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Penal Code 192 PC – Voluntary Manslaughter – California Law

By Spodek Law Group | July 14, 2021

Pursuant to Penal Code 192 PC, California law outlines voluntary manslaughter as the killing of another human being in a sudden quarrel, in the heat of passion, or based on an honest but irrational conviction in the need to defend oneself. The act is a felony that comes with a sentencing range of 3, 6 or 11 years in state prison.

Voluntary manslaughter is a reduced offense to murder charges. Most District Attorneys seldom file Penal Code 192 as an original charge. The offense generally arises in murder cases, where the accused confesses to killing the victim, but pursues to have the charge reduced from murder to manslaughter.

Prosecutors in a murder case may decide to plea bargain in an agreement where the accused pleads guilty to manslaughter so that they may serve a fraction of the murder charge. Or the jury in a murder trial could find the defendant guilty of the reduced crime of manslaughter, instead of the charged offense of murder.

Voluntary manslaughter is a crime in California with sentences ranging from probation with up to one year in county jail, or 3, 6 or 11 years in state prison. Murder, by distinction, carries a sentence of 15 years to life in California state prison, or 25 years to life in the instance of first-degree murder.

Below, our California criminal defense attorneys discuss the following:

  • Definition of California voluntary manslaughter
  • Common legal defenses
  • Penalties
  • Some related crimes
  • About The Watson admonition

For more support with California homicide laws, we invite you to contact us at Spodek Law Group.

Definition of California Voluntary Manslaughter

In situations where you might:

  • deliberately kill another person (without a lawful excuse for doing so), or
  • act with a conscious indifference for human life,
  • You either infringe California’s murder law or California’s voluntary manslaughter law.  The difference amongst the two is whether you proceeded with “malice aforethought“.
  • Malice aforethought exists as you are in the act with (a) an intent to kill (known as express malice) or (b) a malicious disregard for human life (referred to as implied malice).  When you kill a person (or a fetus), and act with malice aforethought, you can be charged with murder.  Though, when you kill somebody during an abrupt quarrel or in the heat of passion, California law presumes you acted without malice. This is the foundation for the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter.

To kill a person in a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion means:

  • you were incited,
  • as a result of being incited, you acted recklessly and under the effect of intense emotion that obscured your reasoning or judgment, and
  • The incitement would have caused a typical person to act recklessly and without consideration – that is, from passion rather than from judgment.

For Penal Code 192 purposes, “heat of passion” means any vicious or passionate emotion that causes a person to act thoughtlessly.  If, between the time you are provoked and the time you kill, you have had enough time to “cool off” and regain your capacity to think reasonably, then you would most probably be guilty of premeditated murder than manslaughter.

Regarding provocation, California courts have not recognised set criteria for what establishes “sufficient” provocation. However, they have concluded that it can’t be slight or remote.

The provocation must be so prominent that it would cause a typical person in the same circumstances to respond emotionally rather than logically. This is an impartial standard. How you personally reacted is only admissible if it is how a fictional typical person would have reacted.

Example: Defendant picked up a young woman who was hitchhiking.  They went back to her house and had sex before he stabbed her eight or nine times and manually strangled her to death.  He claimed that he killed her because

  • he was drunk, and
  • upon hearing a helicopter fly overhead, he suffered Vietnam war flashbacks that caused him to “snap”.

But as the California Supreme Court has ruled, “Defendant’s evidence that he was intoxicated, that he suffered various mental deficiencies, that he had a psychological dysfunction due to traumatic experiences in the Vietnam War, and that he just “snapped” when he heard the helicopter, may have satisfied the subjective element of heat of passion.

But it does not satisfy the objective, reasonable person requirement, which requires provocation by the victim.  To satisfy the objective or ‘reasonable person’ element of this form of voluntary manslaughter, the accused’s heat of passion must be due to sufficient provocation. Evidence of defendant’s extraordinary character and environmental deficiencies was manifestly irrelevant to the inquiry.”7

Common legal defenses

There are various legal defenses to Penal Code 192(a) voluntary manslaughter that an experienced California criminal defense lawyer can present in a case. Some of the most common examples:

Self-defense/defense of others/imperfect self-defense

California’s self-defense laws justify your killing another person when you kill to guard yourself or another from:

  • being killed,
  • suffering great bodily injury, or
  • being raped, maimed, robbed, or the victim of some other “forcible and atrocious crime”.

