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Voluntary manslaughter

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Voluntary manslaughter is the killing of a human being in which the offender acted during the heat of passion, under circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed to the point that they cannot reasonably control their emotions. Voluntary manslaughter is one of two main types of manslaughter, the other being involuntary manslaughter.


An 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Provocation consists of the reasons for which one person kills another. "Adequate" or "reasonable" provocation is what makes the difference between voluntary manslaughter and murder. Provocation is said to be adequate if it would cause a reasonable person to lose self-control.[1]

State of mind[edit]

Intent to kill[edit]

Voluntary manslaughter requires the same intent as murder. The charge of murder is reduced to manslaughter when the defendant's culpability for the crime is "negated" or mitigated by adequate provocation.[2]

Imperfect self-defense[edit]

In some jurisdictions, malice can also be negated by imperfect self-defense, the principle that an honest but unreasonable belief that it is necessary to defend oneself from imminent peril to life or great bodily injury negates malice aforethought, the mental element necessary for a murder charge, so that the chargeable offense is reduced to manslaughter.[3] Self-defense is considered imperfect when extenuating circumstances exist that are insufficient to constitute a complete legal defense to homicide, but nonetheless partially excuse the act that resulted in death.

United States[edit]

Model Penal Code[edit]

The United States' Model Penal Code (MPC) does not use the common law language of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Under the MPC, a homicide that would otherwise be murder is reduced to manslaughter when committed "under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance for which there is a reasonable explanation or excuse".[4][5] Several court decisions in various jurisdictions have interpreted this language broadly by creating a subjective standard to determine whether the provocation was adequate from the defendant's point of view. This subjective standard diverges substantially from the common law reasonable person test and allows the jury greater latitude.[6]

For example, in State v. Dumlao, the court interpreted the MPC language broadly, holding that reasonableness should be evaluated from the defendant's perspective. The subjective standard for whether a provocation was reasonable, and thus adequate, would allow a jury to consider Dumlao's "mental abnormalities", including a medical diagnosis of "paranoid personality disorder".[7]

Case law[edit]

United States criminal case law
     Other      MPC
Case name Year Citation State Doctrine Court's decision
People v. Valentine 1946 28 Cal.2d 121 CA heat of passion; mere words resolved a century long split in California courts, holding that mere words could be adequate provocation
People v. Berry 1976 18 Cal.3d 509 CA heat of passion Taunting or provocation over a prolonged period can be adequate provocation
State v. Dumlao 1986 715 P.2d 822 HI extreme emotional disturbance Under the MPC, the reasonable person test for adequate provocation uses a subjective standard to be evaluated from defendant's viewpoint
People v. Chevalier 1989 544 N.E.2d 942 IL mere words Verbal admission of infidelity is not adequate provocation
State v. Shane 1993 590 N.E.2d 272 OH mere words Verbal admission of infidelity is not adequate provocation


  1. ^ Smalleger, Frank; Hall, Daniel (2015). Criminal Law Today (5 ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. ISBN 978-0133008586. Retrieved 9 September 2017.
  2. ^ Scott Mire and Cliff Roberson, The Study of Violent Crime: Its Correlates and Concerns (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2011), 138
  3. ^ Grossman, Jonathan. "Defense Theories and Instructions" (PDF). Sixth District Appellate Program. Retrieved 9 September 2017.
  4. ^ See Model Penal Code § 210.3
  5. ^ Dubber, Markus D. (2015-03-10). An Introduction to the Model Penal Code. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-024307-4.
  6. ^ David C. Brody, James R. Acker & Wayne A. Logan, Criminal Law 353 (2001).
  7. ^ Farahany, Nita (2011-02-20). The Impact of Behavioral Sciences on Criminal Law. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-977330-5.