”.  When the dealer raised his hands, basically telling the defendant to leave him alone, the defendant shot him.  Because of immediate medical care, the dealer did not die.

The court held that because the intent to kill was formed in the “heat of passion”, it was logical that the defendant would be convicted of the lesser charge of attempted voluntary manslaughter rather than attempted murder.25

5.3. Involuntary manslaughter

Prosecutors can charge you with Penal Code 192(b) PC California’s involuntary manslaughter law when you kill another person

  • without malice,
  • without an intent to kill, and
  • without conscious disregard for human life.26

The difference between involuntary manslaughter and killing someone by accident is that with involuntary manslaughter, you are necessarily involved in either

  1. an unlawful act (not amounting to a felony), or
  2. a lawful act which involves a high degree of risk of death or great bodily injury (where you fail to act with the proper caution)

at the time you kill the other person.27 By contrast, when you accidentally kill another person, you are not violating any laws at the time of the killing.

Involuntary manslaughter does not apply to acts that you commit while driving a car (those are covered by California’s vehicular manslaughter laws).28

If convicted of involuntary manslaughter, you face two, three, or four years in county jail.29

5.4. Vehicular manslaughter

California’s vehicular manslaughter laws apply to situations where a driver drives

  1. in an unlawful way (not amounting to a felony), with or without gross negligence,
  2. during the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner, or
  3. knowingly causes the accident for financial gain (which is also a violation of California’s automobile insurance fraud laws).30

Vehicular manslaughter is what’s known as a “wobbler”.  Prosecutors can charge wobblers as either felonies or misdemeanors.  If convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter, you face two-to-ten years in the state prison.  If convicted of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, you face up to one-year in a county jail.31

5.5. DUI manslaughter / Watson Murder

If the driver was accused of simultaneously violating California’s driving under the influence laws, prosecutors would likely charge either

  • Penal Code 191.5(b) California’s negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated law,32
  • Penal Code 191.5(a) California’s gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated law,33 or
  • second-degree DUI murder (also known as Watson murder).

Prosecutors are most likely to file a Watson murder case if you are a repeat DUI offender and kill another person while intoxicated.  This charge is common for repeat DUI offenders who have received special education about the dangers of driving under the influence and who.at the time of conviction.acknowledge what’s known as a Watson advisement.34

The Watson admonition states

  1. it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and
  2. if you kill someone while you are DUI, California prosecutors may charge you with murder.35

What distinguishes this offense from first-degree murder is that in second-degree DUI murder, there is no intent to kill another person.  If convicted, you face the same penalties that are imposed in connection with second-degree murder.that is, 15-years-to life in the state prison.


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