When people hear the terms manslaughter and murder, they typically know these are distinct crimes, but the differences are more subtle than one may suspect. Both belong in a category of violent crimes known as “homicide”, which means the killing of a human being. Specifically, the state of Virginia has six separate homicide offenses:
- Involuntary manslaughter
- Voluntary manslaughter
- Second-degree murder
- First-degree murder
- Felony Murder
- Capital murder
While the loss of someone’s life is always serious, these separate homicide offenses cover varying degrees of severity and the potential circumstances involved. The difference between the two levels of manslaughter (voluntary and involuntary), and the degrees of murder is that the latter requires that it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you acted or took a life with malice. Essentially, malice refers to an intention to cause harm or an extreme recklessness, often called “a depraved heart”. Therefore, it follows that the penalties for murder are significantly more punitive than for manslaughter.
Manslaughter is a Killing Without Malice
In cases of suspected murder, where the case lacks evidence of malice, the prosecutor may decide to charge a suspect with voluntary manslaughter. Alternatively, in a murder trial, the defense attorney may demonstrate how the evidence does not support a finding of malice, which can result in an acquittal on the murder charge, but a guilty verdict for manslaughter.
The outcome of many homicide cases depends on the available evidence and the manner in which the prosecutor and the defense attorney present it. That’s why it is essential to have an experienced Roanoke homicide attorney by your side if you are charged with any instance of manslaughter or murder. For example, a skilled defense attorney may be able to demonstrate that the evidence against you was improperly collected or a police interrogation violated your rights. Additionally, by building an effective strategy and having an attorney explain your side of the story, you can argue that your degree of intent or malice could have misconstrued or exaggerated.
Understanding Virginia’s Levels of Homicide
Under Virginia Law, you may be charged with any of the following crimes if you are suspected of causing the death of another person:
- Involuntary manslaughter–Described under Virginia 18.2-36.1, this can also refer to. Instances of “DUI Involuntary Manslaughter” or “Vehicular Manslaughter.” Generally, it involves accidentally killing someone while committing an unlawful act that is not a felony. The unlawful act could be driving under the influence, or any other misdemeanor deemed to be criminally reckless. This is a class 5 felony with possible imprisonment between one and 10 years and up to a $2,500 fine. However, in DUI cases where there is evidence of extreme recklessness, a judge may sentence you to as much as 20 years in prison.
- Voluntary Manslaughter— Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional killing of another person, absent malice. This offense applies to killings in the heat of passion or misuses of self-defense. For example, if you catch your significant other cheating and you kill them in a fit of rage, you would likely face voluntary manslaughter charges. Alternatively, if someone pushes you in the street, and you use a knife or a firearm in retaliation, and the other person dies, you may face voluntary manslaughter because your actions fall outside of legal self-defense. According to the Code of Virginia section 18.2-35, voluntary manslaughter is a class 5 felony.
- Murder of the second degree–All cases of murder that do not meet the definition of capital or first-degree offenses are charged with second-degree murder. Many second-degree murder charges are brought when a suspect causes the death of another person while committing a felony (except those listed in the definition of first-degree murder)–even if that death is accidental. This offense is a class 3 felony, punishable by five to 40 years in prison and fines of up to $100,000.
- Murder of the first degree–This offense applies if you kill another person with malice and premeditation, or by poisoning, lying in wait, starving, or during the commission or an attempt to commit arson, rape, robbery, burglary, or a kidnapping This is a class 2 felony, punishable by 20 years to life in prison, along with fines of up to $100,000.
- Capital murder–Punishable by the death penalty or life in prison, capital murder applies to cases of contract murder, murder of a law enforcement officer, murder by a prisoner, multiple killings, murders resulting from drug trafficking, or the murder of a child younger than 14 years of age by someone over 21 among others.
- Felony Murder – This is defined as the accidental killing of another person that occurred during the commission of a felonious crime, even if hurting someone was not an intended part of the original crime. If the felony being committed is rape, arson, robbery, burglary, abduction, or another grievous offense then the murder will likely be pursued as first-degree murder. However, if a death resulted during a lesser felony, you can be charged with second-degree murder.
Consult a Roanoke Violent Crimes Attorney Right Away
As you can see, the penalties for homicide in Virginia vary greatly, depending on the evidence available and the circumstances leading up to it, but your situation is not hopeless. A skilled Roanoke criminal defense lawyer with substantial experience handling homicide cases will be your best resource to properly evaluate your situation as well as finding the best outcome possible.
If you or a loved one is suspected of homicide or have already been charged with murder or manslaughter, call Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico today at (540) 343-9349 to schedule an initial case consultation.