Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Manslaughter, in its simplest terms, is the unlawful killing of another person without premeditated intent. Imagine a situation where someone accidentally causes the death of another in a moment of passion or due to their own negligence. It is different from murder because there’s no prior intention to kill, but the act still results in a tragic end.

The Harm the Law Seeks to Address

Laws against manslaughter are essential in safeguarding the sanctity of human life. Every person has the inherent right to live, and it’s the duty of the legal system to protect this right. Manslaughter, even without intent, still disrupts the fabric of society.

The objectives of anti-manslaughter legislation include:

  1. Upholding Human Rights: The right to life is paramount. Laws against manslaughter reiterate society’s commitment to this principle.
  2. Deterring Negligence: By penalizing unintentional killings, the law emphasizes the importance of individual responsibility and careful conduct.
  3. Justice for Victims: These laws ensure that families of victims find some form of justice, even if the perpetrator did not intend to kill.
  4. Moral Balance: Manslaughter laws maintain moral order, communicating that every life lost, whether intentional or not, is a grievous harm.

Classification in Legal Codes

Most legal codes classify manslaughter as a serious offense but distinguish it from murder based on the absence of premeditation. Manslaughter can further be subdivided into voluntary (heat of passion) and involuntary (negligence). While still considered grave, the penalties for manslaughter are typically less severe than those for murder.

Manslaughter within Broader Criminal Categories

Manslaughter falls under the category of “crimes against persons,” as it involves causing direct harm or death to an individual. It’s distinct from “crimes against property,” which focus on damage or theft of possessions. Manslaughter also differs from sexual crimes, which revolve around sexual autonomy violations.

Historical Roots of Manslaughter

Manslaughter, as a concept, has roots deep in history. Ancient legal systems addressed unintentional killings differently from intentional ones, emphasizing the need for a fair punishment that matches the crime’s nature.

Sir William Blackstone, in his esteemed Commentaries on the Laws of England, offers insights into this distinction. While he extensively covered the topic of murder, Blackstone also touched upon the nuances of unintentional killings, implying the necessity to treat them differently due to the lack of “malice aforethought.”

The early English common law system was foundational in shaping the manslaughter concept. Over time, distinctions became clearer as society realized that not all homicides are the same. Situations where a person acted in a momentary lapse of judgment or under extreme provocation were separated from calculated, malicious acts. The intention was to ensure that justice was both fair and proportionate.

As legal systems evolved, the classification of manslaughter was refined to address different scenarios, emphasizing the absence of premeditation or intent, which remains central to its modern understanding.

Understanding how the Modern Penal Code (MPC) defines manslaughter provides a deeper insight into this grave offense. The MPC’s specific language and classifications aim to achieve clarity and distinction in cases of unlawful killings.

MPC’s Definition of Manslaughter

According to the MPC, manslaughter is further divided into two categories: voluntary and involuntary. Under §210.3(1)(a), voluntary manslaughter is defined as:

“A homicide which would otherwise be murder is committed under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance for which there is reasonable explanation or excuse.”

Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, is outlined under §210.3(1)(b) as:

“A homicide constitutes manslaughter when it is committed recklessly.”

The distinction between these categories emphasizes the perpetrator’s state of mind during the act. Voluntary manslaughter often arises in situations of intense emotion or passion, while involuntary manslaughter typically results from reckless behavior without intent to kill.

Defenses in the Penal Code

The MPC does outline defenses relevant to manslaughter charges:

  1. Extreme Emotional or Mental Disturbance: This is closely tied to the definition of voluntary manslaughter and can act as a defense if there is a reasonable explanation for the disturbance, as per §210.3(1)(a).
  2. Self-Defense: Referenced under §3.04, if the accused believed it was necessary to use force to protect themselves, but their belief was unreasonable, the charge could be reduced from murder to manslaughter.
  3. Accident: While not explicitly stated in the MPC, a genuine accident without recklessness may act as a defense, depending on jurisdiction.

Core Elements

For clarity, let’s dissect the crime of manslaughter into its crucial components:

  1. Mens Rea (Mental State): In this context, it often revolves around recklessness or acting under extreme emotional disturbance.
  2. Actus Reus (Action): The act leading to the unlawful killing of another individual.
  3. Concurrence: The mental state and act coincided.
  4. Causation: The action directly resulted in the death.
  5. Harm: The victim’s death.
  6. Attendant Circumstances: Surrounding factors that might influence the severity or nature of the crime, like provocation.

Commonwealth v. Malone

In the Malone case, a 17-year-old named Robert Malone was convicted of manslaughter in Pennsylvania after a deadly game of Russian roulette resulted in the death of his friend, William Long.

The facts, as presented during the trial and subsequently analyzed in the appeal, are as follows:

  • Malone had stolen a .38 caliber revolver and six cartridges.
  • He loaded one cartridge into the revolver, spun the cylinder, pointed the gun at his friend, William Long, and asked, “Did you ever play Russian roulette?”
  • Malone then snapped the cylinder into place, placed the gun to his own head, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
  • After repeating the same action a couple of times, Malone handed the revolver to Long, who repeated the same actions. On Long’s third pull of the trigger, the gun fired, killing him instantly.

The trial court convicted Malone of manslaughter, and the decision was subsequently appealed.

In upholding the conviction, the appeals court focused on the reckless nature of Malone’s actions, emphasizing that the game’s inherent danger, coupled with Malone’s encouragement and participation, was sufficient to sustain a conviction for manslaughter.

The Malone case is often referenced in discussions about recklessness and the role it plays in criminal liability, particularly concerning manslaughter. The defendant’s actions didn’t display an intent to kill, but they were so inherently dangerous and reckless that they warranted criminal punishment.


Manslaughter is the unintentional, unlawful killing of someone, distinguished from murder by the absence of premeditation. It’s split into two categories by the Modern Penal Code (MPC):

  1. Voluntary Manslaughter: Occurs in the heat of passion, often driven by sudden emotion.
  2. Involuntary Manslaughter: Caused by reckless behavior without any intent to kill.

While both types are serious offenses, they differ based on the individual’s state of mind during the act. Defenses can be raised, like acting out of extreme emotional disturbance or self-defense. Key elements of this crime include the mental state, the action that led to death, the simultaneous occurrence of intention and action, the direct cause of the death, the actual death, and the surrounding circumstances. The MPC provides precise definitions to ensure clarity and fairness in penalizing this offense.


Commonwealth v. Malone, 354 Pa. 180, 47 A.2d 445 (1946).

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  09/28/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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