Manslaughter Laws Explained: What is the difference between first, second, and third degree manslaughter?

You are guilty of manslaughter in the first degree if you intentionally cause the death of another “in the heat of passion” provoked by the action or words. Manslaughter in the second degree occurs when you create an unreasonable risk, and consciously take chances of causing death or great bodily injury to another. ‘Third-degree manslaughter/involuntary manslaughter’ occurs when you kill a person without premeditation. Each has varying degrees of seriousness and depending on the quality of counsel the grey areas between each degree can become more pronounced.

Essentially it all boils down to proving intent, but what does that mean? Find out below.

Quick Take: What is manslaughter?

What is manslaughter?

State law defines manslaughter, meaning an action that constitutes murder in some states could be manslaughter in another. For instance, in some states, if you leave the scene of an accident involving death, you could be guilty of vehicular manslaughter, while in others, the charges could be ‘vehicular homicide’.

That tells you that the line between murder and manslaughter is not clear. Beyond that, each state can also refer to manslaughter by different names, it is much more common to refer to it as voluntary, involuntary, and vehicular manslaughter.

That said.

Legally, manslaughter refers to the act of killing a human being without malice. For example, Nebraska revised statute section 28-305 defines manslaughter as quote:

“A person commits manslaughter if he or she kills another without malice upon a sudden quarrel or causes the death of another unintentionally while in the commission of an unlawful act.”

Whereas, in New York, you are guilty of manslaughter in the first degree if you quote:

With intent to cause the death of another person, he causes the death of such person or a third person under circumstances which do not constitute murder because he acts under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (a) of subdivision one of section 125.25.”

In short, you are guilty of manslaughter if:

  • The killing does not involve malice or aforethought.
  • In states like Ohio, you are guilty of manslaughter if you cause unlawful termination of pregnancy while committing a misdemeanor.

Other actions that may lead to manslaughter charges include:

  • Committing a hit and run while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Reckless driving.
  • Accidentally discharging a firearm.
  • Putting workers or others in harm’s way.

In other words, if the killing was unintentional and there was no planning or malice, the accused is guilty of manslaughter. Note that what happened before and after the crime may also impact the charges. For example, if you hit and kill someone with a vehicle then take steps to hide the body or evade the law, the charges may escalate into murder charges.

Murder charges carry significantly higher penalties compared with manslaughter. Also, in some states, manslaughter is a misdemeanor and in others, a felony.

see the difference between first-, second-and third-degree murder here.

What are the three types of manslaughter?

In almost all states, only two categories of manslaughter exist. That is first-degree manslaughter/voluntary manslaughter that requires there to be “heat of passion,” and involuntary manslaughter -which refers to homicides that result from reckless conduct or criminal negligence (sometimes referred to as second or third-degree manslaughter).

Some states categorize vehicular manslaughter as a separate offense.

In states where third-degree manslaughter exists, you are guilty if you cause the death of another with no initial intent, previous intent, or aforethought of hiding the crime.

What is voluntary manslaughter/manslaughter in the first degree?

As the name suggests, voluntary manslaughter occurs when a provoked individual kills in the heat of passion under circumstances in which a reasonable person may act similarly. In criminal law, “heat of passion” refers to an intense state of mind induced by a provocation that may cause a reasonable person to act without reflection or on impulse.

That raises the question:

What is an adequate provocation?

The time between provocation and the act of killing determines if the crime is manslaughter or murder. For example, if you find your partner with another, and in the heat of the moment you kill someone, you may face manslaughter charges. On the other hand, if you wait a few hours or days, then kill your partner’s lover, you are guilty of murder. The reason for that is that you had enough time to think about and plan the murder.

What to remember:

  • In some states, words alone do not constitute adequate provocation.
  • If a death occurs during mutual combat, it may constitute adequate provocation.
  • The accused must exhibit fright, shock, or rage at the time of the crime.
  • If significant time passes between the provocation and killing, the accused is guilty of murder.

What is involuntary manslaughter/negligent homicide?

In general, there are two categories of involuntary manslaughter: (1) negligent manslaughter. (2) unlawful act manslaughter/misdemeanor. Unlawful act manslaughter requires to the prosecution to prove that the accused committed an unlawful act resulting in the death of another. For example, if you attempt to commit a misdemeanor and someone dies because of your action, you may face misdemeanor manslaughter charges depending on state law.

In short, if you commit an unlawful act that does not amount to a felony and someone dies because of it, you could be guilty of a misdemeanor.

Federal manslaughter charges

Title 18 U.S.C 1112 (Federal law) defines involuntary manslaughter as, quote:

“In the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or in the commission in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection, of a lawful act which might produce death.”

Involuntary manslaughter on the federal level is punishable by up to twenty years in prison.

What is negligent manslaughter?

Negligent manslaughter, as the name suggests, occurs when someone dies because of a negligent act committed by another.

 The difference between negligent manslaughter and unlawful manslaughter is voluntary manslaughter requires provocation from the victim, the killing must occur in the heat of the moment, and the time between the provocation and killing must be short. Unlawful manslaughter, on the other hand, occurs during the commission of a crime.

What to remember:

  • Negligent or reckless involuntary manslaughter charges must be supported by criminal intent such as recklessness or negligence. That means you are aware of the risk. For example, driving while under the influence may lead to negligent manslaughter charges.
  • The crimes that trigger unlawful act manslaughter charges depend on state law.
  • To prove negligence, you must demonstrate to the court that the accused owed you a duty of care, that individual negligently breached that duty of care, and the breach was the cause of injury, death, or property damage.

What is vehicular manslaughter?

Vehicular manslaughter occurs when a driver causes the death of another because of a negligent act. Some scenarios where you may face vehicular manslaughter charges include:

Note: the crimes above may also lead to murder charges. Also, in states including Nevada, any death or injury that results from drunk driving constitutes a class B felony.

In California, vehicular manslaughter is a “wobbler.” That means it may either be a felony or misdemeanor.

What are the consequences of manslaughter?

Although less severe than murder charges, manslaughter charges may result in a lengthy prison sentence. For misdemeanor offenses, you are facing up to one year in jail. On the other, felony manslaughter may lead to an average of twenty years. If you used a gun or other dangerous weapon, you may face up to forty years in prison in some states.

What is the penalty for manslaughter?

  • Up to one year in prison for misdemeanor offenses.
  • If a vehicle was involved, the state may revoke or suspend your license.
  • The victim may take civil action, the court may impose punitive damages, and you may also face a hefty fine.

For example, under Colorado criminal code section 18-3-104, manslaughter is a class 4 felony punishable by up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of $500000.

Are there defenses for manslaughter?

Depending on the charges, your lawyer may argue in your defense that:

  • You did not commit the crime. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty. Consequently, your lawyer’s job is to create doubt.
  • Self-defense. You acted to defend yourself, others, or property (depends on state law).
  • The killing was accidental.
  • Insanity. You were not aware of your actions/you cannot distinguish right from wrong.

Note that intoxication is not an affirmative defense. However, if you are facing murder charges, intoxication may cause prosecutors to pursue lesser charges.

What is the difference between first, second, and third degree murder?
Difference between murder, homicide, and manslaughter.