Manslaughter is always a tragedy. On one hand, someone has lost their life, and on the other, someone may be falsely accused of causing that death.
If you’ve been charged with manslaughter, you need a dedicated, skilled attorney to help. This is a serious accusation, and if you are found guilty, you could face felony charges. This may result in penalties that haunt you for life. In this article, we will discuss the legal specifics of manslaughter in Virginia, and we will give you reasonable defenses you can discuss with your lawyer.
Many consider manslaughter the act of killing someone by accident. This is partially true. Manslaughter involves an egregious act that results in someone’s death. The death itself may have been unintentional, but the act that caused the death was not.
The nature of the wrongful act defines how someone is charged. There are two categories of manslaughter: involuntary and voluntary.
Involuntary manslaughter happens when someone is involved in grossly negligent behavior. This behavior, then, kills someone. Imagine teens dropping heavy objects down onto cars from a bridge, and a driver is killed. Killing may not be the intention, but the act of dropping the objects is illegal and dangerous. Because the initial behavior is something the teens shouldn’t be doing, they could be charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Voluntary manslaughter involves the intent to harm. Imagine the same scenario as above: teens dropping heavy objects off a bridge. Only this time, assume they are targeting someone. Perhaps they see a schoolmate who they regularly bully. They pick up rocks and throw them at him. One rock hits him in just the right spot, killing him. The offenders had no intention of committing murder, but they did intend to hurt the other kid. In this case, they could be charged with voluntary manslaughter.
Virginia’s Manslaughter Penalties
Virginia tries both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter the same. Each is considered a Class 5 felony. A guilty verdict could result in 1 to 10 years in prison and fines up to $2,500.
If the court believes the behavior was particularly egregious, the accused could face aggravated manslaughter charges. Convictions carry a 1-year minimum prison sentence, and the stretch could last as long as 20 years.
If the deceased was under the age of 12, and their caretaker is accused, the crime becomes an “unclassified felony.” If convicted, the alleged killer could face up to ten years of prison time.
Common Defenses for Involuntary and Voluntary Manslaughter
If you are accused of either crime, the main difference between them is how they are argued in court. For involuntary manslaughter, the prosecution attempts to show how your behavior was grossly negligent. In a voluntary manslaughter charge, they attempt to prove that you willfully, intentionally caused harm.
These specific accusations, therefore, call for specific defenses. Here are some defense strategies you can discuss with your attorney.
Your Behavior Cannot Be Called Grossly Negligent
Unfortunately, fatal accidents happen. Picture a man driving down the street, having a completely normal day. Suddenly, his brakes stop working. He cannot decelerate, and he loses control of the car. Avoiding traffic, he hops a curb, hitting and killing a pedestrian. Onlookers, unaware of the full story, tell police that the man was driving recklessly, and he is charged with manslaughter.
When uncontrollable tragedies occur, a person should not be blamed, losing their freedom in the process. Help your lawyer understand the full story, and they may be able to use it for your defense.
You Acted in Self-Defense
Virginia allows people to defend themselves, using violence if necessary. The defensive act, however, must be proportionate to the attack. Therefore, if someone attempts to punch you, you cannot repeatedly hit them with a baseball bat.
Even appropriate self-defense can end in tragedy. Imagine someone charging at you, and you attempt to push them back. During the push, they lose their footing, fall directly to the ground, hit their head on the hard floor, and die. In this case, you should not be accused of using disproportionate violence, and you certainly shouldn’t be imprisoned for manslaughter. If a simple defensive act ended poorly, your lawyer can help the court understand the full story.
The Evidence Is Insufficient
In any criminal charge, it’s important to closely examine the evidence against you. If the deceased was killed by a car, are the police certain it was your car and that you were the driver? If someone was killed because a person was firing random shots in the dark, are the authorities certain the bullet came from your gun with your finger on the trigger? By simply diving into the minute details of the accusation, your attorney may be able to create doubt in the prosecution’s case.
Self-Defense, With a Different Approach
Above, we discussed a self-defense plea for involuntary manslaughter accusations. You can use this argument against voluntary manslaughter as well, but you may need to take a different approach.
Voluntary manslaughter suggests that you intended to cause harm. If your act of self-defense appears particularly violent, the police may simply assume that you lost control, committing a willfully harmful act.
You and your attorney must show that your self-defense response was in proportion to the attack. It may be necessary to invoke Virginia’s stand-your-ground laws. The state does not require that you retreat from an attack. If your attacker is particularly violent and refuses to cease their onslaught, your response may require equal intensity. The after-effects of this battle may look like you mercilessly beat someone to death, but that assumption does not add up with the facts. If you were under a serious threat, you and your attorney can explain that your response was equal to the threat against you.
Insanity/Mental Health Defense
When someone is in the midst of an intense, severe mental health breakdown, they are not always in control of their actions. If you have such a crisis, and someone is killed, you may be able to use the “insanity plea” in your defense.
Be aware, however, that this plea does not grant someone complete freedom. It acknowledges that the crime occurred, and the state will be involved in your recovery. If the court finds that you had no mental control, it will send you to a mental hospital. While not necessarily considered a “punishment,” this ruling still involves your going to a secure facility where you will be closely monitored.
You should use the insanity defense only when it is genuine. Proving your mental state will involve personal mental health diagnoses that become a matter of public record. Then you must spend time in the mental health facility, being constantly treated and monitored. Plead insanity only when you truly need help, not when you’re trying to avoid conviction.
If you’ve been charged with manslaughter, our attorney may be able to help. For a free consultation, fill out our online contact form, or call our office at (540) 827-4446.