Involuntary manslaughter refers to the unintentional killing of another person, usually through reckless behavior or negligence. It’s different from other homicide offenses because it doesn’t require intent, deliberation, or premeditation.
Even with the distinction, involuntary manslaughter is still a serious offense that carries severe legal penalties and consequences. If you or a loved one are facing involuntary manslaughter charges, you should seek advice from a Texas criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
In this article, we’ll explore the details of involuntary manslaughter and provide real-world examples and case studies of this offense.
Distinctions Between Involuntary Manslaughter and Other Homicide Offenses
When it comes to differentiating between involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, and murder, the key factors include the level of intent and culpability involved.
In cases where the homicide occurred as a result of the commission of a felony, what would otherwise be considered involuntary manslaughter can be enhanced into felony murder.
For example, if, after committing a burglary (which is a felony), the offender speeds off dangerously and causes an accident that leads to death, they could be charged with Felony Murder, even if they hadn’t intended to kill anyone.
Involuntary Manslaughter: This charge is used against those who accidentally, through recklessness or negligence, cause the death of another person. It’s different from voluntary manslaughter and murder because there is no premeditation or malice involved before the incident that causes death.
For example, a drunk driving accident that results in death may fall under involuntary manslaughter.
Voluntary Manslaughter: While voluntary manslaughter involves the intention to kill, it lacks the element of premeditation required for a murder charge. Voluntary manslaughter offenses usually occur in the “heat of passion” as a result of adequate provocation, a fight breaking out, or sudden intense emotions.
For example, Bob comes home to find his wife cheating on him. Out of sudden anger, he gets into an altercation with his wife’s lover and kills him. Bob may then be charged with voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.
Murder: Murder is the most serious type of homicide and is therefore met with the most severe punishments. The following elements must be present for a homicide to be classified as a murder:
- The defendant committed an act that directly resulted in the death of another person
- The defendant acted with the intent to kill or cause serious bodily injury
- The defendant took the life of another without lawful excuse or justification
- The killing was premeditated (preplanned), or the defendant acted with malice aforethought. In other words, the killing did not happen in a “heat of passion”.
The severity of the penalties for the above offenses matches the level of culpability and intent behind the crime. That’s why, out of all the criminal homicide offenses, a Murder charge carries the most severe punishment (since it involves premeditation, clear intent, and malice), followed by voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, respectively.
Degrees of Involuntary Manslaughter
Involuntary Manslaughter is categorized into varying degrees depending on the circumstances of the case.
The first type of Involuntary Manslaughter happens through recklessness and criminal negligence. This involves the defendant committing an act that unintentionally results in the death of another person.
- Reckless behavior is when the defendant is aware of the risks they are creating through their actions, but they choose to act in that way regardless.
- Criminal negligence is careless or thoughtless behavior that demonstrates a conscious disregard for safety precautions. In other words, the defendant may not necessarily be aware of the risks they are creating but reasonably should be. This is sometimes referred to as “gross negligence.”
Involuntary Manslaughter caused by criminal or gross negligence is valid for both an action that causes death, as well as death that results from the defendant’s failure to perform an action that they had the duty to perform.
For example, if someone operates an amusement park ride but fails to follow safety protocols or maintenance, and this results in a passenger’s death, they could face Involuntary Manslaughter on account of gross negligence. Similarly, if a child dies as a result of being left in a hot car, the parent or carer who was responsible for the child’s safety could be found to have acted with gross negligence for leaving them in the hot vehicle.
Misdemeanor Manslaughter is sometimes used to charge those who unintentionally cause the death of another person while they were committing a misdemeanor. The threshold for Misdemeanor Manslaughter varies by state. However, it typically involves a death that occurred during the commission of a low-level crime that’s punishable by just a fine or less than one year in jail.
This isn’t always the case, however. For example, a first-time DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) in Texas is typically a Class B misdemeanor. However, if someone dies or sustains injuries that later lead to death as a result of the DWI crash, the defendant can be charged with Intoxication Manslaughter—a second-degree felony.
Accidental Deaths and Criminal Liability
Like all homicides, Involuntary Manslaughter involves one or more offenders who are held legally responsible and accountable for the victim’s death. This accountability is known as criminal liability, and it is determined by the circumstances surrounding the incident that led to the unintentional or accidental death.
The following factors influence criminal liability:
- Actus reus (guilty action or conduct): evidence that the accused committed an unlawful act that directly led to a person’s death or acted in a way that demonstrated criminal negligence or recklessness.
- Mens rea (intention or knowledge): while intent to kill is not required for Involuntary Manslaughter, there must be evidence of negligence or recklessness. For this, the accused should have been aware, or at least reasonably should have been aware, of the risk or danger their action (or inaction) would create.
