March 7, 2014 By Paul Wallin

Murder and Manslaughter – How the Law Distinguishes a Criminal Act of Homicide

Unfortunately, when you are looking at the differences between murder and manslaughter, either way, someone has been killed. It may be a brutal homicide that took a serial killer months to plan, or it might be someone talking on their cell phone while driving and running over a pedestrian.

The most important distinction between murder and manslaughter is the intention in the mind of the killer. Murder is the successful attempt to kill someone whereas manslaughter is the horrible outcome of an unintentional action.

While one event is an intentional crime and the other is a terrible accident, someone is still dead.

The Shawshank Redemption – Murder and Manslaughter

murder and manslaughter
What are the differences between murder and manslaughter?

In the critically acclaimed 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) is convicted of the double murder of his wife and her golf-pro lover. He is sentenced to serve two life terms in Shawshank prison – one for each of his victims.

Andy discovers them in bed together. A drunken Andy is shown outside in his car with a gun in hand. At his trial, the prosecutor tells the jury that Andy’s fingerprints were discovered all over bullets strewn on the ground and a broken bourbon bottle found at the scene of the crime.

Andy swears in his defense that he did not kill them. He testifies that he drove away to sleep off his anger and grief, throwing his gun into a river along the way. But the prosecutor makes a compelling argument. He convinces the jury that Andy did not just kill his intended victims in the heat of passion, which could be considered voluntary manslaughter.

Instead, the prosecutor sways the jury by suggesting that Andy fired his gun until it was empty and then stopped to re-load, intentionally shooting each of his victims once more, this time in the head.

The jury convicts Andy of murder.

How is Murder Defined? (Penal Code 187)

California law pursuant to Penal Code 187 defines murder as the unlawful killing of another human being or fetus, with “malice aforethought.” While this definition seems clear enough, it is helpful to breakdown the various components, or elements of the law…

Unlawful killing

murder attorney
Call a murder attorney at Wallin & Klarich.

Homicide means the killing of another person, whether lawful or unlawful. A homicide includes:

  • Murder;
  • Manslaughter, whether
    • voluntary,
    • involuntary, or
    • vehicular; and
  • Killing in self-defense (a “justifiable homicide”).

Murder is the most aggravated type of homicide. It is always unlawful. What distinguishes murder from manslaughter in California law is the element of malice, which is required for a homicide crime to be considered murder rather than manslaughter.

Malice aforethought

Malice aforethought is the deliberate intent to cause death or great bodily harm to another person before a person commits the crime. Malice aforethought is an element that must be proven in a murder case. This description of the perpetrator’s state of mind basically means that he or she had the intent to inflict injury without legal justification or excuse.

It is not necessary for you to premeditate or have hatred toward someone in order for a killing to be considered murder. When someone “with a wanton disregard for human life, does an act that involves a high degree of probability that it will result in death,” he or she acts with malice aforethought.

Malice can be either express or implied. Express malice means you specifically intended to kill your victim. Implied malice means:

  • The killing resulted from an intentional act;
  • The natural consequences of the act are dangerous to human life; and
  • The act was deliberately performed with knowledge of the danger to and with conscious disregard for human life.

Punishment for Murder

murder charges
There is severe punishment for murder charges.

Murder in California is punishable depending on whether you are convicted of capital murder, first or second-degree murder. The facts of the crime will dictate how you can be charged.

Murder is always a felony and is considered a “strike” under California’s Three Strikes Law. If you are convicted of murder, you face:

  • The death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole if you are convicted of capital murder; or
  • 25 years to life in prison if you are convicted of first degree murder; or
  • 15 years to life in prison if you are convicted of second-degree murder.

How is Manslaughter Defined? (PC 192)

California law under Penal Code Section 192 describes manslaughter as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. Manslaughter can be one of three kinds:

  • Voluntary – upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.
  • Involuntary – upon the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony; or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection; or
  • Vehicular.

