Is there such a thing as voluntary manslaughter?

Okay, say Joe is beating the crap out of Billy, and accidentally kills him.

How would this be charged as “involuntary manslaughter”, being that he was out to hurt Billy, even if he wasn’t going to kill him?

Do any states charge people with voluntary manslaughter?


In the State of Georgia:

The classic example of voluntary manslaughter is when a fellow comes home from a hunting trip a day early, finds his wife in bed with another man, and shoots them without thinking.


In some states, “involuntary manslaughter” is called “negligent manslaughter” or “unintentional manslaughter.” It doesn’t mean that the killing was “involuntary” in the common sense; it means that there was no demonstration of intent to kill. “Felony manslaughter” is also a type of manslaughter that doesn’t require proof of intent to kill. If there is intent, then you might be able to demonstrate “intentional manslaughter.”

The definition will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction – with 50 U.S. states, D.C., P.R., 10 Canadian provinces and 3 territories, six Australian states plus Canberra and N.T., and New Zealand, English, Scottish, and Irish law, even among the English-speaking nations you might have 77 different definitions.

But generally murder involves premeditation (except for “felony murder” – a rather solecistic term for causing a person’s death during the commission of a distinct felony: if you’re committing an armed robbery and shoot someone, it doesn’t matter whether you intended to kill, it’s murder).

Voluntary manslaughter usually includes two categories of crime: “Crime of passion” killings where death is intended but there is no premeditation, and deaths resulting from an intent to do harm but not to kill. E.g., you pick a fistfight, and in the course of it, you hit your opponent in the ribs – but unbeknownst to you, he had chest surgery some months earlier, and you fracture a rib which punctures his heart, causing his death.

There’s a basic hierarchy of homicides – although as Polycarp notes, each jurisdiction has its own rules and many (most?) jurisdictions won’t recognize each category.

  1. Capital or “first-degree” murder: Knowing or willful (depending on jurisdiction) taking of a life. The murderer does something either with the knowledge that it probably will kill his victim or with the desire to kill, and this murder is “special” in some way which makes it capital murder. In some jurisdictions the specialness is “premeditation,” which is an extremely fuzzy concept (and not well-distinguished from mere intent to kill generally) but basically means a “reasoned” decision to kill. In other jurisdictions it’ll be different – in New York, for instance, there are certain “special circumstances” such as killing a police officer or “lying in wait” for your victim. Capital murder is essentially the only crime for which a state may impose the death penalty.

1a. Felony murder: A death caused during a commission of a felony (typically a violent felony). Felony murder doesn’t necessarily require a desire to kill (indeed, the murderer could quite strongly desire that nobody gets hurt). The idea is that if you choose to use violence or the threat thereof in the commission of a crime, you’re making a decision to expose bystanders to a much, much greater risk of untimely death than they normally have, because you can’t really control what’s going to happen, even if you’re very careful in how you plan your crime. This is very controversial and there are several jurisdictions which have rejected the doctrine. (In these jurisdictions, if a killing during a felony otherwise fits into a category of murder it can be prosecuted as such, but the mere fact that someone ends up dead during a crime doesn’t automatically make the criminal into a murderer.) Felony murder is considered a subspecies of capital murder (regardless of premeditation or intent generally) and a state may impose the death penalty.

  1. Murder, (non-capital or “second-degree”): Knowing or willful taking of a life that does not rise to the level of first-degree murder. This could be because there’s no premeditation or because the crime does not fit any of the jurisdiction’s official “special circumstances.” The death penalty is not available for this crime; some jurisdictions that don’t have the death penalty don’t make a distinction between the two degrees of voluntary murder.

  2. Involuntary murder: A killing where the murderer has no desire that the victim die and may not even realize that his actions lead could lead to death, but which nonetheless is so incredibly reckless that the murderer was completely indifferent to whether he’d cause death or not – he absolutely could not have cared less. Also called “depraved heart” murder. The doctrine comes from an old English case where a man threw a heavy burning oil lantern at his wife during an argument; nobody thought that he wanted to kill her, but the act was so dangerous, the court believed that he didn’t care whether he killed or not.

  3. Voluntary manslaughter: As Polycarp noted, there are two flavors:

    4a. A killing that would be murder except for that it is partially excused or justified by circumstances. I mentioned the classic example of of a crime of passion where a person stumbles in on his spouse and her lover in flagrante delicto and, overwhelmed with shock, kills them without thinking. In recent decades the battered woman killing her tormentor has also become a common example. (Although in some cases the battered spouse gets off completely.) The first example is probably one of a killing that is partly excused, the second one that is partly justified, but the excuse/justified distinction doesn’t have any practical effect – either way, we’re talking voluntary manslaughter, not murder.

    4b. Intent to do harm: The killer intends to harm but not to kill. I’d guess that in most jurisdictions the killer’s actions would have to be reckless or at least dangerous (though not so reckless as in depraved heart murder) – hitting or going for the groin rather than merely pinching an earlobe.

  4. Involuntary manslaughter: A killing which results from reckless behavior on the part of the killer, but for which there was neither intent to kill, knowledge that the action was likely to kill, or even the gross indifference of a depraved heart. The line between involuntary manslaughter and involuntary murder (aka depraved heart murder) is a rather fuzzy one.

  5. Negligent homicide: A death which results from the killer’s being somewhat less careful than he should have been, but not recklessly so. There was not only no intent to kill, but not even any real desire to harm – just poor judgment. This is a more recently-developed category than the rest and so will be especially variable across jurisdictions. Where you see it most frequently is in car accidents. (Although those can fall under most of the other categories too, depending on circumstances and the jurisdiction.)

As noted, each jurisdiction has the right to make up its own rules within certain broad limits, and so I dout there’s any jurisdiction which has this entire list in exactly this manner, but this is the basic framework.