To the family of a person killed by another, there is little difference between the terms murder and manslaughter—either way, a loved one is dead. For the person facing charges of killing another human being, the difference between the two terms can be huge—the difference between being put to death or spending the remainder of your life in prison and spending less than twenty-five years in prison with the possibility of parole. The primary difference between the crimes of manslaughter and murder lie in the intent of the person charged with the death.
Murder Charges Require Malice Aforethought
For the death of a human being to be charged as murder, there must have been intent—known as malice aforethought. This means that you maliciously premeditated or planned the death. You wanted the other person dead, and you executed a plan to ensure it happened.
Manslaughter—No Malice Involved
Manslaughter, on the other hand, is a death in which there was no premeditation, no malice aforethought. Under California manslaughter laws—whether voluntary or involuntary—you never even considered killing another human being if charged with manslaughter. For voluntary manslaughter, the death likely occurred during the heat of the moment (an argument with another person turns violent, or you find your spouse in a compromising position with another person).
For involuntary manslaughter, you did something which was either negligent, or which occurred while you were committing some type of misdemeanor crime. There is a third category of manslaughter, known as vehicular manslaughter, meaning you killed another person with your vehicle, however you did not intend to do so (while you were driving under the influence).
Examples of Murder vs. Manslaughter
Consider the following examples: Suppose you are on the freeway, and become angry when a motorcyclist cuts you off. You follow the cyclist, even getting off an exit you had no plans to take, in order to hit the motorcyclist from behind, running him over and killing him. In this instance, you are likely to be charged with murder because there was obvious intent. You were angry, you wanted to hurt the motorcyclist—and you did.
If, on the other hand, you are on the same freeway, and, even knowing you should not, you look down to text someone. While texting, you accidentally swerve into the other lane just enough to strike a motorcyclist, causing his or her death. While in both instances you are responsible for the death of another human being, in the second example, you had no intention of hurting or killing that person, however you were negligent in that you were not paying attention to your driving, and knew, or should have known, such negligence could potentially result in an accident.
Penalties Associated with a Conviction for Murder in California
Your penalties for a murder conviction in the state of California, depend on the circumstances surrounding your case, but could include, under California Penal Code, Sections 187-199:
- For a conviction of first degree murder you could face from twenty-five years to life in California state prison, life in prison without parole, or death (although capital punishment in the state of California is currently suspended).
- If you committed the murder while engaged in a felony, while avoiding an arrest, if you intended to kill the person for financial gain, or if you used an explosive device during the murder, state law requires you receive a sentence of life in prison without parole or death.
- If the person you killed was a law enforcement officer, a firefighter, a prosecutor or a judge, state law requires you receive a sentence of life in prison without parole or death.
- Finally, if the murder involved torture, or is considered “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity,” you can expect the harshest punishment allowed.
Penalties Associated with a Conviction for Manslaughter in the State of California
Like murder, your exact penalties will depend on your prior history and the specific facts of your crime, however for voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, your penalties could include:
- A conviction for voluntary manslaughter could result in a prison sentence up to eleven years, a fine up to $10,000 and being prohibited from ever owning a firearm.
- A conviction for involuntary manslaughter could result in a prison sentence up to four years, a fine up to $10,000, and being prohibited from ever owning a firearm.
- A conviction for vehicular manslaughter could result in a prison sentence of up to ten years, a fine up to $10,000 and being prohibited from ever owning a firearm.
Potential Defenses to the Crimes of Murder and Manslaughter
Of course, the defense your Los Angeles criminal defense attorney chooses to use in your particular case will depend on the facts surrounding the crime, some of the more common defenses for these crimes include:
- Actual innocence—you were mistakenly identified as the perpetrator, or you have an alibi for the time of the crime;
- In the case of murder, the charges may be lowered to manslaughter if your attorney can show a lack of advance planning or premeditation;
- The death was accidental, or unforeseeable;
- There is insufficient evidence against you;
- Self-defense of yourself or another person, or
- Insanity or lack of mental capacity.
Getting the Legal Help You Need from an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney
The sooner you have an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorney by your side, the better. In some cases, your attorney can stop a police investigation before you are charged with a crime. It is important that you take your right to remain silent seriously, and contact a knowledgeable Los Angeles attorney quickly.