Manslaughter is a tricky charge to define. It involves taking another person’s life, but it also assumes that the killing was an accident. This is different from a murder charge in that the former is intentional, and the latter is not. The offender wanted the victim to die. Manslaughter accusations get confusing when they are further defined as “voluntary” and “involuntary.” If killing someone was “involuntary,” or accidental, why are people arrested for their mistake? What, exactly, is involuntary manslaughter?
Defining Involuntary Manslaughter
Just because a person was involved in someone else’s death, it doesn’t mean that person is guilty of manslaughter. If someone dies in the boxing ring or on the football field, they are not likely to be considered victims of manslaughter. One of the key elements in those two examples is the deceased person’s participation. They knew the risks involved when they entered the sport, and they unfortunately lost their life. Any dangerous act between consenting adults could result in someone’s death. Legally, however, this is not manslaughter. “Accidentally” taking someone’s life is not necessarily a crime.
Involuntary manslaughter, in a legal sense, involves engaging in an activity you shouldn’t have. An often-cited example of this is killing someone in a DUI. Most people know that drunk driving is illegal, and many are aware that the law is harsh on DUI offenses. Thus, the assumption is that the driver should have been alert and sober; if they weren’t, they can be criminally charged for someone’s death.
Involuntary manslaughter isn’t always as obvious as a DUI-related death. It can be any grossly negligent behavior that results in someone’s death. Firing a gun into the darkness and hitting someone can be manslaughter. Street racing, losing control of the car, and hitting a pedestrian could be manslaughter. The resulting deaths were indeed accidents, but that person would still be alive if not for the reckless behavior of their killer. Also, it’s important to remember that the deceased was not involved in the incident. They didn’t choose to be shot at in the dark, and they weren’t a willing spectator in the street race.
Gross negligence and an unwilling participant, these are the components of an involuntary manslaughter case.
Penalties for Involuntary Manslaughter
In the state of Virginia, manslaughter charges are treated as a special case. While technically classified as a misdemeanor, it is sentenced as a felony. The convicted can be sent to prison, not jail. Sentences can last as long as five years.
If a caretaker unintentionally kills a child under 12, involuntary manslaughter is charged as an “unclassified felony.” Unclassified felonies have a unique category, as they don’t meet certain standards that would make them Class 1, Class 2, etc. This specific manslaughter charge can be penalized by up to 10 years in prison.
People charged with manslaughter are also open to a wrongful death lawsuit. Wrongful death is a kind of personal injury lawsuit, which is a civil case. Unlike criminal court, civil court involves a transaction of money. One person is suing another for damages. If the defendant loses, they aren’t sentenced to jail or fines; they are sentenced to paying a sum of money to the plaintiff.
Wrongful death suits are filed on behalf of the deceased, either by the executor of the will or by someone named in the deceased’s estate. Plaintiffs are asking to be compensated for their pain and suffering or for income they lost because of the other person’s death. When a criminal court finds someone “not guilty” of manslaughter, that person can still be sued in a wrongful death case.
Involuntary Manslaughter Defenses
Always remember that, in our system, people are innocent until proven guilty. No matter what the circumstances, defendants deserve their day in court. They have the right to fight for their freedom. With the help of lawyers, the accused have many potential ways to defend themselves against an involuntary manslaughter charge.
The Behavior Was Not Negligent
Sometimes no one is to blame for another’s death. Unfortunate accidents happen that could not be foreseen. Imagine a worker using a large, spinning saw on the job. Suddenly, the blade dislodges and, flying from its own momentum, hits another worker and kills them.
The police may claim that an involuntary manslaughter occurred, but this will be hard to prove in court. If the worker was following all normal safety regulations, it’s difficult to show that the coworker’s death was the result of gross negligence.
The Killing Was in Self-Defense
A self-defense argument is highly dependent on the situation. Arguing that you were protecting yourself from someone who was charging at you may not work. However, if you weigh 90 lbs., and a 300-lb. body builder rushed you, a self-defense plea holds more validity. When both individuals are proportionate to one another, it’s hard to show that you had no choice but to kill the attacker. If the attacker had a gun, however, that tilts the attack’s outcome and its level of danger. A situation like that is much easier to argue as self-defense.
A good self-defense argument would likely involve a lack of intent. For example, someone may be holding a knife, swinging it, and telling their attacker to go away. They were a fair distance from the assailant, and they were just trying to scare the assailant off. Suddenly, their sweaty hands cause them to lose their grip on the knife, and it flies toward the attacker, killing them. In this scenario, you can show that you never intended to make contact with the assailant and were simply acting in self-defense.
There Isn’t Enough Evidence
Like any other case, the police need reason to believe that the accused is the correct suspect. All evidence is subject to scrutiny. Let’s say you’re charged with hitting a pedestrian while speeding. How are the police sure that you were speeding? What if it was night, and the pedestrian was jaywalking and wearing dark clothing? The prosecution’s job is to demonstrate your guilt. If their evidence is weak, it can be challenged in court.
Using a lack of evidence defense, a lawyer can also argue that the defendant was wrongfully accused. Perhaps someone was killed due to another’s negligent driving, but the police simply arrested the wrong person. Security footage can be grainy or at odd angles. Eyewitness testimonies are often easy to debunk. If two vehicles matching the same description were on the same road, do the police know that yours was the one involved in an accident?
The words “voluntary manslaughter” are a little misleading. The phrase sounds like someone meant to commit manslaughter. In reality, it means that the person’s harmful actions were voluntary, but the resulting death wasn’t. Voluntary manslaughter usually refers to an assault. For example, two people are in a fight, and one of them goes too far. He begins beating the other while they’re already down, and keeps the assault going. Eventually, the other person dies. Although the attacker did not intend to kill the other person, he did intend to inflict damage. That intent is what separates involuntary and voluntary manslaughter.
If you’ve been accused of manslaughter, call me, Andrew J. Cornick, Attorney at Law, today at (540) 827-4446. You can also contact me online. I am here to listen, and I want to defend Virginia residents in court.