Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 19, 2018

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Voluntary manslaughter occurs when one person kills another after adequate provocation, that is, there has been action that was sufficient to incite an ordinary person to sudden and intense passion such that he loses self-control. Although the person may have intended to kill the victim in a voluntary manslaughter situation, it is not voluntary manslaughter if the killing was pre-meditated.

Voluntary manslaughter may also occur when one person kills another without malice, which means that they did not intend to cause the death. A killing that would have been murder may be reduced to manslaughter if the defendant committed the killing because he mistakenly believed he needed to use deadly force to defend himself or another. The exact definition of voluntary manslaughter may vary somewhat between states.    

Voluntary Manslaughter Based On Sudden Passion

When one person kills another after adequate provocation, a killing that would have originally been murder may be reduced to voluntary manslaughter. To be considered adequate, there are four requirements. First, the provocation must have been sufficient to incite an ordinary person to lose self control. However, it is not enough that the provocation was sufficient, the provocation must actually have caused the defendant to personally lose self control. In addition, very little time must have elapsed between the provocation and the killing.

The amount of time that passed between the provocation and the killing must have been so brief that an ordinary person would not have had time to regain his composure. Lastly, the defendant must personally have failed to compose himself between the provocation and the killing.

In most states, adequate provocation is limited to the passion aroused by situations like a threat of deadly force, or at least of physical force, or by finding a spouse in bed with another person. Oral threats alone are not usually considered adequate provocation for voluntary manslaughter. If the oral threats are combined with an assaultive or violent history with the victim, then providing the history could be sufficient for a voluntary manslaughter instruction.

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Killing Without Intent or Imperfect Self-Defense

The next type also is referred to as an imperfect self-defense claim. In states with this type of penal code, voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person kills another person, but does so without malice. For example, if a person and a co-worker both consent to fight, neither could claim self-defense to an assault charge because both mutually agreed to the assault. If the co-worker dies during the fight because of an unusual punch, the person could be charged with voluntary manslaughter. The charge would be manslaughter, instead of murder, because the intent in joining the fight was not to kill the other person, even though the conduct resulted in the victim’s death.

To obtain a request for a lesser included instruction on voluntary manslaughter based on self-defense or mutual combat, the defense must present some evidence that the victim provoked the event, agreed to participate in the event, or that the defendant had effectively withdrawn from the event but the victim continued.

Getting Help

Voluntary manslaughter tends to overlap with other theories and defenses. Some situations may also fit a regular self-defense claim. Other circumstances may work with a request for a lesser included instruction for negligent homicide, which is an even lower category of offense than voluntary manslaughter.

Choosing the best defensive theory in relation to the facts of your case is critical to an effective overall defensive strategy.  A local criminal defense attorney can inform you of any state restrictions on raising a defense of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter and its impact on your case.