What Is the Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter?

by Ambrosio Rodriguez | Sep 21, 2022 | Manslaughter

Manslaughter and murder are potential criminal charges that can be pursued after someone causes another person’s death. But what is the difference between these two terms? The details surrounding the death are crucial for your criminal defense attorney to understand to lodge a vigorous defense on your behalf.

Definition of Murder in California

Murder is defined in California Penal Code Section 187 as “the unlawful killing of a human being… with malice aforethought.” The definition includes the killing of a fetus. The term “malice aforethought” means that there was intent to kill, even if the intent did not last for that long before the murder occurred.

Murder is divided into two classifications in California: first-degree and second-degree.

First-degree murder includes killing:

  • After lying in wait
  • By inflicting torture
  • By using an explosive, poison, weapon of mass destruction, or bullet
  • By means of a willful, premeditated, and deliberate act
  • While committing another specified felony

Second-degree murder is any other type of killing with malice aforethought.

Definition of Manslaughter in California

Manslaughter is less serious than murder in California but still involves the killing of another human being.

There are three main types of manslaughter charges in California:

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter occurs during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. There is no malice or premeditation. It happens spontaneously.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when there is no intent to kill but the defendant had a conscious disregard for human life to the extent that it was reasonably predictable that death or serious injury could occur under the circumstances.

Vehicular Manslaughter

Vehicular manslaughter occurs when driving kills another person when the defendant:

  • Was driving in an illegal way that did not amount to a felony
  • Was driving during a lawful act that could produce death in an unlawful manner
  • Knowingly caused the accident for financial gain

Vehicular manslaughter can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor in California.

Major Differences Between Murder and Manslaughter in California

Some of the most important differences between murder and manslaughter are:


Murder requires malice. Malice can include any of the following:

  • Ill will
  • Wanton disregard for human life
  • Performing an act that involves a high degree of probability that death will result
  • Intent to kill
  • An intentional act whose natural consequences are dangerous to human life, the defendant had knowledge of the danger to human life, and the defendant acted with a conscious disregard for human life

Manslaughter does not require malice.


First-degree murder involves intent to kill. Manslaughter does not require showing this intent. The defendant could have acted without any desire to cause death.

Possible Penalties

Because manslaughter does not involve malice or intent, it is considered a lesser charge than homicide. As such, it is not penalized to the same extent as murder.

Murder can result in the death penalty or life imprisonment. In contrast, voluntary manslaughter carries a potential penalty of three, six, or eleven years imprisonment. Involuntary manslaughter is punished with between two to four years in prison. Felony vehicular manslaughter carries a possible prison sentence of two to ten years. Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter carries a penalty of up to one year in jail.

Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer for Help If You’ve Been Charged with Murder or Manslaughter in California

If you are facing serious criminal charges like murder or manslaughter, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer for help. Your freedom is on the line, and an experienced legal advocate will protect your legal rights.

For more information please contact the Los Angeles Criminal Defense law firm of The Rodriguez Law Group for a free consultation, give us a call at (213) 995-6767 or visit our convenient location:

The Rodriguez Law Group – Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney
626 Wilshire Blvd Suite 460, Los Angeles, CA 90017, United States