Recently, there have been several high-profile cases where murder cases, either first degree or second degree murder, have initially been charged as manslaughter or vice versa. While the definition of murder may seem straightforward, legally, specific circumstances determine whether a charge is deemed first, second-degree murder, or manslaughter.
In this post, we’ll discuss the difference between murder and manslaughter, the types of manslaughter, and the penalties for manslaughter in Canada.
What is the Legal Definition of Manslaughter?
Manslaughter is defined as a homicide committed without intent, although there may have been an intention to cause harm. It is different from first-degree murder – where there is clear planning and intent to murder and second-degree murder, where there is an intentional killing but no pre-existing planning to cause a person’s death.
Manslaughter, as defined by the Criminal Code in Canada, is any “culpable homicide” that does not meet the definition of murder. Culpable homicide is when a person causes the death of a human being either by meaning to cause death or meaning to cause bodily harm that:
- a) he knows is likely to cause his death, and being reckless whether death ensues or not, by accident or mistake causes death to another human being, notwithstanding that he does not mean to cause death or bodily harm to that human being; or
- (b) if a person, for an unlawful object, does anything that they know is likely to cause death, and by doing so causes the death of a human being, even if they desire to affect their object without causing death or bodily harm to any human being.
In simple terms, manslaughter is when a person does something wrong, the actus reus, but does not mean, the mens rea, to kill or cause significant bodily harm, and another person dies because of it. It is less than murder but more than an accident.
It is not always easy to prove a manslaughter charge because it often comes down to proving intention or what the accused person was thinking about at the time of the act.
In the recent U.S. criminal case of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, Chauvin was initially charged with 3rd-degree murder because the prosecution initially believed it would be difficult to prove that Chauvin intended to kill George Floyd. In Minnesota, 1st and 2nd-degree murder charges require that the prosecutors prove that the accused intended to kill the victim. Chauvin was eventually found guilty on the charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Types of Manslaughter
Generally, the criminal code sets out three categories types of manslaughter, an unlawful act, caused by threats or fear and by criminal negligence.
- Unlawful Act – when a person commits an objectively dangerous crime that is likely to injure another person and results in the death of a person.
- Criminal Negligence – when a person dies because the accused acted irresponsibly or did not fulfill their responsibility to others and showed “wanton or reckless disregard for the lives of others.”
- By Threats or Fear – in the rare circumstances manslaughter can be made out by causing a person, by threats or fear of violence or by deception, to do anything that causes their death. Often referred to as wilfully frightening a person to death.
Penalties for Manslaughter in Canada
There is no mandatory minimum sentence for manslaughter in Canada unless it is committed with a firearm; then, the mandatory minimum is a four-year prison term. Penalties for manslaughter range from a minimum punishment range of probation to a maximum penalty of a life sentence, but most manslaughter cases fall within the scope of 4 to 15 years.
Aggravating and Mitigating Circumstances for Manslaughter
For some cases, murder charges may be reduced to manslaughter if the person was provoked and committed the homicide in the heat of passion or their mental faculties were impaired by alcohol or other substances.
A provocation is defined as: “A wrongful act or an insult that is of such a nature as to be sufficient to deprive an ordinary person of the power of self-control is provocation for the purposes of this section if the accused acted on it on the sudden and before there was time for his passion to cool.” Provocation is only a defence when the homicide was committed in the heat of passion and the accused person did not have sufficient time to consider their actions. It was that passion caused the accused that sudden provocation which ultimately caused the resulting death.
If you or a loved one face manslaughter charges, you need an experienced and skilled criminal lawyer on your side. William Jaksa has over 15 years of experience defending clients in the criminal justice system and can help you understand your case and help you find the best outcome. Contact Willaim Jaksa for a consultation on your case today.