- Causation: There must be no doubt that the accused’s reckless or negligent behavior led to the victim’s death. In other words, the victim’s death would not have occurred without the reckless or negligent behavior of the accused.
Involuntary Manslaughter encompasses accidental deaths that happen in various situations and settings, for example:
- Accidental deaths in the workplace
- Death due to medical malpractice
- Improper handling of firearms
- Road traffic accidents
The circumstances surrounding the homicide, the nature of the incident, the presence of evidence demonstrating negligence or recklessness, and direct causation between said negligence or recklessness are all factors taken into consideration when determining criminal liability.
Examples and Case Studies
Accidental deaths in the workplace: If an employee dies in an incident at the workplace due to the employer failing to provide necessary safety equipment, disregarding safety protocols, or otherwise acting in a way that constitutes criminal negligence, the employer could face Involuntary Manslaughter charges.
- The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010 resulted in the death of 11 workers. Several factors contributed to the accident, including negligence, a failure to comply with safety measures, and a lack of adequate communication. The tragic offshore drilling incident led to serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and felony manslaughter being brought against several individuals from the drilling company, BP Exploration and Production Inc.
Death due to medical malpractice: Sometimes, a medical professional such as a surgeon or consultant may be held criminally liable for a patient’s death due to gross negligence or recklessness during the treatment they provided. For example, a misdiagnosis that prevents the patient from getting life-saving treatment could result in Involuntary Manslaughter. Similarly, if the medical professional’s actions deviate from accepted standards, resulting in a person’s death, they could also face Involuntary Manslaughter.
- In 2022, a former nurse was convicted of negligent homicide after a three-day trial in Nashville for a fatal drug error in 2017, in which she retrieved the wrong drug from a medication cabinet. She “overlooked several warning signs as she withdrew the wrong drug” before administering it to the victim. The error resulted in the patient’s death.
Improper handling of firearms: If a person accidentally causes another person’s death due to the mishandling of firearms, they could be charged with Involuntary Manslaughter.
- In October 2021, during the filming of the movie Rust, Alec Baldwin was handed a prop firearm which he believed contained blanks. As part of his role, he pointed the firearm towards the cinematographer and discharged the weapon. Unbeknownst to him, the weapon contained live ammunition. The tragic Rust incident led to the cinematographer’s death, and involuntary manslaughter charges were subsequently brought against the movie’s armorer, Hanna Guitierrez-Reed, who was responsible for weapons and ammunition on the set, and Alec Baldwin, who—as well as being the actor who fired the lethal weapon—was also the movie’s producer.
Road traffic accidents: One of the most common types of Involuntary Manslaughter is road traffic accidents resulting from negligent or reckless driving, including speeding, distracted driving—such as texting while driving—and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- In November 2020, Mario Preciado, who had been driving while intoxicated, rear-ended a Ford Mustang that was stopped at a red light. The accident caused lethal injuries that led to the tragic death of one of the passengers in the Mustang. Preciado pleaded guilty to Intoxication Manslaughter and was subsequently handed a 23-year prison sentence and a $2,000 fine for the offense.
Factors Influencing Sentencing Decisions
Penalties and sentencing for Involuntary Manslaughter vary widely, as courts typically consider several factors—all of which can differ from case to case. From victim impact statements to the defendant’s criminal history, every aspect surrounding the case is often scrutinized before a decision is made.
The following factors commonly influence sentencing decisions:
- Criminal history: If the defendant has a criminal record, it may be used to demonstrate a pattern of dangerous behavior, resulting in more severe sentencing. Furthermore, if the defendant has a prior conviction for the same—or related—offense, it could present an aggravating factor and be used to enhance the charges.
- Level of culpability: The defendant’s perceived degree of responsibility or guilt can greatly influence sentencing in Involuntary Manslaughter cases. Culpability is determined by assessing the defendant’s intent, recklessness, and negligence. Evidence of reckless behavior that contributed to the offense can be used to increase the severity of the penalties.
- Mental state: The defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense is often taken into consideration in sentencing. For example, if the defendant has a mental illness that can cause impaired reasoning, this could impact their level of culpability.
- Circumstances surrounding the offense: All circumstances surrounding the incident that led to death are taken into account to determine the defendant’s level of culpability, including where the offense took place, how, and when, and the victim’s actions as well (as the defendant’s.)
For example, in a road traffic accident caused by distracted driving, if the victim was drunk and dangerously stumbling onto the road, this could be used as a mitigating factor to reduce the defendant’s level of culpability.
Other influencing factors can include the jurisdiction’s sentencing guidelines, the interests of public safety, and deterrence—where the court uses the case to set an example to deter others from committing the same offense.
