Voluntary manslaughter is an act of killing that would ordinarily be considered murder but is committed in response to a high level of provocation. Because the killing is committed in response to a provocation, the criminal charges are reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter.
At common law, and even according to most modern statutes, the killing will only be reduced to voluntary manslaughter if four requirements are met.
First, there must have been a provocation that would cause a reasonable person to lose control of himself and act spontaneously.
Second, the provocation must have actually provoked the defendant.
Third, the period of time between the provocation and the actual killing cannot be long enough for a reasonable person to have calmed down and
Fourth, the defendant himself must not have calmed down between the time of the provocation and the time that he actually committed the killing.
EXAMPLE: Clark comes home from work one evening and finds Lex in bed with his wife, Lois. Clark is so enraged that he pulls out the gun he keeps on his bedside table and shoots Lex, killing him instantly. In this situation, although Clark committed the killing with malice aforethought, Clark’s act of killing Lex met the four requirements for voluntary manslaughter. The adulterous action was certainly a provocation and it is safe to say that it was the kind of provocation that would cause a reasonable person to lose control of himself and act spontaneously. Second, Clark was in fact provoked. Third, the period of time between the provocation and the killing was only a few seconds, and so it was not enough time for a reasonable person to have cooled down and, fourth, Clark himself did not cool down. Therefore, Clark’s homicide will be reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter.
If, however, Clark had waited a week and planned out how he was going to kill Lex in revenge for committing adultery with his wife, this would most likely be considered an act of murder because the period of time between the provocation and the homicidal act would be long enough so that a reasonable person would cool off. Alternatively, if Clark had come home to find Lois in bed with Lex, had then left the bedroom, taken a moment or two to collect himself and calm down, and then gone in a shot Lex, this would also be considered murder because, even though the interval of time was probably not long enough for a reasonable person to have calmed down, Clark himself had calmed down. Therefore, his killing of Lex would not be reduced to voluntary manslaughter.
Please note that the provocation must be one that would have provoked a reasonable person to lose control of himself and act spontaneously. This is an objective test. As such, we don’t care what would or would not provoke the defendant himself. If the provocation was one that would cause a reasonable person to lose control of himself, the homicide will be reduced to voluntary manslaughter. If the provocation is one that would not cause a reasonable person to lose control of himself, the defendant can be charged with murder even if he was blind with rage when he committed the killing.
Although it is sometimes hard to determine what kind of provocations are sufficient to reduce a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter, the law has established a certain list of provocations which are and are not sufficient.
- Words alone, no matter how offensive they may be, are not adequate provocation. See Lang v. State, 250 A.2d 276 (Md. 1969).
- A battery is not considered sufficient provocation if the contact is minor. However, if the act of battery is violent and inflicts great pain on the defendant this may be considered an adequate provocation. See People v. Harris, 134 N.E.2d 315 (Ill. 1956).
- An assault, which is essentially an attempted battery, can be considered adequate provocation if the attempted attack is particularly severe. So, for example, if the victim fires a gun or swings an axe at the defendant and misses, and the defendant turns around and kills the victim, the assault that the victim first perpetrated against the defendant can be considered adequate provocation so that the victim’s death will be ruled a voluntary manslaughter. See Stevensorn v. United States, 162 U.S. 313 (1896).
- Adultery is a sufficient provocation. In fact, adultery is considered such a clear cut case of provocation that it is not always necessary for one spouse to find the other spouse in the act of committing adultery. There are cases that have established that one spouse simply hearing about the other committing adultery is considered adequate provocation. See Haley v. State, 85 So. 129 (Miss. 1920).
Keep in mind of course, that "provocation" does not equal "justification." Sufficient provocation reduces a charge from murder to manslaughter, but manslaughter is still a serious crime. For example, in New York, the penalty for voluntary manslaughter is up to 25 years in prison.
Two men in a bar are trying to attract the same woman. Eventually one of the guys challenges the other guy to a fight. Both men go outside and begin fighting. Unfortunately, during the course of the fight, one of the men dies. In this case, the victim’s death will be considered manslaughter only. However, if, as the fight begins, one man pulls a gun and shoots the other one, this is not considered manslaughter because the defendant has taken unfair actions in regard to the fight itself. See Whitehead v. State, 262 A.2d 316 (Md. 1970).
There is a split in the authority with regard to situations in which the defendant kills somebody and that person turns out to be someone other than the person who provoked him. If the defendant intended to kill the person who provoked him but kills somebody else either by accident or because he mistakenly thought the person he killed was the person who provoked him, the death can still be considered manslaughter in some jurisdictions. See State v. Griego, 294 P.2d 282 (N.M. 1956).
However, if the defendant killed somebody who he knew was not the one that provoked him, the death will obviously be considered murder.
As we said before, even if the provocation was one that would cause a reasonable person to lose control of himself and act spontaneously, the killing will not be reduced to manslaughter if the defendant himself was not provoked. Please note that, although the reasonableness of a provocation is an objective standard, whether or not the defendant himself was actually provoked is a subjective standard.
Also, as we discussed before, the period of time between the provocation and the killing must not be long enough so that a reasonable person would have calmed down. This is also an objective standard and it is therefore irrelevant whether or not the period of time between the provocation and the killing was enough time for the defendant himself to have calmed down. However, there is a small minority of jurisdictions that will allow a killing to be reduced to manslaughter if the defendant himself has not calmed down regardless of how much time had gone by between the provocation and the killing. See State v. Hazlett, 113 N.W. 374 (N.D. 1907).
However, if the defendant was provoked with a provocation that was sufficient to make a reasonable person lose control of himself and act spontaneously, and he was actually provoked, and the time between the provocation and the killing was not long enough for a reasonable person to have calmed down but, somehow, the defendant himself managed to calm down, his killing will not be reduced to manslaughter. The test to see whether the defendant actually calmed down is a subjective one (it depends on the defendant personally and not what a reasonable person would have done under the circumstances).