California Voluntary Manslaughter Laws

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Definition of Voluntary Manslaughter

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Voluntary manslaughter is a killing that a defendant commits upon a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. In California, manslaughter can be charged as a felony or as a misdemeanor.  In the case of voluntary manslaughter accused individuals will face felony charges.

Example: 

John comes home and finds his wife in bed with his friend.  Acting upon his heat of passion, John runs to the kitchen, grabs a knife, comes back to the bedroom and stabs his wife to death.  Although this looks a lot like murder, under California law, this would likely be manslaughter.

How Does The Prosecutor Prove Voluntary Manslaughter?

There are two ways a prosecutor can prove voluntary manslaughter: (1) you either intended to kill; or (2) you acted with conscious disregard for human life.1

  • The defendant committed an act that caused the death of another person; AND
  • When the defendant acted, he/she unlawfully intended to kill someone; AND
  • He/she killed without lawful excuse or justification.

OR

  • The defendant intentionally committed an act that caused the death of another person;
  • The natural consequences of the act were dangerous to human life;
  • At the time he/she acted, he/she knew the act was dangerous to human life; AND
  • He/she deliberately acted with conscious disregard for human life.

Proving Sudden Impulse or Heat of Passion

Under both (1) intent to kill and (2) conscious disregard state of mind, a defendant kills with a mental state called “malice aforethought,” the mental state that is required for a murder conviction.  However, a defendant who kills under a sudden impulse or heat of passion is considered to have acted without such a mental state due to the fact that he/she was sufficiently provoked.  As such he/she will not be guilty of murder.

A killing that would otherwise be murder is reduced to voluntary manslaughter if the defendant killed someone because of a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion.  The defendant killed someone because of a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion if2:

  • The defendant was provoked3
  • As a result of the provocation, the defendant acted rashly and under the influence of intense emotion that obscured his/her reasoning or judgment; AND
  • The provocation would have caused a person of average disposition to act rashly and without due deliberation, that is, from passion rather than from judgment.

Examples of sufficient provocation:

  • A mob of young men trespassed onto defendant’s yard and attacked defendant’s car with weapons;
  • Murder of a family member;
  • A sudden and violent quarrel;
  • Verbal taunts by an unfaithful wife;
  • Infidelity of a lover.

Examples of insufficient provocation as a matter of law:

  • Evidence of name calling
  • Smirking or staring and looking stone-faced
  • Insulting words or gestures
  • Refusing to have sex in exchange for drugs
  • A victim’s resistance against a rape attempt
  • The desire for revenge
  • A long history of criticism, reproach and ridicule where the defendant had not seen the victims for over two weeks prior to the killings
  • Mere vandalism of an automobile

Who Can Be Charged With Voluntary Manslaughter?

Under Penal Code section 192(b), anyone who commits an unlawful killing of a human being without malice, upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion can be charged with voluntary manslaughter.

Example: 

Jeff wanted to watch his football game.  He went to a sports bar and sat down next to another man Kirk, who was a tennis fanatic.  As Jeff’s game was about to start, Kirk asked the bar tender to change the channel to the tennis channel.  Jeff politely asked Kirk to switch the channel to the football game but was completely ignored.  When Jeff tapped Kirk on the shoulder to get his attention, Kirk grabbed his heavy beer mug that was full of beer and threw it at Jeff’s face, hitting him right between the eyes.  Jeff became so outraged that he grabbed a beer bottle, broke it against the bar and stabbed Kirk in the neck, killing him.  Under California law, Jeff will likely have committed voluntary manslaughter because although he intended to kill Kirk, he did so while in the heat of passion.

How Can You Fight Voluntary Manslaughter?

There are several defenses that your attorney can assert on your behalf to fight a charge of voluntary manslaughter.  Here are the most common ones:

  • Self-Defense: To succeed on this defense, a defendant must show that the killing resulted from a reasonable use of force to resist a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm.  The degree of force used in self-defense must be proportional to the threat perceived, and the threat perceived must be something that would place a reasonable person in fear of death or great bodily harm.  Mere words or insults do not suffice.

Example: 

Jane was standing in line at a liquor store while she noticed that two of the customers went to the back of the store and one of them took out a gun while the other one spray-painted the video camera.  The customer with a gun came up to her and told her that if she does not get on her knees with her head to the floor that he would shoot her.  As Jane was about to get on the floor, she grabbed a bottle of beer from the counter and delivered a hard blow to his head, causing him to lose conscience.  If the customer suffered a fatal injury, Jane would not be guilty of voluntary manslaughter because she reasonably feared for her life and was justified in using deadly force to prevent the customer from killing her or from inflicting great bodily harm onto her.

