When Can Murder Be Reduced to Voluntary Manslaughter?

Posted by Ronald D. HeddingMay 02, 2023

For those people who are charged with California Penal Code 187 PC murder, who actually committed the crime, sometimes they have the option of arguing that Penal Code 192(a) PC voluntary manslaughter, which is a lesser included of murder, applies. 

Once you go to a jury trial, your attorney can ask the judge for an instruction for voluntary manslaughter. That gives the jury a choice of whether to find the person guilty of murder or whether to find them guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

If convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the judge would have the option of what sentence would be imposed against the individual.  As a defense attorney, you can also try to argue with the prosecutor and get them to agree by way of a resolution to a plea to a voluntary manslaughter charge instead of a murder charge.

Penal Code 187 PC Murder – Explained

In California, murder is defined under Penal Code 187 PC as killing another human being "with malice aforethought." However, other circumstances determine whether a defendant will be charged with first-degree or second-degree murder.

Murder Be Reduced to Voluntary Manslaughter

The penalties for each degree of murder may differ widely. However, the definition of the degrees of murder is codified in Penal Code 189 PC.

To charge somebody with PC 187 murder, prosecutors have to prove you killed somebody with malice or forethought, which means you thought about it and planned it.

All other types of killing with malice aforethought that don't match the criteria for first-degree murder are charged as second-degree murder, which is not specifically premeditated or deliberate but occurs due to extreme recklessness, —thus making it more severe and grave than a manslaughter charge.

A first-degree murder conviction carries a sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. If the killing involved torture or lying in wait, called a “special circumstance,” you could face a life sentence without parole.

Penal Code 192(a) PC Voluntary Manslaughter - Explained

California Penal Code 192(a) PC describes the crime of voluntary manslaughter as the unlawful killing of someone during a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.

Penal Code 192(a) PC Voluntary Manslaughter

To face charges under this statute, the defendant must not have had malicious intent to kill another person. This statute is rarely charged outright by a prosecuting agency. Instead, voluntary manslaughter convictions almost always are the result of the following:

  • plea negotiations in a Penal Code 187 PC murder case, or
  • as a lesser included offense of murder when a jury elects to find the defendant guilty instead of a first or second-degree murder charge.

If you are convicted of violating Penal Code 192(a) voluntary manslaughter laws, you are guilty of a felony and will face the following penalties:

  • three, six, or eleven years in a state prison,
  • a fine of up to $10,000,
  • potential “strike” under California's three strikes law,

Planning vs. Spontaneous Act

To give you an idea of where the dividing line is between murder and voluntary manslaughter, for murder, you're usually planning the crime. On the other hand, second-degree murder is usually a spontaneous act. 

The person doesn't have much time to plan it, but they decide to kill the other person and proceed with the murder.  First-degree murder is usually planned out and premeditated. The person kills the other, who usually faces 25 to life for the murder charge alone.

Voluntary manslaughter, on the other hand, usually occurs in the heat of passion, where somebody is extremely angry or emotional about a situation, and the other party provokes them in some way. But the provocation is not sufficient to get them a completely not guilty verdict, but it is enough to qualify for voluntary manslaughter.

It's not an easy concept to understand because if you think about it, probably every time somebody commits a murder, they will argue that they were provoked.  They're going to say that it was done in the heat of passion, so you need to set the scene as to precisely what happened.

Case Example

An excellent example of a voluntary manslaughter case is a husband comes home from work and finds his wife having sex with another man. That's going to make somebody angry.

So if the husband grabs his gun and shoots the man, there would be an argument for voluntary manslaughter.  But if you change the facts slightly, you'll see that voluntary manslaughter would not apply. 

Let's say it's the same scenario, but the man already knows that the wife is having an affair with somebody else.  He leaves for work, hides down the street, and waits for his wife's lover to come along.  He plans the killing.  He kills the person. 

Arguing for the heat of passion in that scenario, if the police can prove or show that the person planned it and knew about the affair, would be very difficult.  That's just a simple example.

Meeting to Discuss Defense Strategy

What I have you do is you or your loved one comes in my office, or if they're charged with murder, I'll usually visit them in custody. We talk about exactly what happened and what possible defenses might be available to the person.

I've been doing this for 30 years – handled many murder cases.  I started off working for the district attorney's office, then a superior court judge, and then in the early 1990s, I began defending people charged with murder and making these arguments that I've been talking about in defense of my clients.

So, if you need the best, you or your loved one is charged with murder, pick up the phone now and ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.  I stand at the ready to help you.