Under Georgia law, a person may be charged with voluntary manslaughter (O.C.G.A. § 16-5-2) if they cause the death of another human being due to a sudden, violent, irresistible passion resulting from serious provocation. Involuntarily manslaughter (O.C.G.A. § 16-5-3) charges may be brought when a person unintentionally causes the death of another while committing a non-felony crime or commits a lawful act in an unlawful manner likely to cause death or great bodily harm.
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Voluntary manslaughter charges generally arise in situations where a person intentionally kills another and the killing would normally be considered murder, but there is some mitigating factor that caused the accused to kill due to a sudden, violent, irresistible passion or rage resulting from serious provocation. The type of provocation is one that would cause a reasonable person to react in an equally impassioned manner. Generally, words alone are not considered sufficient provocation. Furthermore, if there is a sufficient “cooling off” period—enough time for the voice of reason to kick in—between the provocation and killing, the killing would be considered murder, not voluntary manslaughter. This is an issue for the jury to decide on a case-by-case basis.
It is important to distinguish voluntary manslaughter and self-defense. The key difference between the two is whether the accused was so excited and reacted passionately rather than simply trying to defend himself to survive. Where the accused has given statements to police indicating he killed a person because he was in fear for his life, voluntary manslaughter is not the appropriate charge because he did not kill out of a sudden irresistible rage.
Voluntary manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder. Practically, oftentimes a person is not charged voluntary manslaughter by the state. The state charges a person with murder. Then during the trial phase, the defendant will try to provide some evidence that the killing was done due to a sudden rage resulting from serious provocation rather than a malicious, premeditated mindset. If the judge determines the evidence defendant presented is sufficient, the judge will instruct the jury on both murder and voluntary manslaughter charges. It is up to the jury to determine which charge is appropriate based on the evidence presented during trial.
If convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a person faces 1 to 20 years imprisonment.
A person can be charged with involuntary manslaughter in two different situations: (1) a person unintentionally causes the death of another during the commission of some unlawful act that is not a felony; or (2) a person unintentionally causes the death of another during the commission of a lawful act in an unlawful manner likely to cause death or serious bodily injury to a person. The first situation is a felony while the second is a misdemeanor.
In the first scenario (felony or unlawful act involuntary manslaughter), the state must prove an intent to commit the unlawful act and a death that resulted from the commission of that unlawful act, even though the death was not in any way intentional. For example, the accused went to the victim’s house with the intent to start a fist fight (which would be considered simple battery or simple assault). When he got there, he saw the victim sitting by an open screened window, and he punched the victim through the screen. The victim grabbed a shotgun and came outside to confront the accused. The two struggled with the gun and it accidentally went off, killing the victim. The accused could be charged with felony involuntary manslaughter because he intended to commit a misdemeanor by punching the victim, and his actions started the chain of events which resulted in the accidental killing of the victim.
In the second scenario (misdemeanor or lawful act involuntary manslaughter), the state must prove that the act the accused committed was not per se unlawful, but the way he carried out the act was unlawful and likely to cause the death of another and did in fact cause the death of another person. For example, the accused strikes a matchbox to light a match for his cigarette while standing in a room full of cleaning supplies or paint thinner (highly flammable materials). The spark from the matchbox causes the room to go up in flames. The fire spreads to other parts of the building, and one person was killed as a result. While the act of lighting the match may have been legal, striking a matchbox around highly flammable materials is extremely reckless and likely to result in death or serious injury to another person.
It should be noted that the circumstances where this statute should apply has proven to be a bit complicated. Carrying out “a lawful act in an unlawful manner likely to cause death or serious bodily injury” is another way of saying reckless or criminally negligent conduct. Reckless conduct is itself a misdemeanor. If the state proves reckless conduct, it follows that death occurred as a result of an unlawful act (misdemeanor), not a lawful act. In the above example, if the state proved that lighting a match when surrounded by flammable materials constituted misdemeanor reckless conduct, the accused could be tried and convicted of felony involuntary manslaughter rather than misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter.
The punishment for felony involuntary manslaughter is 1 to 10 years imprisonment, while a conviction for misdemeanor voluntary manslaughter is, as the name suggests, a misdemeanor.
Manslaughter charges are unique in that oftentimes, they are used as a sort of “defense” to murder charges. Of course, they are not complete defenses that would acquit a defendant. Rather, they can lessen the lifetime prison sentence that a person would otherwise receive if convicted of murder. Where manslaughter is used to mitigate murder charges, there are several defenses that are not available. Self-defense and defense of others are two examples of unavailable defenses to voluntary manslaughter charges. This is because voluntary manslaughter requires proof that there was an intent to kill, but the reason for the killing is mitigated by provocation that happened prior to the killing. If a person is acting out of self-defense or defense of others, there is no intent to kill.
Our criminal defense lawyers have helped several people win manslaughter cases across the State of Georgia. By consulting relevant experts and potential witnesses prior to trial, we have also helped some of our clients avoid trial and get serious charges dismissed.
If you or someone you know has been charged with manslaughter in Georgia, contact us to see if we may be able to help.
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