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
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 back to the 1846 case McWhirt v. Commonwealth, which makes manslaughter an unlawful killing without malice.
Malice is not the same thing as intent. Malice is the commission of an act out of evil or viciousness. Intent is the commission of an act on purpose. Intent be present without malice, and intent is a necessary part of voluntary manslaughter. A killing charged as voluntary manslaughter often is a crime committed in the heat of passion or provocation with no planning, but with intent.
An 1872 case — Read v. Commonwealth — said a killing committed by someone who was enraged would be a voluntary manslaughter. Without the rage, the same crime committed by a cooler head would have been a murder. Similarly, allowing enough time to pass between the provocation and the killing that a reasonable person’s passion would have cooled also would be a murder rather than manslaughter.
That state of mind and presence of an overwhelming passion at the time of a killing matters because the penalties for voluntary manslaughter are 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 while in the course of an unlawful act that isn’t a felony. Involuntary manslaughter also can be charged when someone is killed because you improperly perform a lawful act.
Virginia Code §18.2-36-1 adds another definition — causing the death of another person when you’re driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Involuntary manslaughter also is 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 the latter scenario, you may be charged with aggravated involuntary manslaughter and face up to 20 years in prison with a mandatory one-year minimum served.
Facing manslaughter charges in Virginia?
If you’ve been charged with a crime related to manslaughter in Virginia, 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 .