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Manslaughter: voluntary vs. involuntary

A previous blog post discussed Pennsylvania's criminal homicide laws. Criminal homicide encompasses the crimes of first degree murder, second degree murder, third degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Each degree of murder is distinguished by the defendant's intent and the circumstances of the case.

The two types of manslaughter -- voluntary and involuntary -- are also distinguished by the defendant's state of mind. Unlike murder, manslaughter does not require malice aforethought. Manslaughter charges are also generally considered lesser than murder charges and therefore, carry lesser penalties.

Voluntary manslaughter is defined as a homicide that took place in the "heat of passion" or under an "unreasonable belief." To establish heat of passion, a defendant must have committed the homicide in the heat of passion, while his or her judgment and intentions were affected by circumstances that would provoke such an extreme emotional reaction in any reasonable person. There must not have been adequate time for the defendant to calm down or the defendant may be charged with murder, which requires premeditation.

To establish unreasonable belief, the defendant must have mistakenly believed that he or she needed to use deadly force against the victim to protect himself or herself. For his or her actions to constitute voluntary manslaughter based on unreasonable belief, a defendant must not have created or escalated the situation.

Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing, characterized by reckless or grossly negligent conduct that does not comport with the established standard of care with which a reasonable person would comply. The defendant's actions while engaging in a lawful or unlawful activity also must have caused the victim's death. The penalties for a voluntary or involuntary manslaughter conviction vary and will be discussed in a future post.

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