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What Is the Difference Between Voluntary and Involuntary Manslaughter?

The concept of manslaughter is often misunderstood. People have simplified definitions like “killing someone on accident.” While that is certainly an element of the crime, it doesn’t tell the full story. Imagine two MMA fighters enter the ring. The fight is particularly brutal, and one of the opponents dies. This was an unintentional killing, but it doesn’t qualify as manslaughter.

First of all, each fighter assumed the risk. They were willing participants in a dangerous sport. In a manslaughter crime, the deceased is not a willing participant.

In this example, both fighters are also engaged in a legal sport. Neither of them can be arrested simply for fighting, regardless of whether they survive. Manslaughter involves an illegal or dangerously negligent act.

The confusion around the definition of manslaughter worsens when you realize there are two, separate manslaughter classifications: voluntary and involuntary. What, exactly, is the difference?

Essentially, involuntary manslaughter involves a wrongful act that led to someone’s death. Voluntary manslaughter is also an accidental killing, but it involves the intent to cause harm.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Recall that manslaughter may involve an illegal act. The alleged killer had no desire to harm someone, but their incorrect behavior still caused a death.

A clear example of this is drunk driving. When an inebriated individual gets behind the wheel, they probably aren’t thinking, “I hope I run someone over.” However, they probably knew that drunk driving was illegal, dangerous, and wrong. By turning that key, they already broke the law. If their impaired driving led to someone’s death, they can be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Sometimes, involuntary manslaughter involves a grossly negligent act. Imagine someone shoots an arrow from the roof of a tall skyscraper. The arrow finds a pedestrian below, killing them. Think of someone going fifty miles over the speed limit, losing control of their car, and killing a pedestrian. In either scenario, the negligent party could be arrested for involuntary manslaughter.

Voluntary Manslaughter

“Voluntary manslaughter” is a confusing term. The words don’t seem to belong together. If manslaughter is an accident, how could it be voluntary?

The act of harm is intentional, but the death is not. Imagine two enraged men getting into a fight. One has a physical advantage over the other and quickly sends him to the floor. Instead of ending the fight there, the man who’s still standing pounces on the floored man. He begins unleashing a ceaseless beating. Pounded over and over into the floor, the other man dies.

Afterward, the victorious fighter realizes what happens and is horrified. “I didn’t mean to kill him,” he says, and he’s telling the truth. This is voluntary manslaughter.

In part two of this series, we discuss South Carlina’s penalties for manslaughter, and we present defenses you can use against manslaughter allegations.

If you’ve been accused of manslaughter, reach out to our firm today for a free consultation. You can call us at (803) 938-4952 or contact us online.