Breaking it down
There are two types of manslaughter in Virginia: voluntary and involuntary. Both are Class 5 felonies punishable by one to 10 years in prison and a maximum $2,500 fine.
- Voluntary manslaughter often is a crime of passion committed in the heat of rage with no malice, but with intent
- Involuntary manslaughter generally is accidentally killing someone while committing an unlawful act, or while improperly performing a lawful act
- Exhibiting a reckless disregard for human life can lead to a charge of aggravated involuntary manslaughter
Understandably, violent crimes in Virginia that involve the loss of human life are among the most grievous offenses you can face. While murder relates to the intended killing of another person, manslaughter in Virginia revolves around the unintended loss of life. Being charged with manslaughter is comparative less severe than murder, but contending with such a serious felony will still put your future and your freedom in tremendous danger.
Typically, your case will depend on the circumstances surrounding your charges and establishing your specific intent can make all the difference. This makes it imperative to discuss all your options with a skilled attorney with considerable experience handling complex issues and a long-track record of success. Whether you are charged with voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, you need a veteran Roanoke manslaughter attorney standing with you. By acting quickly and aggressively, you can craft a strong defense to protect your rights and preserve your freedom.
Virginia is one of only a handful of states that generally defines voluntary manslaughter through case law rather than by statute. For the most part, the definition dates to the 1846 case McWhirt v. Commonwealth, which makes manslaughter an unlawful killing without malice. It is important to note that malice is not the same thing as intent, rather, the commission of an act out of evil or viciousness. Intent, on the other hand, is the commission of an act on purpose. Intent can be present without malice, and intent is a necessary part of voluntary manslaughter. A killing described as voluntary manslaughter is often committed in the heat of passion or after a provocation with no planning, but with intent. For instance, if you returned home to find your spouse having an affair and became so incensed that you struck one of them with a heavy lamp near the bed, killing them, you can be charged with voluntary manslaughter. While you did not enter the situation with malice, you did act in the heat of passion with the necessary intent to cause harm because you picked up and used the lamp.
Furthermore, an 1872 case — Read v. Commonwealth — states that while a killing committed by an enraged person is voluntary manslaughter when the “rage” is removed, the same crime committed by a cooler head would be considered a murder. Therefore, if you witnessed your spouse’s affair, but left the house, only to return later to fatally strike either person, this would likely be charged as murder. This is based on the notion that by allowing enough time to pass between the provocation and the killing, a reasonable person’s passion would have cooled or subsided.
As you can see, the state of mind and presence of an overwhelming passion at the time of a killing matters a great deal because the penalties for voluntary manslaughter are far less severe than those of murder. Virginia Code §18.2-35 punishes voluntary manslaughter as a Class 5 felony, with a possible prison sentence of one to 10 years. When circumstances merit leniency, judges and juries have the discretion to impose a sentence of less than one year in jail. Class 5 felonies also may be punishable with a fine of up to $2,500.
Involuntary manslaughter is defined by case law as an accidental killing committed during an unlawful act that isn’t a felony or when someone is killed during an improperly performed, but otherwise lawful act. Since involuntary manslaughter can result from either legal and illegal action, there are several ways someone can be charged. If someone unlawfully discharges a firearm near a crowd and someone dies, the shooter probably had no intention of causing harm, but can nevertheless be charged with involuntary manslaughter. Additionally, if someone performs a legal action in a reckless manner, this can lead to involuntary manslaughter. For example, if a doctor fails to properly hook up a patient’s oxygen during a routine surgery and they die as a result, the may face involuntary manslaughter charges based on the doctor’s negligent care.
Virginia also includes another provision of involuntary manslaughter under Virginia Code §18.2-36-1, which specifically relates to causing the death of another person when driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A person who gets behind the wheel while intoxicated likely has no intent to hurt anyone, but most people know or should know that driving drunk poses a significant danger to others.
Involuntary manslaughter is also punished as a Class 5 felony in Virginia, unless your conduct is deemed so “gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life,” in which case you may be charged with aggravated involuntary manslaughter and face up to 20 years in prison with a mandatory one-year minimum served.
Manslaughter Defenses in Virginia
Whether a killing is charged as voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, it will most likely be prosecuted vigorously as a serious felony, much like a murder charge. Your main objective will focus on convincing the jury that you did not commit the crime or the incident did not meet the elements of either offense.
A lot will depend on the circumstances that led to your charges and with help from a skilled manslaughter criminal defense lawyer, you can build a compelling defense strategy and work towards reducing or eliminating the consequences. This will begin by scrutinizing the evidence against you and reviewing the facts of the case. If you acted out of a need to protect yourself or another person from severe bodily harm or death, then you may be able to assert an argument for self-defense. Additionally, there is often a lot of haste in homicide investigations. After all, law enforcement is trying to punish someone they consider a violent perpetrator, but police officers and prosecutors are known to make mistakes. For example, if materials were seized in a warrantless search, were improperly collected, or examined, your attorney can work to have them excluded. Furthermore, if you can show that the death occurred due to an accident and no intent or reckless behavior were present, the charges may be reduced or dismissed.
Facing Manslaughter Charges in Virginia?
If you’ve been charged with a crime related to manslaughter in Roanoke, the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico can help evaluate the details of your case and your options. For an appointment at our Roanoke office, call us at (540) 343-9349.