Murder and manslaughter are similar crimes, though they have very different penalties. Here is a description of the two, in addition to what makes them different.
Murder, covered under California Penal Code 187 PC, is described as “the unlawful killing of a human being or fetus with malice aforethought.” The term “malice aforethought” means that “the killer with wanton disregard for human life, does an act that involves a high degree of probability that it will result in death.” Basically, it means that the killer wanted to kill someone, and then performed a necessary action that had a high probability of killing someone.
Voluntary manslaughter is covered under California Penal Code 192(a) PC and is described as “the killing of another person that one commits during a sudden quarrel, in the heat of passion, or based on the honest but unreasonable belief the need to defend oneself.”
As you can see, both crimes involve one person willfully killing another. However, the key difference between murder and voluntary manslaughter is the term “malice aforethought.” To be charged with murder, a prosecutor must be able to prove “malice aforethought,” to be charged with voluntary manslaughter, they do not. Below are two scenarios intended to illustrate the difference between the two crimes.
Example 1: A wife comes home early from work to surprise her husband, but is surprised herself when she finds him with another woman. Upon seeing this, the wife is overcome with rage, picks up a lamp from the bedside table, hits her husband in the head and he dies. In this scenario, the wife did not come home with the intent of murdering her husband, so there was no malice aforethought necessary to make a murder charge stick. Instead, she would likely be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter because the killing occurred in a moment of passion.
Example 2: A wife thinks her husband is cheating on her so she hires a private investigator to watch him while she is at work. The P.I. comes back with indisputable proof that the wife is indeed being cheated on. The wife then plans to take revenge on her husband by poisoning his drink with arsenic. The husband drinks it and dies. In this case, the wife would definitely be charged with murder, since she planned to kill her husband with the arsenic (malice aforethought).
Most of the time, voluntary manslaughter isn’t charged; it’s agreed to as a plea bargain in a murder case. The penalties include 3, 6, or 11 years in California state prison, a potential strike under California’s Three Strikes Law, a maximum $10,000 fine, community service, counseling, loss of firearm privileges, and any other conditions that the court believes are relevant to the case. For murder convictions, the potential penalty includes 25 years to life in prison, life in prison without parole, or the death penalty.