CRF Blog

Manslaughter Versus Murder

by Damon Huss

Such a grisly subject for a blog post. But with the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin expected to go to the jury today, it is worth defining the terms manslaughter and murder. Zimmerman has been on trial for second-degree murder, but Judge Debra Nelson decided yesterday — over defense objection — to allow the prosecution to add the charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Both manslaughter and murder are crimes of homicide. Murder is a willful homicide and can be of the first or second degree (note on “third degree” below). Second-degree murder is a willful act of murder with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is a term that generally means to show an intention to kill or otherwise show an intention to act in a way that is probably dangerous to human life. First-degree murder involves premeditation, or a decision to kill prior to the murder. It is usually much more difficult for prosecutors to prove premeditation.

Manslaughter does not involve malice aforethought and is either voluntary or involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter usually results from the “heat of passion,” in which someone kills another person in response to provocation. (It generally has to be an outrageous provocation to be adequate; in other words, to keep it from being malice aforethought.) Involuntary manslaughter is an act of criminal negligence, such as an accidental killing.

George Zimmerman has been accused of second-degree murder. But, as Jacob Gershman at the Wall Street Journal points out:

There is a loophole…as illustrated by Mr. Zimmerman’s trial, which entered into closing arguments Thursday.

In Florida, a judge can choose to give juries a middle-of-the-road option, saying it can convict someone of voluntary  manslaughter if it isn’t convinced that the defendant acted out of “ill will, hatred, spite, or evil intent.” Voluntary manslaughter is a catch-all offense that includes a killing caused by “culpable negligence.” [more]

Under Florida law, culpable negligence involves exposing another person to injury or inflicting injury upon another person with disregard for the consequences (i.e., recklessness). Perhaps that does not clarify the distinction between culpable negligence (resulting in voluntary manslaughter) and criminal negligence (resulting in involuntary manslaughter). It may be helpful to think of it as an issue of how manslaughter is defined in Florida and not necessarily in all other states.

In sum, the jury in this case will have to first determine whether Zimmerman did act with malice aforethought (e.g., “ill will”) in shooting Martin, hence second-degree murder. If not, then the jury will then have to determine whether he shot Martin in an act of culpable negligence, hence voluntary manslaughter. If not that either, then the jury must acquit Zimmerman of all charges.

Yesterday, Judge Nelson blocked the prosecution from adding the charge of third-degree murder, which under Florida law means murder committed in the course of some other specifically listed felony. In this case, the prosecutors wanted to add the charge under the theory that Zimmerman was simultaneously committing child abuse, since Martin was a 17-year-old minor. (See the Florida Statutes for the complete list of felonies related to third-degree murder in that state.)

See CRF Blog’s previous posts on the Trayvon Martin shooting here, herehere, and here.

UPDATE (July 13): The jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of all charges today. According to the Los Angeles Times:

In a case that touched off a national debate on race and guns, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager killed during a confrontation on a rainy night in Florida last year.

“There’s to be no outbursts upon the reading of the verdict or afterwards,” Judge Debra S. Nelson warned the packed courtroom in Seminole County awaiting the verdict from the jury of six women who began deliberating on Friday and worked a 13-hour day Saturday. [more]