  • Defense of Others:  The same requirements as for self-defense apply.  The use of force must be timely and proportional to the threat faced, and the perceived threat of death or bodily harm must be reasonable.
  • Imperfect Self-Defense: A killing that would otherwise be murder is reduced to voluntary manslaughter if the defendant killed a person because he/she acted in imperfect self-defense or imperfect defense of another.  The difference between complete self-defense or defense of another and imperfect self-defense or imperfect defense of another depends on whether the defendant’s belief in the need to use deadly force was reasonable. 4

The defendant acted in imperfect self-defense or imperfect defense of another if:

  • The defendant actually believed that he/she or someone else was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury; AND
  • The defendant actually believed that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend against the danger; BUT
  • At least one of those beliefs was unreasonable.

Example:

Sam rode the public bus every night from work.  One night, another patron sat next to him and kept fidgeting.  He then put one hand in his pocket and Sam right away assumed that the patron had a gun in his pocket even though there was no indication that the patron was violent or that he wanted to hurt Sam.  As the patron started pulling his hand out of the pocket, Sam, genuinely but unreasonably believing that his life is in danger, pushed the patron to the floor of the bus while it was moving.  The patron lost balance and hit his head on the adjacent seat and suffered a fatal injury.  On these facts, it was unreasonable for Sam to believe that potentially deadly force was necessary to prevent danger of injury to him.  As a result, this type of imperfect self-defense would not excuse voluntary manslaughter. 

  • Accidental Killing: An accidental killing committed during lawful events does not meet the requirements of a murder.  However, if an accidental killing occurs during the commission of a crime, it could be considered murder.
  • The Insanity Defense: A defendant can plead not guilty by reason of insanity.  To succeed on this defense under California law, the defendant has to meet the Mc’Naughten test of insanity.  Specifically, he/she has to show that as a result of a mental disorder, he/she either did not know the wrongfulness of his/her act OR could not understand the nature and quality of his/her acts (i.e. did not understand right from wrong).

Example:

Harry’s brother and roommate, Jeff suffered from the bipolar disorder and refused to take his medication.  One of the symptoms of his disorder was severe paranoia that everyone is out to kill him.  He also sometimes experienced hallucinations and his condition was getting worst.  One day, Jeff came home and saw a note pad with a pen sitting on his desk.  Because of his severe paranoia, he hallucinated that the pen was a dagger, and imagined that the note pad contained a note for him from Harry that read: “I am going to kill you tonight.  Harry.”  In reality, nothing was written in the note pad.  That night, Jeff went into his brothers’ bedroom in the middle of the night and stabbed him to death with a kitchen knife.  Jeff could plead not guilty by reason of insanity and would likely be found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity on these facts.

  • Mistaken identity: A defendant can use this defense if he believes that the prosecution has charged the wrong person with the murder.  A defendant who uses this defense usually asserts an alibi with supporting evidence to prove that he/she was somewhere else at the time of the murder.

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Penalties & Punishment For Voluntary Manslaughter?

  • A defendant can face 3, 6 or 11-year sentence and could potentially face the following additional penalties and/or sentencing:
  • Three Strikes Offense: A defendant may receive a strike for a Voluntary Manslaughter charge.  A “strike” offense under California’s Three Strikes laws can be used to significantly enhance the penalties for any future convictions.  For example, if you have been convicted of your “third strike offense,” you may be convicted to 25 years to life in California state prison;
  • A maximum fee of $10,000;
  • Loss of the right to possess a firearm.

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Choosing An Attorney

We have significant experience defending clients charged under california penal code 192.(a) pc and in consultation with our clients we come up with the most effective defense strategy for your case. The specialists at the Aizman Law Firm will aggressively defend each of our clients.  If you meet the criteria and the District Attorney’s office indicts you it is imperative that you have an attorney fighting for you.  Contact the Aizman Law Firm for a free consultation (818) 351-9555.

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Footnotes

  1. Elements. Penal Code 192(a); CALCRIM No. 572. []
  2. “Heat of passion” does not require anger, rage, or any specific emotion.  It can be any violent or intense emotion that causes a person to act without due deliberation and reflection.  In order for heat of passion to reduce a murder to voluntary manslaughter, the defendant must have acted under the direct and immediate influence of provocation as defined below.  While no specific type of provocation is required, slight or remote provocation is not sufficient.  Sufficient provocation may occur over a short or long period of time.  Heat of Passion Defined.  People v. Breverman (1998) 19 Cal.4th 142, 163 [77 Cal.Rptr.2d 870, 960 P.2d 1094]; People v. Valentine (1946) 28 Cal.2d 121, 139 [169 P.2d 1]; People v. Lee (1999) 20 Cal.4th 47, 59 [82 Cal.Rptr.2d 625, 971 P.2d 1001] []
  3. It is not enough that the defendant simply was provoked. The defendant is not allowed to set up his/her own standard of conduct.  The jury must decide whether the defendant was provoked and whether the provocation was sufficient. In deciding whether the provocation was sufficient, consider whether a person of average disposition, in the same situation and knowing the same facts, would have reacted from passion rather than from judgment.  If enough time passed between the provocation and the killing for a person of average disposition to “cool off” and regain his or her clear reasoning and judgment, then the killing is not reduced to voluntary manslaughter on this basis. []
  4. CALCRIM No. 571. []

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