The crime of involuntary manslaughter in Michigan is one of the lowest level homicide offenses you can be charged with when someone is killed. This category is intended to cover homicides that fall into the “accidental” category, meaning that the actor did not intend to cause death but it still resulted from his or her negligent or criminal actions and he or she should be held responsible. Although considered a lesser offense than murder or voluntary manslaughter, don’t let these labels fool you. “Any person who shall commit the crime of manslaughter shall be guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison, not more than 15 years or by fine of not more than 7,500 dollars, or both, at the discretion of the court.” MCL 750.321. The statute proscribes the same penalty for both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, but both are distinct offenses under common law. People v Stubenvoll, 62 Mich 329, 331; 28 NW 883 (1886). This blog article with focus on involuntary manslaughter.
“Involuntary manslaughter is the killing of another without malice and unintentionally, but in doing some unlawful act not amounting to a felony nor naturally tending to cause death or great bodily harm, or in negligently doing some act lawful in itself, or by the negligent omission to perform a legal duty.” People v Ryczek, 224 Mich 106, 110; 194 NW 609 (1923). This is distinct from voluntary manslaughter which parallels the crime of murder where the defendant must be found to have an intent to kill or an intent to do serious bodily harm to the deceased, but malice was negated under the circumstances by provocation and the homicide was committed in the heat of passion. People v Townes, 391 Mich 578, 589; 218 NW2d 136 (1974).
A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter if the prosecutor can prove all of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt (Michigan Criminal Jury Instruction 16.10):
- First, that the individual caused the death of the victim, that is, that the victim died as a result of the individual’s act.
- Second, in doing the act that caused the victim’s death, the individual acted in a grossly negligent manner OR in doing the act that caused the victim’s death, the individual intended to injure the victim. For example, an individual who commits assault and battery with the intent to inflict injury but instead causes an unintended death, then this amounts to, at least, involuntary manslaughter. People v Datema, 448 Mich 585; 533 NW2d 272 (1995).
- Third, that the individual caused the death without lawful excuse or justification.
The following are also considered involuntary manslaughter under Michigan law:
- “The wilful killing of an unborn quick child by any injury to the mother of such child, which would be murder if it resulted in the death of such mother, shall be deemed manslaughter.” MCL 750.322.
- “Any person who shall administer to any woman pregnant with a quick child any medicine, drug or substance whatever, or shall use or employ any instrument or other means, with intent thereby to destroy such child, unless the same shall have been necessary to preserve the life of such mother, shall, in case the death of such child or of such mother be thereby produced, be guilty of manslaughter.” MCL 750.323(1).
- “A person who wounds, maims, or injures another person by discharging a firearm that is pointed or aimed intentionally but without malice at another person is guilty of manslaughter if the wounds, maiming, or injuries result in death.” MCL 750.329(1). This does not apply to peace officers in the lawful performance of their duties. MCL 750.329(2).
The distinguishing factor between murder and involuntary manslaughter is the lack of malice. People v Doss, 406 Mich 90, 99; 276 NW2d 9 (1979). Malice is defined as “the intent to kill, the intent to cause great bodily harm, or the intent an act in wanton and willful disregard of the likelihood that the natural tendency of such behavior is to cause death or great bodily harm.” People v Henderson, 306 Mich App 1, 9; 854 NW2d 234 (2014). Malice can be “inferred from evidence that a defendant intentionally set a motion in force likely to cause death or great bodily harm.” People v Reeves, 202 Mich App 706, 712; 510 NW2d 198 (1993). No malice is required for involuntary manslaughter, but the prosecutor must prove gross negligence beyond a reasonable doubt.
In People v Ogg, 26 Mich App 372; 182 NW2d 570 (1970), the defendant locked her two children in their bedroom when they gave him trouble by “knifing the door”, meaning he wedged a knife between the door and the casing in such a way to prevent opening of the door. The children were locked in the room continuously from the previous evening, the next morning and through the noon hour. Defendant left the residence for employment training and did not check on the children still locked in the room. While she was away, a fire broke out at the home and both children died of smoke inhalation because they could not escape the room. Defendant was charged and convicted with involuntary manslaughter. The Michigan Court of Appeals found that the charge against the defendant was proper. “The duty of a parent to provide necessary care for a child’s health and well-being, which defendant was lawfully obliged to perform”, and “the negligent omission in the performance of [said duty] properly gives rise to a charge of involuntary manslaughter.” Id at 381. The Court of Appeals found “[t]he acts of defendant in placing her children, or allowing them with her knowledge to be locked, in a small windowless upstairs room, without proper heat, light, food, clothing or bedding, and without means of escape, and, in reckless disregard of the consequences of such action, absenting herself from the home in pursuit of her own business, constitutes, in our opinion, culpable negligence.” Id at 383. “Defendant left the children unattended, without having made any effort to determine their physical condition since the day prior to the tragic fire which claimed their lives while they were without supervision and care.” Id at 383. “To warrant a conviction of manslaughter, the conduct of the accused must have been the proximate cause of death, and must have been characterized by such a degree of culpable negligence as to amount to gross negligence; and that is a question for the jury.” Id at 386. The Court of Appeals found there was sufficient evidence of a legal duty that was breached, that the breach was the proximate cause of death, and that the conduct amounted to gross negligence to uphold the conviction.
