Generally, individuals can only be penalized for actions they seemingly intended to commit. However, under certain serious situations, they can be held liable even if there was no intent to cause the event or the intent was to produce a different result.
What Is Manslaughter?
Manslaughter is considered a crime in all of the United States, though definitions and terminology can vary slightly across jurisdictions.
Generally speaking, manslaughter is the act of provoking the death of another person without the deliberate intention to do so.
A person could intend to cause serious harm or be triggered by a “sudden heat of passion” (through provocation). Yet, that action may still be cataloged as manslaughter instead of intentional homicide.
This particular crime receives the name “voluntary manslaughter.”
Some examples of voluntary manslaughter include killing after observing an act of sexual marital infidelity or witnessing the victim inflicting harm on a loved one. Mere words are rarely considered “adequate provocation” for the purposes of defining manslaughter under common law.
The distinction between voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder rests not on the results or the intent but on the circumstances surrounding the occurrence.
Killing a person in a bar fight could result in a second-degree murder charge since the perpetrator may be wholly aware of the potentially deadly results of the encounter, even if they weren’t consciously seeking those results.
Second Degree Manslaughter
Paraphrasing the provisions contained in the United States Code, second-degree manslaughter (also called “involuntary manslaughter”) is the act of killing a person without the intention to induce death or cause harm but through negligence or recklessness.
In most states, this criminal conduct is labeled “involuntary manslaughter,” while New York State calls it “manslaughter in the second degree.”
For example, a drunk driver who kills a pedestrian due to reckless driving could be indicted for second-degree manslaughter because the driver doesn’t necessarily intend to kill that person.
Defense lawyers usually attempt to have their clients’ charges dropped from 2nd-degree murder to second-degree manslaughter to reduce their prison or incarceration period.
Penalties for Second Degree (Involuntary) Manslaughter
The penalty for second-degree manslaughter is always prison or incarceration time, often coupled with a fine. Each state defines the jail time range and the fine amount, provided that the crime is not punishable under federal law.
The severity of the penalty can vary depending on various factors. These factors are either mitigating or aggravating and will primarily focus on the offender’s character and the circumstances of the crime.
Another crucial element that could call for a more grievous punishment is the number of counts of involuntary manslaughter the defendant faces or whether other criminal charges are involved alongside involuntary manslaughter.
What’s more, the degree of culpability plays a vital role. We’ll elaborate on this in the following section.
Negligence vs. Recklessness
Even though they may be used interchangeably, recklessness and criminal negligence are different terms describing distinct concepts.
Recklessness is a behavior in which a person unreasonably pursues an action and consciously overlooks the risks that stem from it.
A reckless act is less culpable than one done in malice but is far more condemnable than one performed out of negligence or carelessness. Typically, recklessness is paired with illicit behavior.
On the flip side, negligence is a mere failure on the offender’s part to fulfill a duty towards another person in the same manner, a reasonable person would, resulting in harm (in this case, death).
In this context, other terms associated with negligence are carelessness, lack of attention, or incompetence.
A driver distracted behind the wheel while checking text messages would be an example of a negligent driver. Conversely, a person who indulges in street racing would be acting recklessly.
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors
As outlined earlier, the intensity of the penalty will hinge upon several factors, which is why sentencing varies heavily among wrongdoers.
Aggravating factors produce the opposite effect of their mitigating counterparts. Namely, they increase the graveness of the crime and, hence, the penalty.
These are some examples of aggravating factors:
- Reckless behavior that led to the crime
- An extensive history of recklessness and/or criminal activity
- The victim was a minor, elderly, or disabled person
- The victim was a law enforcement agent or a member of the armed forces
- The victim held public office
Mitigating factors, as the name suggests, are those that could serve to justify, to a greater or lesser degree, the behavior or to show the excellent character of the defendant.
These factors may not be enough to acquit them of the charges but may lessen their culpability and, therefore, the penalty.
Some examples of mitigating factors include:
- Little or no criminal history
- Mental or physical illness that could have a direct connection to the fatal event
- The ability and willingness to reform (e.g., undergo a detox program to deal with alcohol dependence)
- The total acceptance of criminal responsibility and display of genuine remorse
- The defendant is in good standing with the community and has done demonstrable good deeds.
Killing a person in a vehicle accident (vehicular manslaughter) is deemed involuntary or second-degree manslaughter in some states.
In some jurisdictions, a person is guilty of vehicular manslaughter when the event occurred due to reckless driving or a felony committed in violation of traffic safety regulations.
In instances where a presumed offender was driving under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicating substances, it’s not necessary to demonstrate that the intoxication was due to the use of illegal substances but only that the person was intoxicated and drove while in that state.
Each state determines the acceptable blood alcohol levels and the minimum license suspension.
In Texas, there is a specific penalty for intoxication manslaughter, which is distinguishable from other types of vehicular manslaughter.