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What Are The Grounds For Voluntary Manslaughter In Michigan?

by | Mar 5, 2020 | Homicide Offenses |


The crime of voluntary manslaughter is a homicide offense in the State of Michigan that can result in substantial fines and prison time.  It is not as severe as the crime of murder (which can result in prison for life) but is much more serious than negligent homicide.  “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 voluntary manslaughter.

Voluntary manslaughter is similar to 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 by provocation and the homicide was committed in the heat of passion.  People v Townes, 391 Mich 578, 589; 218 NW2d 136 (1974).  This is distinct from involuntary manslaughter, which 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).

A person is guilty of voluntary manslaughter if the prosecutor can prove all of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt (Michigan Criminal Jury Instruction 16.8):

  • First, that the individual caused the death of the victim (that is, the victim died as a result of the individual’s act).
  • Second, that the individual had one of these three states of mind:
    • He or she intended to kill; or
    • He or she intended to do great bodily harm to the victim; or
    • He or she knowingly created a very high risk of death or great bodily harm knowing that death or such harm would be the likely result of his or her actions.
  • Third, that the individual caused the death without lawful excuse or justification.

The big difference between murder and voluntary manslaughter is that there are mitigating circumstances to reduce the element of malice.  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 Hopson, 178 Mich App 406, 410; 444 NW2d 167 (1989).  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).  Manslaughter generally lacks the wanton and willful disregard of human life required for murder.  Wellar v People, 30 Mich 16 (1874).  The fact finder must determine from an examination of all of the circumstances surrounding the killing that malice was negated by provocation and the homicide committed in the heat of passion. People v Scott, 6 Mich 287, 295 (1859).

In Michigan, murder may be reduced to voluntary manslaughter if the individual acted out of passion or anger brought about by adequate cause and before the individual had a reasonable time to calm down. For manslaughter, the following two things must be present (Michigan Criminal Jury Instruction 16.9):

  • First, when the individual acted, his or her thinking must be disturbed by emotional excitement to the point that a reasonable person might have acted on impulse, without thinking twice, from passion instead of judgment. This emotional excitement must have been the result of something that would cause a reasonable person to act rashly or on impulse.
  • Second, the killing itself must result from this emotional excitement. The individual must have acted before a reasonable time had passed to calm down and return to reason. The test is whether a reasonable time passed under the circumstances of this case.

While provocation may be a mitigating factor to murder, the lack of provocation is not a necessary element that the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a manslaughter conviction.  People v King, 98 Mich App 146, 151; 296 NW2d 211 (1980).  It is only a consideration that the judge and jury can make in deciding whether a lesser homicide offense is warranted.

In Maher v People, 10 Mich 212 (1862), the defendant shot and killed the victim about 30 minutes after he discovered that the victim was having an extramarital affair with his wife.  He was convicted of murder, but the Michigan Supreme Court vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial because the evidence of adultery would have gone to show the state of mind of the defendant for the jury to consider provocation and possible a reduced charge of manslaughter.  “If the act of killing, though intentional, be committed under the influence of passion or in heat of blood, produced by an adequate or reasonable provocation, and before a reasonable time has elapsed for the blood to cool and reason to resume its habitual control, and is the result of the temporary excitement, by which the control of reason was disturbed, rather than of any wickedness of heart or cruelty or recklessness of disposition; then the law, out of indulgence to the frailty of human nature, or rather, in recognition of the laws upon which human nature is constituted, very properly regards the offense as of a less heinous character than murder, and gives it the designation of manslaughter.”  Id.

However, manslaughter does not exist if the killing occurred after a period of reflection or that the response would not have been that of an ordinary and reasonable man.  In People v Younger, 380 Mich 678 (1968), the defendant came home unexpectedly from work at 3 a.m. to find his wife, another female and another male having a drink.  He greeted the guests and was informed by his wife that one of his dogs had died.  He entered an adjoining bedroom, kissed his sleeping child, then began to cry.  Sometime later, he left the bedroom and went downstairs to the basement to obtain his hunting rifle and load it with shells.  He went upstairs and confronted his wife about her past transgressions and the fact she had a male guest over in the middle of the night.  He ordered her to get on her knees at the davenport and start praying.  After a period of additional taunting, he shot her 16 times and killed her.  The trial court found under these circumstances that he was not entitled to a manslaughter jury instruction and he was convicted of murder.  The Michigan Supreme Court agreed:

  • “At the threshold of every manslaughter case, the killing, to be manslaughter and not murder, must have been the product of an act of passion; it must have been committed in a moment of frenzy or of temporary excitement. Manslaughter is homicide devoid of actions which require unimpassioned calculation for their accomplishment. If there be actions manifesting deliberation, it cannot be said, ‘legally, that the homicide was the product of provocation which unseated reason and allowed passion free rein. Thus, the nature and quality of the act of homicide first must be examined to determine whether it is that of an ordinary man responding to the heat of passion or that of an ordinary man functioning with deliberation. Only if the defendant’s actions can be found to be acts of passion is it appropriate to inquire into the legal sufficiency of the asserted provocation. In this case of Younger, we conclude that defendant’s own conduct on the fatal night precludes a finding that he had been bereft of reason by passions run rampant. A description of his actions, much of which is conceded by defendant and the balance of which is uncontradicted on this record, establishes the point we make.” Id at 681-682.

The provocation necessary to mitigate a homicide from murder to manslaughter is that which causes the defendant to act out of passion rather than reason.  People v Townes, 391 Mich 578, 590; 218 NW2d 136 (1974).  The defendant’s emotions must be so intense that they distort the defendant’s practical reasoning, but the provocation must be adequate to cause a reasonable person to lose control.  This means that not every hot-tempered person who flies into a rage at the slightest insult can claim manslaughter.  In People v Pouncey, 473 Mich 382; 471 NW2d 346 (1991), the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the second-degree murder conviction of the defendant despite his claim that the jury should have been instructed on manslaughter.  The defendant stated that he was provoked by the victim when he started an argument and threatened to put a defendant “on his head” and “beat his ass”, but no blows were given.  After the verbal exchange, the defendant went into the house to obtain a shotgun, then emerged to open fire.  The Michigan Supreme Court could not find manslaughter under these facts and held that insulting words are not adequate provocation.  Id at 392-393.

However, manslaughter is not justified under circumstances amounting to “imperfect self-defense”.  In Michigan, justified self-defense (even with deadly force) requires that the person claiming to use self-defense cannot be the initial aggressor of violence.  In some jurisdictions, the doctrine of imperfect self-defense, where the defendant was the initial aggressor, may mitigate a charge of murder to manslaughter.  However, The Michigan Supreme Court held in People v Reese, 491 Mich 127, 815 NW2d 85 (2012) that “imperfect self-defense” is not recognized in this state, so it cannot be an independent basis to negate malice.

A charge of voluntary manslaughter is very serious and should not be taken lightly.  In addition to the fines and prison time that will come with this felony conviction, the defendant’s reputation in the community will be destroyed forever.  You need the best criminal defense lawyer in your corner from the very beginning to work towards the best resolution of your case.  A complete defense to voluntary manslaughter include the defendant acting in justified self-defense, that he or she was legally insane, that he was in a different location when the killing occurred (“alibi”), or that the killing was accidental (e.g. involuntary manslaughter).  Even if the evidence against you is strong, a skilled defense lawyer can negotiate a reduction to a lesser charge that can limit fines and incarceration.  You only get one opportunity to put on your best case.  Don’t leave anything to chance!

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.


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