In Penal Code 192 PC, California law defines voluntary manslaughter as the unlawful killing of a human being that occurs
- during a sudden quarrel,
- in the heat of passion, or
- based on an honest but unreasonable belief in the need to defend oneself.
The offense is a felony with a sentencing range of 3, 6, or 11 years in state prison.
Voluntary manslaughter is a lesser included offense to murder. Prosecutors rarely file California Penal Code 192 as an original charge. The offense usually comes up in murder cases, where the accused admits to killing the victim, but seeks to have the charge reduced from murder to manslaughter.
Prosecutors in a murder case may agree to a plea bargain in which the accused pleads guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a dismissal of the murder charge. Or the jury in a murder trial could find the defendant guilty of the lesser offense of manslaughter, rather than the charged offense of murder.
Murder, by contrast, carries a prison sentence of
- 15 years to life in California state prison, or
- 25 years to life in the case of first-degree murder.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. How does California law define voluntary manslaughter?
- 2. What are some examples of voluntary manslaughter cases?
- 3. What are the best defenses to Penal Code 192 PC?
- 4. What is the sentence for voluntary manslaughter in California?
- 5. Are there related crimes?
1. How does California law define voluntary manslaughter?
California’s voluntary manslaughter law says that people are guilty of the crime if they take a human life either:
- upon a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion, or
- upon unreasonable self-defense, or, the unreasonable but good faith belief in having to act in self-defense (also known as imperfect self-defense).1
A prosecutor must prove the following to successfully convict a person of voluntary manslaughter charges by means of a quarrel or in the heat of passion:
- the defendant was provoked,
- as a result of being provoked, the defendant acted rashly and under the influence of intense emotion that obscured his/her reasoning or judgment,2 and
- the provocation would have caused an average person to act rashly and without due deliberation – that is, from passion rather than from judgment.3
For purposes of this statute, “heat of passion” means any violent or intense emotion that causes a person to act impulsively. If, between the time a defendant is provoked and the time he/she kills, the accused had enough time to “cool off” and regain his/her ability to think rationally, then the defendant would more likely be guilty of premeditated murder than manslaughter.4
Note that, under PC 192, “manslaughter” is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice.5
“Malice aforethought” exists when a person acts with either:
- premeditation or an intent to kill (known as express malice), or
- a wanton disregard for human life (known as implied malice).6
2. What are some examples of voluntary manslaughter cases?
The following are examples of some cases where courts found sufficient provocation to reduce a murder charge to a charge of voluntary manslaughter under Penal Code 192.
Confronting a Relative’s Murder Suspect
In People v. Brooks, the defendant was at the crime scene where his brother had just been stabbed to death. People at the scene told the defendant who the alleged murderer was, and this person was also present at the scene. The defendant attacked the alleged suspect, but police broke up the fight. The defendant then left and returned two hours later with his gun when he shot and killed the alleged suspect.
The court said that informing a family member that a relative was murdered is a legally adequate provocation for voluntary manslaughter. It further reasoned that even though two hours had passed between the time the defendant learned the information and shot the victim, the defendant still acted in the “heat of passion” since the defendant was still extremely upset.7
Being Tormented by One’s Lover
In People v. Borchers, the defendant was prompted to kill his lover based on a series of events that included admitting to infidelity, trying to jump out of his moving car, taking a gun and threatening to kill herself, pleading with the defendant to kill her, and taunting him by asking if he was too “chicken” to pull the gun’s trigger.
The court found that the defendant killed in wild desperation induced by the victim’s long-continued provocation.8
3. What are the best defenses to Penal Code 192 PC?
Criminal defense lawyers can adopt a legal strategy to help clients contest charges under this statute. Three common ones include showing that a defendant:
- acted out of self-defense.
- was insane at the time of the killing.
- killed someone on accident.
3.1. Self-defense/defense of others
California’s self-defense laws allow defendants to kill another person when they kill to protect themselves or another person from:
- being killed,
- suffering great bodily injury, or
- being raped, maimed, robbed, or the victim of some other forcible and atrocious crime.