Voluntary Manslaughter (PC 192 (a))

Voluntary manslaughter can be a defense to murder if your criminal defense lawyer can prove temporary insanity. It is also available if you were provoked to commit an act you wouldn’t normally have done. Hence, voluntary manslaughter is characterized as being “upon sudden quarrel” or “in the heat of passion.”

One example of voluntary manslaughter is when a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. In a jealous rage, the husband is provoked to shoot the adulterers and they die. The killing is unlawful, but lacking the requisite intent of malice aforethought.

However, the provocation must be so great that it would cause an ordinary person in a similar situation to react emotionally rather than logically. This is an objective standard. How you reacted is only justifiable if it is how a reasonable person would have reacted under the same or similar circumstances.

Involuntary Manslaughter (PC 192 (b))

the crime of murder
The crime of murder is one of the most severe crimes in California.

Involuntary manslaughter pursuant to Penal Code 192 (b) is charged when you accidentally kill someone while committing a crime other than a felony and had no intention of killing anyone.

For example, you are angry at a neighbor who repeatedly plays loud music at all night long. You decide to “teach him a lesson” by throwing a brick through his window. Unfortunately, the brick strikes him in the head and he falls down the stairs. He dies as a result of his injuries. You never intended to hurt him, but you are still responsible for his death.

An involuntary manslaughter conviction can also result if a medical professional charged with keeping a patient alive is negligent in his duty and the patient dies as a result. For example, a jury concluded that Michael Jackson died in 2009 as a result of an overdose of prescription medication he received from Dr. Conrad Murray.

Vehicular Manslaughter (PC 192 (c))

Vehicular manslaughter under Penal Code 192 (c) means that you caused someone’s death while driving negligently. For example, while engaging in a speeding contest, you cut off another driver who swerves to avoid hitting you and crashes into a wall. The other driver is seriously injured in the accident and dies on the way to the hospital.

You can also be prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter if someone dies as a result of an accident you staged in order to commit insurance fraud.

Additionally, if you kill someone while driving under the influence, you can be convicted of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (Penal Code 191.5) or second-degree murder, depending on your past criminal record.

Consequences of Manslaughter

California criminal defense attorney
A criminal defense attorney can help you get the best possible outcome in your case.

Voluntary and involuntary manslaughter are charged as a felony in California. Voluntary manslaughter is also considered a “strike” under California’s Three Strikes Law.

If you are convicted of voluntary manslaughter, you face up to 11 years in prison. By contrast, a murder conviction mandates a minimum sentence of 15 years to life and up to the death penalty. A conviction for involuntary manslaughter is punishable by two, three or four years in jail.

Vehicular manslaughter (with or without being intoxicated) is a “wobbler” offense – meaning the District Attorney’s office can charge you with either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances and your criminal history.

Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter is punishable by no more than one year in jail, while a first offense felony conviction carries up to 10 years in prison.

However, if you have been previously convicted of driving under the influence, you can be prosecuted for second-degree murder (or “Watson murder”) if you kill someone while driving intoxicated.

Contact Wallin & Klarich Today if You Are Facing Charges Due to a Homicide

If you or someone you care about is facing criminal homicide charges such as murder or manslaughter, it is critical that you speak to one of our skilled criminal defense attorneys at Wallin & Klarich as soon as possible. Our attorneys at Wallin & Klarich have over 40 years of experience successfully defending our clients accused of these crimes.

You need to have a law firm with a proven track record of success on your side when it comes to fighting serious charges like murder or manslaughter. We will employ every available strategy to help you get the best result possible in your case.

With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Tustin, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, our attorneys at Wallin & Klarich are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to provide you with the very best legal representation. We understand this is a very difficult time for you and your family.

Call us today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free telephone consultation. We will get through this together.

AUTHOR: Paul Wallin

Paul Wallin is one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southern California. His vast experience, zealous advocacy for his clients and extensive knowledge of many areas of the law make Mr. Wallin a premiere Southern California attorney. Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.

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