In Pennsylvania, there are several types of homicide offenses. If you kill someone while in the heat of passion without any premeditation, the state treats the offense differently than if you planned and deliberated before murdering someone. A homicide that happens because of a sudden, intense emotion is voluntary manslaughter.
While voluntary manslaughter is not considered to be as severe as a premeditated murder charge, it still carries very harsh penalties, including a long potential prison sentence. If you are facing this type of charge, you should retain an experienced criminal defense attorney in West Chester at DiCindio Law immediately.
Voluntary manslaughter defined
Under 18 Pa.CS 2503, voluntary manslaughter occurs when you commit an unjustified killing due to intense heat of passion because you were either provoked by the victim or by a third party whom you attempted to kill but accidentally killed the victim instead. You can also be charged with voluntary manslaughter if you killed someone while under the unreasonable belief that his or her killing is justified.
By contrast, involuntary manslaughter occurs when a victim is killed as a result of the defendant’s recklessness or gross negligence. Neither voluntary nor involuntary manslaughter involves a specific intent to kill. Voluntary manslaughter is a killing that happens without premeditation and under a heat of passion. Involuntary manslaughter happens when the defendant did not intend to kill the victim but recklessly caused his or her death.
What is the heat of passion?
The determination of whether someone was in a heat of passion at the time of killing is fact-specific. The heat of passion is generally found when a defendant is provoked to such a degree that he or she experiences extreme rage and a loss of control. In other words, a defendant may be found to have acted in a heat of passion if a reasonable person in the same situation would feel provoked enough to react in a similar way.
If the defendant had time to cool off between the provoking event and the death, the heat of passion will not be likely to be found. For example, if you find your fiancé having sex with someone else and immediately kill him or her, your actions might be considered to have happened in the heat of passion. If you instead leave your home and return 30 minutes later to kill your fiancé, your actions would be unlikely to be considered to have occurred in the heat of passion.
When enough provocation exists, it may be possible to reduce a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter. The courts and prosecutors use a reasonableness test to determine whether an event was sufficiently provoking for voluntary manslaughter to be charged instead of a murder offense.
The prosecutors will consider the facts to determine whether to charge a different murder offense or voluntary manslaughter.
What is an unreasonable belief that a killing is justified?
If you have an unreasonable belief that killing someone is justified and move forward with killing him or her, the state can charge you with voluntary manslaughter. This type of situation normally occurs when people wrongfully believe that they must use deadly force. For example, you could be charged with voluntary manslaughter if a person with whom you are fighting puts his or her hand in a jacket pocket and you shoot him or her, only to find out that he or she was pulling out a phone instead of a weapon. If you instead react proportionally to danger, a killing might be justified. For example, if a robber pointed a gun at you, stabbing him or her in response might be considered to be a killing justified by self-defense.
What are the penalties for voluntary manslaughter in Pennsylvania?
Voluntary manslaughter is a first-degree felony in Pennsylvania. If you are convicted of voluntary manslaughter as a first offense, you will face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison under 18 Pa.CS 1103. You can also be ordered to pay a fine of up to $25,000 under 18 Pa.CS 1101. If you are convicted of voluntary manslaughter when you have two predicate violent crime convictions, you must be sentenced to serve at least 25 years. If you are deemed to be a danger to the public, you could be sentenced to serve up to life without the possibility of parole.
What defenses are available to a charge of voluntary manslaughter?
When you retain a criminal defense lawyer, he or she will analyze the facts of your case to identify the defense strategies you might take. The defenses that might apply to your case will depend on the circumstances surrounding what occurred.
Some of the potential defenses might include the following:
- Defense of others
- Accidental killing in the absence of intent
- Actual innocence
Self-defense and defense of others are affirmative defenses. This means that you will have the burden of showing that your actions defending yourself or another person from the actions of the alleged victim were proportional, making the killing justified. If you are able to successfully argue that the killing was accidental and without intent, the charge may be reduced to involuntary manslaughter. Raising an insanity defense means that you did not know the difference between right or wrong at the time of the killing, but you admit that the killing occurred.
Finally, the prosecutor has the burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If you were actually innocent, your attorney might win dismissal of the charges. For example, if you did not kill the person and were located somewhere else at the time the offense occurred, your attorney might present alibi evidence, including things like hotel receipts, restaurant receipts, surveillance video from businesses you visited elsewhere, or witnesses that you were somewhere else at the time the victim was killed.
Some of these types of defenses will not avoid liability but may reduce the level of offense and the potential penalties.
Talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney in West Chester, PA
If you are facing a charge of voluntary manslaughter, it is important for you to get help from an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Michael DiCindio is a former prosecuting attorney with years of experience defending people against serious crimes. Call DiCindio Law today at 610-430-3535 to schedule your consultation.