These laws allow people to take whatever steps a reasonable person would take (including deadly force) to protect against the above harms.9
3.2. The insanity defense
Under an insanity defense, a criminal defense attorney attempts to show that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the killing.
“Insanity” means that the defendant:
- did not understand the nature of his/her criminal act, or
- did not understand that what he/she was doing was morally wrong.10
This definition of legal insanity is known as the “McNaghten rule.
3.3. Accidental killing
Defendants are not guilty of voluntary manslaughter if they killed someone by accident.
The defense works provided that accused people:
- had no criminal intent to do harm,
- were not acting negligently at the time of the accident, and
- were otherwise engaged in lawful behavior at the time of the accidental killing.11
4. What is the sentence for voluntary manslaughter in California?
Voluntary manslaughter is a felony offense in California. For a manslaughter sentence, the court can choose to
- grant probation with up to one year in county jail, or
- deny probation and impose a three, six, or eleven-year term in state prison. 12
A conviction can also result in:
- a potential strike on the defendant’s record pursuant to California’s three-strikes law,
- a maximum $10,000 fine,
- the loss of the right to own or possess a firearm pursuant to Penal Code 29800 PC, California’s “felon with a firearm” law,
- community service, and/or
- counseling services (such as anger management classes).
5. Are there related crimes?
There are five crimes related to voluntary manslaughter. These are:
- murder – PC 187,
- attempted murder – PC 664/187a,
- involuntary manslaughter – PC 192b,
- vehicular manslaughter – PC 192c, and
- Watson murder – PC 187
5.1. Murder – PC 187
Per Penal Code 187, murder is the crime where people kill someone or a fetus with malice aforethought.
Note again that voluntary manslaughter is the killing of a person in an unlawful manner but without malice.
5.2. Attempted murder – PC 664/187a
Per Penal Code 664/187a PC, attempted murder is the crime where people intend to kill someone and take a direct step towards the killing, but the intended victim does not die.
As with a charge under PC 192, a person charged with this crime can challenge it using the defense of self-defense.
5.3. Involuntary manslaughter – PC 192b
Under Penal Code 192b PC, involuntary manslaughter is the crime where people kill a person unintentionally, but while committing either:
- a crime that was not an inherently dangerous felony, or
- a lawful act that might produce death.
California treats a conviction under this statute less severely as compared to a conviction under PC 192a. Involuntary manslaughter is a felony punishable by up to four years in jail.
5.4. Vehicular manslaughter – PC 192c
Under Penal Code 192c PC, vehicular manslaughter is the crime where people drive in a negligent or unlawful manner and thereby cause the death of another person.
Unlike with voluntary manslaughter, a prosecutor can file a charge under this statute as a misdemeanor.
5.5. Watson murder – PC 187
As with a conviction of voluntary manslaughter, a Watson murder conviction can result in a potential strike on the defendant’s record pursuant to California’s three-strikes law.
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense lawyer, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our attorneys provide both free consultations and legal advice you can trust.
Our lawyers also represent clients throughout California State, including those in Los Angeles, Glendale, Orange County, Pomona, Riverside, San Bernardino, Long Beach, San Diego, and Ventura.
- California Penal Code 192a PC. See also People v. Anderson (2002), 28 Cal.4th 767; and, In re Walker (2007), 147 Cal.App.4th 533.
- People v. Dominguez (2021), 2021 Cal. App. LEXIS 555.
- CALCRIM No. 570 – Voluntary Manslaughter: Heat of Passion – Lesser Charge (Pen. Code, 192(a)). Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2020 edition).
- See same. See also People v. Wright (2015), 242 Cal.App.4th 1461; and, People v. Breverman (1998) 19 Cal.4th 142.
- California Penal Code 192 PC.
- See, for example, People v. Brothers (2015), 236 Cal. App. 4th 24.
- People v. Brooks (1986) 185 Cal.App.3d 687.
- People v. Borchers (1958) 50 Cal.2d 321.
- CALCRIM 505 — Justifiable Homicide: Self-Defense or Defense of Another.
- CALCRIM 3450 – Insanity: Determination, Effect of Verdict.
- California Penal Code 26 PC.
- California Penal Code 193 PC.