In North Carolina, some killings are prosecuted as murder while others are charged as voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. What do those charges mean and how do they work? These are questions that this article will seek to explain.
Voluntary Manslaughter is a Class D felony, which means that even a first-time offender will receive an active prison sentence if convicted. Voluntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice and without premeditation and deliberation. State v. Norris, 303 N.C. 526, 529 (1981). To prove voluntary manslaughter, the state must prove that 1) the defendant killed the victim by committing an intentional or unlawful act that is a felony or that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm; and 2) the defendant’s act was the proximate cause of the victim’s death. State v. Coleman, 254 N.C. App. 497, 501 (2017).
When voluntary manslaughter occurs, it means that the killing is unlawful, which is not justified by self defense or other means. It is also without malice (which is necessary for second degree murder) or premeditation and deliberation. (which is necessary for first degree murder) The types of killings that satisfy this criteria are usually two specific types: first, killing a person in sudden anger or “the heat of passion,” and second, a killing for which the person charged has an imperfect right to self-defense. State v. Hairston, 269 N.C. App. 52, 57 (2019).
Heat of Passion
Killings that occur in “the heat of passion” involve situations in which a reasonable person would not have the ability to “cool down” or process the situation rationally before acting violently. The classic voluntary manslaughter case would involve killing a spouse immediately upon discovering them in the middle of cheating with another partner. Or being called aggressive racial slurs and provoked to violence by the deceased. The law does not make excuses for these kinds of killings but understands that because of the high level of emotions involved, the person who commits these intentional killings did so under stress that negates proof of murder.
Imperfect Self Defense
When someone claims to have killed in self-defense they might have some good arguments, but the state can still prove that the killing was not justified beyond a reasonable doubt. When that happens, the jury can consider whether imperfect self-defense exists. Imperfect self-defense is often a partial justification to the crime. Examples include stabbing someone during a fist fight that they started or lethally shooting a person while intending not to kill them. Self-defense has many elements not covered in this article, and sometimes some of those issues may be met while others cannot be proven. A person in this situation still might avoid a murder conviction and would likely settle for voluntary manslaughter instead.
Involuntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of another person without malice, without premeditation and deliberation, and without the intent to kill or to inflict serious bodily injury. State v. Powell, 336 N.C. 762, 767 (1994). That means that the death is unintentional because it was caused by either an unlawful act that is not a felony or not naturally dangerous or that it was caused by a negligent act or a failure to act. If the person charged had no intent to kill or inflict serious injury when they acted, that would constitute involuntary manslaughter. This is a Class F felony for which the person convicted can receive probation.
Examples of this kind of behavior include accidentally stabbing someone during a struggle, trying to keep someone at bay with a knife and killing them, assisting someone with consuming alcohol underage before a fatal crash, permitting dogs to roam free in violation of the law that later kill someone, leaving a person in an isolated area without transportation or assistance. This type of offense is commonly charged in brawls where a person who is punched falls and dies due to head trauma. Additionally it is frequently charged as a lesser offense in drunk driving cases where someone dies in the resulting accident, although more serious offenses also cover that conduct including second-degree murder.
Lesser Included Offenses
Both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter are lesser included offenses of murder. That means that during a murder trial, a lawyer can ask the jury to convict of manslaughter rather than murder. This can be a very helpful tactic for someone facing decades or even life in prison.
Both types of manslaughter involve the death of another person due to an intentional act, but voluntary is an act where a felony or action of great bodily harm occurs and involuntary manslaughter is an act where someone is negligent or does not commit an action that is naturally dangerous to others.
Charged with Manslaughter or Murder?
Are you or someone you know and love charged with the death of another person? Serious charges like those require an attorney that can work for you and is not afraid to fight hard no matter what the odds. Here at Jetton and Meredith, we have lawyers who have successfully fought manslaughter and murder charges before. Call us at (704) 931-5535 for help with your manslaughter case today!