While the law has a reputation for being cut-and-dry, there are some legal distinctions that are incredibly fine or hard to define. When the law tries to make room for human nature and natural failings, there will usually arise a legal distinction that is a little...difficult to demonstrate. When it comes to high-level crimes, few things are as hard to delineate as the difference between manslaughter and murder.
Both crimes are examples of criminal homicide, which is the unlawful, unjustified killing of a human being (this contrasts with lawful killings, like self-defense or police killing an armed suspect). On paper, the clear-cut definition between manslaughter and murder is “malice aforethought,” or how intentional the killing was. Juries are then asked to sentence the accused based on the incredibly abstract concept of their “moral blameworthiness.”
This system, while attempting to systematize and categorize very human tendencies, has the ability to be quite inconsistent. For example, the difference between voluntary manslaughter and first-degree murder might be whether or not a suspect had time to “cool off” before causing the murder. While the laws are intended to take mitigating circumstances into account, it can also create confusing sentences and penalties to address the death of a human being. Here are the ways that criminal homicides are categorized.
The least “morally blameworthy” of homicide crimes, involuntary manslaughter is the taking of life without any malice aforethought or intention. As a result, these crimes tend to involve high levels of criminal negligence or recklessness. For example, running a red light and inadvertently killing a pedestrian, or driving drunk and causing a fatal accident, would be considered involuntary manslaughter.
Was the hypothetical defendant reckless? Yes. Were they breaking the law? Yes. But where they intending to kill another person? No, so the sentence is involuntary manslaughter. The punishment for involuntary manslaughter in California is 10-16 months of prison, with more time added if the death was a result of reckless conduct.
These crimes involve the intent to kill, but usually in the context of reasonably provoking circumstances. Sometimes these are known as “heat-of-passion” killings because they apply to killings in which a normally reasonable person will be driven to murder under extreme circumstances. The common hypothetical example for this is a man coming home to find his wife in bed with another man; if his immediate response is to kill him, a jury may find him guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
However, if he left, bought a gun, and came back to murder him, a jury would likely find him guilty of premeditated murder—this is first-degree murder, the most morally blameworthy of homicide crimes. The difference between voluntary manslaughter and murder is a difficult line to find, and will depend entirely on whether the “provoking circumstances” in the moment would cause a reasonable person to act in the same way.
The penalty for voluntary manslaughter is 15 years of prison to a life sentence, as well as the loss of the right to own a firearm.
As a capital offense, first-degree murder comes with the possibility of life in prison without parole—even execution. California has currently suspended the death penalty, but it has often been returned to in appeals throughout our state’s history. In order to be considered a first-degree murder, a criminal homicide must include one of a few different factors.
These factors will qualify a homicide as murder in the first-degree:
- The suspect had the premeditated intent to kill
- The suspect killed someone with malice aforethought while committing a dangerous felony
- The suspect used a bomb or any other explosive device to intentionally kill
Any intentional murder or reckless disregard for human life that does not meet these qualifications will be considered second-degree murder (or involuntary manslaughter, depending on the history of the suspect). The more planning a prosecutor can prove on the part of the suspect, the more likely the charge will be first-degree rather than second-degree murder. The penalty for second-degree murder will include decades of prison, but with the possibility of parole.
If you have been accused of murder in California, turn to our aggressive and skilled Riverside criminal defense attorney today. Call (951) 682-5110 for a free consultation.