Halfway through their deliberations, the jury asked the judge, "May we please have clarification on the instructions regarding manslaughter?" (CBSnews.com). The judge consulted with counsel from both sides and responded that the court could not answer general questions but invited the jury to submit a more specific question. They never did.
I don't know what confusion existed in that Florida jury room, but let's look at what constitutes manslaughter.
While statutes and wording on homicides vary by state, the main difference between first degree murder and other acts that result in a person's death is premeditation. Second degree murder lacks premeditation and intent. It is caused by extreme recklessness. Manslaughter is "the unlawful killing of another person without premeditation or so-called 'malice aforethought' (an evil intent prior to the killing)" (Dictionary.law.com). Manslaughter is generally divided into voluntary and involuntary.
- First degree murder: intentional and premeditated
- Second degree murder: non-premeditated, caused by extreme recklessness or during a fight
- Voluntary manslaughter: intentional, non-premeditated killing which occurs during the "heat of passion"
- Involuntary manslaughter: no intent to kill; death caused by negligence or with intent to behave in a reckless, violent manner which causes death
"Voluntary manslaughter includes killing in [the] heat of passion or while committing a felony" (Dictionary.law.com). It is the intentional but unplanned killing of another. It is when someone kills when provoked by current circumstances.
For example, the person who returns home to find his/her spouse in bed with a lover might respond right away with deadly violence. That would generally be considered voluntary manslaughter...intentional but not premeditated, in the heat of an emotionally-charged moment (NOLO.com). If that same person who witnessed the affair waits a week before ambushing and killing either party involved, the scorned killer would most likely be charged with first degree, premeditated murder.
"Involuntary manslaughter occurs when a death is caused by a violation of a non-felony" (Dictionary.law.com). It is caused by recklessness or criminal negligence. It differs from second degree murder by having a lesser degree of recklessness. (See a YouTube example of the difference from Law Bound Prep - Labs at this link).
If two people were in an argument that escalated until one pushed the other who stumbled and then fell down a flight of stairs to his death, the unintentional recklessness might be considered involuntary manslaughter (NOLO.com). Randomly shooting a weapon into the air that results in someone's death would most likely be classified as involuntary manslaughter.
Killing a person with a car is often in its own class of involuntary manslaughter. "In response to the increasing number of homicides caused by drunk drivers, some states have created a distinct offense for deaths caused by drunk driving. These are commonly referred to as, inter alia, 'vehicular manslaughter', 'manslaughter with a vehicle,' 'negligent homicide manslaughter,' or 'DUI manslaughter' (Alanformanlaw.com). The possible prison time for someone found guilty of vehicular manslaughter ranges from 8 to 30 years in Tennessee up to life imprisonment in Washington state.
THE ZIMMERMAN TRIAL
"[This was] a case that many legal analysts said was doomed by Florida prosecutors' decision to pursue a hard-to-prove second-degree murder conviction against Zimmerman," LAtimes.com. Near the end of the trial prosecutors encouraged jurors to consider the lesser offence of involuntary manslaughter, but the case had not been developed in that direction.
Did Zimmerman commit a crime when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin? The jury in this trial said no. I can't help but wonder whether or not further direction on the definition of manslaughter would have affected the jury's decision.
"The frustration that many Americans have felt over the verdict was reflected in 'Justice For Trayvon' rallies that were held in numerous cities over the weekend," (NPR.org). This case and this verdict will continue to raise questions about state laws, judicial procedures, and justice.
- Berman, Sara J., "Murder vs. Manslaughter," www.NOLO.com, (accessed July 13, 2013).
- Cobb, Branden, "George Zimmerman Trial: Jurors Ask for Clarification About Manslaughter Charge," www.CBSnews.com, July 13, 2013.
- Forman, Alan S. "Penalties for DUI Manslaughter," www.Alanformanlaw.com, (accessed July 14, 2013).
- Law Bound Prep - Labs, "Involuntary Manslaughter vs 2nd Degree Murder," YouTube.com, November 8, 2011.
- Law.com, "Manslaughter," www.Dictionary.law.com, (accessed July 13, 2013).
- Levinson, Alana, "Polls Show Wide Racial Gap on Trayvon Martin Case," NPR.org, July 22, 2013
- Roig-Franzia, Manuel, "Zimmerman Found Not Guilty in Killing of Trayvon Martin," www.Washingtonpost.com, July 13, 2013.
- Savage, David G. and Michael Muskal, "Zimmerman Verdict: Legal Experts Say Prosecutors Overreached," LAtimes.com, July 14, 2013