People are often confused about the difference between murder and manslaughter. The definitions of these crimes vary somewhat from state to state, but a recent California trial provides a good example for generally understanding what differentiates murder from voluntary manslaughter. |
In 2008, an eighth grader shot and killed an openly gay classmate. Evidence showed Larry King, 15, had begun wearing high heels and makeup to school, and that he flirted with Brandon McInerney, 14. McInerney brought a.22 caliber handgun to school and shot King twice in the back of the head while they were in a computer lab. McInerney had told a friend the day before that he planned to bring a gun to school the next day.
McInerney was tried as an adult. The prosecution theory was that McInerney committed first-degree murder, which was planned, contemplated and discussed in advance, and carried out with a conscious intent to kill. The defense presented the case of an overwhelmed child who felt sexually harassed by the gay teen's unwanted attention and snapped.
There was no dispute that McInerney pulled the trigger. The only question was his state of mind at the time.
A defendant's state of mind when he kills dictates the distinction between murder and manslaughter.
Murder in California is a killing with malice aforethought. Malice is found when the defendant intended to kill. When a murder is committed with premeditation and deliberation, it is first-degree murder.
A murder can be reduced to voluntary manslaughter, however, if the defendant acted in the heat of passion. A killing in the heat of passion requires that: 1) the defendant was provoked, 2) the provocation caused the defendant to act rashly and under the influence of intense emotion, 3) the defendant's emotion obscured his judgment and reasoning, and 4) the provocation would have caused the average person to act rashly.
To put it simply, to qualify for heat-of-passion voluntary manslaughter, the jury must find the defendant was so provoked by what the victim did, and reasonably so, that he killed out of intense emotion rather than deliberate judgment.
The question for McInerney's jury was thus whether he acted deliberately or in the heat of passion when he shot and killed King.
Determining a defendant's state of mind at the time of the crime is often a difficult task. This difficulty was borne out here where the jury was unable to decide. After eight weeks of testimony with close to 100 witnesses, the jury deadlocked 7-to-5 in favor of voluntary manslaughter.
Because the jury could not reach a verdict, the judge declared a mistrial on September 1, 2011. McInerney will now have to be tried again. If nothing else, the case has helped to educate the public about the difference between murder and manslaughter.
By: Blythe J. Leszkay CriminalLawConsulting@gmail.com
Blythe is an experienced and successful criminal attorney and expert consultant with Criminal Law Consulting. She consults with and educates writers and filmmakers about criminal law issues in their projects. She provides helpful information on criminal law at http://www.CriminalLawConsulting.com.
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