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Voluntary Manslaughter


California Penal Code 192(a) describes the crime of voluntary manslaughter as the unlawful killing of someone upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Therefore, the defendant must not have had a malicious intent to kill another person to be charged with this crime. Typically, voluntary manslaughter is rarely, if ever, charged outright by the prosecuting agency. Instead, voluntary manslaughter convictions generally arise either through:

  • A plea negotiation in a Penal Code 187 murder case, or;
  • As a lesser included offense of murder which a jury elects to find the defendant guilty of instead of a first or second degree murder charge.


California law describes voluntary manslaughter as the killing of another human being during a sudden quarrel, in the heat of passion, or based on an unreasonable belief in the need to defend oneself, which is also described as “imperfect self-defense.” In order for the prosecuting agency to convict someone of voluntary manslaughter under PC 192(a), they must prove each of the following elements:

  • Defendant was provoked;
  • The provocation drove the defendant to act emotionally with impaired judgment;
  • A reasonable person would have acted rashly when provoked in the same manner.

The prosecution has the duty to prove you lost control of yourself and your behavior was something a reasonable person would have done under the same circumstances.


Aside from cases involving involuntary manslaughter (also known as negligent homicide), the majority of homicide matters involve an accusation that the defendant took some action that was either:

  • Intended to kill another person (intentional homicide), or
  • An action which demonstrated the defendant’s conscious disregard for human life.

The second point above encompasses, for example a defendant who shoots a gun at someone and claims that he or she had no intent to kill anyone. Regardless, the defendant was acting with conscious disregard for human life because shooting a gun at someone is obviously a dangerous act that no reasonable person could fail to foresee death as a likely result.

Defendant’s Intent – Malice Aforethought

Whether or not a homicide qualifies as murder or manslaughter depends on the element of the defendant’s intent. A Murderer acts with “malice aforethought,” which is a common law term containing both actual, or express, malice and implied malice. Express malice is the intent to kill. Implied malice, on the other hand, is described as a wanton disregard for human life. Some jurisdictions prefer to call this “depraved heart,” or other similar terms.

            If the conduct is so egregious that death is a likely result (think about the example above regarding shooting a gun at someone), a jury will likely find implied malice even if the defendant testifies truthfully that he did not have express malice.

Homicide Without Express or Implied Malice

Manslaughter is a homicide without express or implied malice. As a refresher, the three situations which qualify this category are:

  • Sudden quarrel;
  • Heat of passion, or;
  • Imperfect self-defense

If we look back on the same gun-shooting example above, if the shooting happened immediately:

  • After the defendant was provoked, and;
  • The defendant acted rashly and without time to reflect as a result of the provocation, and;
  • The defendant’s reaction to the provocation was objectively reasonable, meaning;
  • A reasonable person would have reacted in the same manner;
  • The shooting can be said to be the result of a sudden quarrel or was committed in the heat of passion.

The typical example of a heat of passion killing is where a spouse returns to find their spouse in bed with another person and immediately kills that other person. However, if the defendant had time to reflect and still goes through with the killing, the correct charge is murder and not manslaughter.


Some of the common defenses that our experienced criminal defense lawyers can use to combat PC 192(a) include:

  • Self-defense or defense of others;
  • Imperfect self-defense;
  • Accident;
  • Insufficient evidence.

Imperfect self-defense is applicable where the defendant subjectively, but unreasonably, believes that it is necessary to deploy deadly force in self-defense. Self-defense law requires a reasonable and proportionate response to danger. Not every type of danger can be legitimately responded to with deadly force. Such as, if someone threatens to punch you in the stomach, responding with gunfire is not appropriate. Scenarios in which these arguments play out are rarely so black-and-white. Whether or not a given degree of force used in self-defense was objectively reasonable as distinguished from subjectively reasonable in a given situation is a question for the jury to determine.

When a jury determines the defendant who committed homicide believed he was acting in self-defense, but that the totality of the circumstances show the belief was objectively unreasonable, the verdict should be guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but not guilty of murder. This is because the defendant’s mistaken belief does not absolve him fully of criminal liability as a reasonable belief in the need for deadly self-defense would, but it does prevent a finding that he acted with malice aforethought.


If you are convicted in California for violating PC 192(a), you are guilty of a felony and may face the following penalties:

  • Three, six, or eleven years in a California state prison,
  • A fine up to $10,000,
  • Potential “strike” according to California’s three strikes law.

You will also suffer the consequences of having a felony charge, such as losing the right to own or possess a firearm. You may also be ordered to complete counseling classes.


  • PC 192(b) – involuntary manslaughter
  • PC 191.5(a) – gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
  • PC 191.5(b) – vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
  • PC 187 – second-degree Watson murder – DUI manslaughter
  • PC 187 – murder


            If you, or someone you know, is charged with murder and is looking for a consultation regarding voluntary manslaughter defenses, please contact our team of experienced criminal defense lawyers. Our firm has long-standing experience defending clients in these matters. We may be able to negotiate with the prosecuting agency via prefiling intervention to avoid the formal filing of criminal charges against you or someone you know.

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