How can someone have their murder charges reduced in California? Depending on the facts of the case, there is a way.

If you were involved in the unlawful killing of someone else, prosecutors will most likely charge you at first with murder. Murder carries a sentence of 15 years to life, which rises to 25-to-life if you have been charged with first degree murder.

However, it is sometimes possible to see your charges reduced to voluntary manslaughter

Prosecutors almost never initially charge someone with voluntary manslaughter, and it’s easy to see why. Voluntary manslaughter is a lesser charge to murder, and it has significantly shorter penalties. Sentences can be as short as just three years in prison.

What is voluntary manslaughter?

When you intentionally kill someone without a legal excuse for doing so, you are either committing murder or voluntary manslaughter.

What separates murder and voluntary manslaughter is the concept of “malice aforethought,” which is the premeditated intention to kill or seriously harm someone, or reckless disregard for life. These are situations where there was:

  1. A sudden quarrel or heat of passion. This means you were provoked, which caused you to react rashly in a state of intense emotion that obscured your judgment, and that an average person would also act rashly in that situation. 
  2. An honest but unreasonable need to defend yourself. You were in a situation where you felt you needed deadly force to defend yourself.

In both cases, the person who committed the homicide meant to do it, but it arose out of a sudden and extreme emotional disturbance. It wasn’t something they planned.

Examples of voluntary manslaughter

There is a lot of nuance to California’s voluntary manslaughter laws, so let’s take a moment to look at five examples.

Heat of Passion: Someone comes home to find their spouse in bed with another person. In a fit of rage, they grab a nearby lamp and strike the intruder, resulting in their death. This could be considered voluntary manslaughter because the killing occurred in the heat of passion, without prior intent.

Sudden Quarrel: Two friends are having a heated argument at a bar. One of them insults the other’s family, leading to a physical altercation where one of them pulls out a knife and stabs the other, resulting in death. This may be considered adequate provocation to qualify as voluntary manslaughter, and it was a spontaneous act during a sudden quarrel, without prior intent to kill.

Self-Defense: If a person believes they are in immediate danger of being killed or suffering great bodily harm and they use deadly force to protect themselves, but their belief was unreasonable, this may qualify as voluntary manslaughter. For example, if someone mistakenly thinks they’re about to be shot during an argument and, in an act of perceived self-defense, shoots the other person first.

Defense of Others: Similar to the self-defense example, imagine a person sees a friend involved in a fistfight and mistakenly believes their friend is about to be killed. They intervene with deadly force to protect their friend, resulting in the other person’s death. This could potentially be seen as voluntary manslaughter if the person’s belief was unreasonable.

Imperfect Duress: If someone is threatened with harm unless they kill a third person, and they kill that third person out of fear for their own life, it could qualify as voluntary manslaughter. For instance, a gang member being forced to kill another person under threat of their own life.

What’s the difference between voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter?

While involuntary and voluntary manslaughter both relate to the unlawful killing of another person, the distinction between the two lies in the mental state of the perpetrator at the time of the crime, as well as the circumstances surrounding the event.

As we know, voluntary manslaughter involves an intentional killing, but it’s distinguished from murder by the circumstances that led to the act. Often referred to as a “crime of passion,” voluntary manslaughter typically occurs in the heat of the moment, often following a provocation that would cause a reasonable person to lose self-control.

On the other hand, involuntary manslaughter doesn’t involve an intentional killing. Instead, it refers to a death that results from a person’s careless, reckless, or negligent actions. If a person’s actions create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm or death, and those actions lead to someone’s death, it could be considered involuntary manslaughter.

For example, if a person is driving recklessly and causes an accident that results in someone’s death, they could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. The driver didn’t intend to kill anyone, but their negligent behavior resulted in a fatality nonetheless.

Both forms of manslaughter are serious crimes, but they carry different legal implications and penalties. Voluntary manslaughter, given its intentional nature, often carries a heavier sentence than involuntary manslaughter. However, both charges are less severe than murder.

Penalties for voluntary manslaughter

As we mentioned above, criminal charges for voluntary manslaughter carry significantly shorter penalties than murder. It is a felony, punishable by:

  • Three, six or eleven years in California state prison
  • Up to $10,000 in fines
  • A strike on your record pursuant to California’s “three strikes” law

In addition to this, you could also face restrictions on your ability to own firearms and/or be required to attend counseling services.

How to get your murder charges reduced

If you or someone you love has been charged with murder, you know just how anxious this time can be. Murder charges are very serious, so you need a serious criminal defense attorney in your corner.

“Robert Helfend is one of the best criminal defense attorneys I’ve ever worked with. He was so knowledgeable, and always made sure I understood everything every step of the way. I would definitely recommend him to anyone who wants an understanding, caring, and truly helpful lawyer.” Pat, CA

A skilled attorney will carefully and methodically work through all of the evidence and testimony in your case. 

If it’s not possible to clear you of a crime altogether, your attorney can use the facts of your case to try to show that you were more likely guilty of voluntary manslaughter than murder. This can save precious years from your sentence.

In some cases, this can happen during plea bargaining. If a prosecutor accepts a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter, your murder charge will be dismissed. In trial, it’s also possible to convince a jury that you were guilty of the lesser voluntary manslaughter charge instead of murder.

In more than three decades in the courtroom, Robert M. Helfend has successfully defended more than 4,000 cases, including all forms of murder. He is a National Trial Lawyers Top 100, SuperLawyers and Lead Counsel rated attorney. Call today for your free case evaluation — 800-834-6434.