Legal Consequences and Penalties
Convictions for Intoxication Manslaughter come with severe legal penalties and consequences, which often include fines, jail time, and restitution.
- Imprisonment: Involuntary Manslaughter often results in jail time. Depending on the severity of the offense, the damage caused, and the jurisdiction, a sentence for Involuntary Manslaughter could last for several months to several years.
- Fines: Offenders could be ordered to pay a fine ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands. For example, the maximum fine in Illinois is $25,000, and even heftier elsewhere.
- Restitution: If convicted, an offender may be required to provide restitution to cover costs and expenses incurred by the victim’s family as a result of the offense—including hospital and funeral costs.
In addition to legal penalties, offenders may face collateral consequences, including the suspension of professional licenses, the loss of the right to own firearms, and sometimes voting rights. Additionally, a permanent criminal record of manslaughter—even involuntary—will negatively impact various aspects of the offender’s life, including their income, their ability to find work, and even their eligibility to secure housing.
Legal Defenses in Involuntary Manslaughter Cases
Several defenses can be used against Involuntary Manslaughter charges, including, but not limited to, the following examples:
- Lack of proof that the defendant acted with recklessness or negligence.
- Showing that the death was not directly caused by the defendant’s actions—for example, where it can be proven that the death was caused by unrelated medical complications.
- An impaired mental state or diminished mental capacity may be used as a defense against Involuntary Manslaughter in some cases and some jurisdictions.
Involuntary Manslaughter cases are complex, and convictions often result in severe consequences, including imprisonment, fines, and a life-long negative impact on the offender’s personal and professional life.
It’s crucial for anyone facing Involuntary Manslaughter charges to seek legal counsel and advice from a criminal defense attorney who can help build a strong defense and fight for the best possible outcome, which can include reduced sentences, probation, or even—where applicable—dismissal.
Involuntary Manslaughter charges differ from state to state. A local criminal defense attorney will have an extensive understanding of the statutes applicable within their jurisdiction and can, therefore, offer tailored and accurate advice.
Additionally, it’s easy for defendants to forget that they have rights, too. A criminal defense attorney can ensure their client’s rights are upheld and protected throughout the legal process.
FAQs About Involuntary Manslaughter
What Kind of Sentence Can Someone Get for Involuntary Manslaughter in Texas?
In Texas, manslaughter is classed as a second-degree felony. The legal penalties include a fine of up to $10,000 and a jail sentence of between two and 20 years.
Texas law does not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, instead
categorizing them both under “manslaughter.” Depending on the circumstances of the offense, the charge can be considered “manslaughter,” “vehicular manslaughter,” or “intoxication manslaughter.”
How Does Homicide Differ from Involuntary Manslaughter?
Homicide is the killing of one person by another. Voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, felony murder, and murder are all different types of criminal homicide. The difference between involuntary manslaughter and other types of homicide lies in the lack of intent. Involuntary manslaughter is when someone is accidentally (or indirectly) killed as a result of reckless or negligent conduct rather than killed intentionally, deliberately, or with malice.
What’s the Minimum Sentence for Involuntary Manslaughter?
The legal penalties associated with involuntary manslaughter differ from one state to another, but typically, it’s considered a felony and is, therefore, punishable by at least 12 months in prison. In some cases, jail time can be suspended, and defendants may be granted probation.
However, every case is different, and the outcome of an involuntary manslaughter case will largely depend on the circumstances of the offense, the jurisdiction in question, and various other factors. A criminal defense attorney could provide more accurate information and tailored advice.
Why Is Involuntary Manslaughter Considered a Crime?
Although most involuntary slaughter cases do not involve an intentional, deliberate, or premeditated homicide, the death happens as a result of criminally negligence or criminally reckless behavior or through the commission of another crime.
For example, assuming no laws were broken and the defendant was driving carefully and lawfully, a freak car accident that leads to death probably will not result in involuntary manslaughter. In contrast, if it is found that the driver was drunk, they could face involuntary manslaughter charges.
Could You Provide an Example of Involuntary Manslaughter?
After closing a successful deal at work, John joins his colleagues at the bar for a few drinks. Even though he knows he’s probably over the legal limit, he decides he feels sober enough to drive home. Unfortunately, John is involved in a car crash that results in the death of a bystander. He could now be charged with involuntary manslaughter since he caused a person’s death while committing an offense (drunk driving) without malice, intent, or premeditation.
Ben has vast experience in defending criminal cases ranging from DWIs to assault, drug possession, and many more. He has countless criminal charges dismissed and pled down. Among many other awards, one of the Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorneys in Texas and winner of Top 40 under 40.