However, a legal duty must exist to find a breach or gross negligence. In People v Beardsley, 150 Mich 206; 113 NW 1128 (1907), the defendant’s wife was gone for the weekend and the defendant had another woman over for wining and dining. This woman ordered morphine tablets from the pharmacy, took three of them and passed out. The defendant took her to the neighbor’s house instead of the hospital and placed her on the bed where she eventually died. She was charged and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The Michigan Supreme Court threw out the conviction and found that the defendant did not have any legal duty to the deceased woman to take care of her, so he could not be legally held responsible for her death to constitute manslaughter. The duty neglected must be an actual legal duty, not a moral one.
A motor vehicle collision that leads to a death can also be grounds for involuntary manslaughter. In People v McCoy, 223 Mich App 500; 566 NW2d 687 (1997), the defendant struck two sisters who were standing on the yellow line in the middle of the road waiting for traffic to clear to cross. The defendant was travelling fifty-five miles per hour when the speed limit was thirty-five miles per hour. The Michigan Court of Appeals found a violation of the speed limit by itself is not enough to establish the element of gross negligence. However, under certain circumstances, a violation of the speed law can be gross income if the speed travelled is excessive (e.g. one hundred miles per hour in a residential neighborhood), there was heavy traffic, fog or slick roads. The circumstances in this case warranted gross negligence due to the excessive speed, according to the Court of Appeals, so the conviction was warranted. Michigan courts have upheld convictions for involuntary manslaughter related to an automobile if the judge or jury is “”[able to] determine [that] the defendant was guilty of gross and culpable negligence in the operation of his motor vehicle and that said gross negligence in the operation of such motor vehicle was the proximate cause of the death of the deceased.” People v. Layman, 299 Mich 141, 145-146; 299 NW 840 (1941).
Michigan used to have a separate statute for vehicular negligent homicide, but it was repealed effective October 31, 2010. In its place, the Michigan Vehicle Code has a penal provision for reckless driving causing death (MCL 257.626(4)) and operating while intoxicated causing death (MCL 257.625(4)). These laws have the same penalty as involuntary manslaughter in that the offender can be punished with up to 15 years in prison. However, the crucial difference is that the prosecutor has to prove gross negligence for involuntary manslaughter (which is very circumstantial), but only has to prove actual intoxication (e.g. BAC of 0.08 or more) or actual reckless driving resulting in death to secure a 15-year conviction under the Michigan Vehicle Code. These statutes appear similar to involuntary manslaughter but the prosecutor does not have to show gross negligence beyond a reasonable doubt. People v Lardie, 452 Mich 231; 551 NW2d 656 (1996).
The Court in People v Ryczek, 224 Mich 106, 110; 194 NW 609 (1923) held that the commission of an “unlawful act not amounting to a felony” resulting in death can be the basis of an involuntary charge. What if the unlawful act committed is a felony? In People v Holtschlag, 471 Mich 1; 684 NW2d 730 (2004), the defendant caused the death of a woman after mixing a harmful substance (GHB) into her drink. The defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The Michigan Court of Appeals threw out the conviction, indicating that the unlawful act was a felony and did not apply to involuntary manslaughter. The Michigan Supreme Court reinstated the conviction, finding that the prosecutor was still able to proceed on a conviction under the “gross negligence” theory even if a felony was committed. If a homicide was unintentional but does not amount to murder or voluntary manslaughter, then it is likely involuntary manslaughter provided there was either gross negligence or an intent to injure.
Although involuntary manslaughter is a homicide charge, it is not a necessary lesser included offense of first-degree and second-degree murder. This means that a defendant accused of murder cannot automatically ask the judge to instruct the jury on involuntary manslaughter because the elements between them are distinct. “The elements of involuntary manslaughter, although not completely exclusive of those found in voluntary manslaughter are distinguishable in several respects… [t]hey define a crime that originates out of circumstances often quite different from those found in voluntary manslaughter and apply to a defendant who did not proceed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury.” People v Townes, 301 Mich 578, 590-591; 218 NW2d 136 (1974). Where the evidence suggests only that the criminal act naturally tends to cause death or great bodily harm, then an instruction on the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter is not justified. People v Beach, 429 Mich 450, 478; 418 NW2d 861 (1988). Likewise, a defendant is not entitled to an involuntary manslaughter charge at a murder trial if he is arguing that the killing was due to justified deadly force in self-defense since they are inconsistent with one another. People v Heflin, 434 Mich 482, 503-504; 456 NW2d 10 (1990).
A charge of involuntary manslaughter is very serious and, despite the death being unintended, you can still face serious fines and prison time. You need the best criminal defense lawyer in your corner from the very beginning to work towards the best resolution of your case. The accused can be found not guilty of this defense if a skilled defense lawyer shows the jury that the death was completely accidental, that there was no gross negligence, that the defendant had no duty towards the decedent, or that the defendant’s criminal acts were not the proximate cause of the death. Even if the evidence is strong, good legal counsel can negotiate the charge to a lesser offense such as felonious assault or moving violation causing death. The stakes are too high to settle for less than the very best.
If you or a loved one are accused of any crime and need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.