These laws allow you to take the necessary steps, within reason to protect against this harm.

Example:  You and your friend are at a bar hanging out.  A drunk fan picks a fight with your friend.  The two of you try to leave, but the attacker follows you outside and lunges toward your friend with a knife, threatening to kill him.  You attack the aggressor, succeed to grab his knife and stab him instead.  He consequently dies from the knife wound.

Given these circumstances, California’s self-defense laws would likely excuse your conduct.

Imperfect self-defense

Conversely, if you kill another because you:

  • alleged that you or another was in imminent danger of being seriously hurt or killed, and
  • alleged that deadly force was essential to defend against that danger, but
  • at least one of those beliefs was irrational.

This is what’s known as imperfect self-defense.  Imperfect self-defense (Flannel doctrine in California) does not pardon you of criminal accountability overall.  However, it can act as a justifying factor that can reduce a murder charge to Penal Code 192(a) PC voluntary manslaughter.

Example:  We will use the example from above but alter some of the facts.  Let’s say that the drunk fan still picks a fight with your friend.  The two of you try to leave, but the attacker (who is significantly bigger than your friend) tracks you outside.  He pushes your friend and mocking him, in response wanting him fight.  He doesn’t seem to have a weapon.  Because you fear that the attacker will hurt your friend, you pull out your knife and stab and kill him.

With these facts, while it’s true that your friend may have been earnestly hurt, it was irrational to believe that deadly force was required to prevent that danger.  As a consequence, this type of imperfect self-defense would not justify voluntary manslaughter.

Case for insanity

Killing a person, because you:

  • don’t comprehend the nature of your action, and/or
  • can’t differentiate between right and wrong,

You may be permitted to a decision of not guilty by reason of insanity.  This California insanity defense, governed by the M’Naghten test, includes the two essentials just set forth. It vindicates your otherwise criminal behaviour.

Example:  Sharon, who has a long history of severe mental illness, has a fight with her mother.  Her mother, who rightly can’t deal with her illness anymore, screams out, “Oh, God, why don’t you just kill me!”  Sharon, believing that she would be helping her mother by obeying what she believes is a “wish”, strangles her mother to death. In this situation, Sharon, who would otherwise be guilty of breaking California’s voluntary manslaughter law, would likely succeed on the insanity defense.

An accident

If you accidentally kill someone, you cannot be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.  However, “Accident as a California legal defense generally only applies when you:

  • No criminal intent to do harm,
  • not acting carelessly at the time of the accident, and
  • Not otherwise involved in unlawful behaviour at the time of the accidental killing.

Example:  Yet again, take the bar fight example. Changing it to some extent, let’s say that after the attacker followed your friend out of the bar, the attacker took a swing at your friend.  Your friend then takes a swing at the attacker, connects his punch, and hits him so hard that he falls back and hits his head on the back step of the bar.  He becomes comatose and dies the next day.

In light of these facts, the death was justly an accident.  Even though the fight took place in the heat of passion and with adequate provocation — which would normally be sufficient to decrease a murder charge to manslaughter — this unintentional nature of the death entirely pardons your friend of either charge.

A Plea bargain from murder

It is important to understand that the crime of California voluntary manslaughter is, in itself, a legal defense in a murder case.  If you are charged with Penal Code 187 PC murder, but can substantiate that you operated in the heat of passion or during a sudden quarrel, your possible state prison sentence, as well as your other consequences (discussed in the next section) will be reduced significantly.


Anyone convicted of violating Penal Code 192(a) PC California’s voluntary manslaughter law, will face three, six, or eleven years in the California state prison. Distinctly, the penalty for committing Penal Code 187 PC murder is a minimum of 15-years-to-life, with a possibility of execution.

Voluntary manslaughter conviction could also produce the following punishment and penalties:

  • a potential strike on your record pursuant to California’s three-strikes law (which could serve to increase your punishments if you have been imprisoned for any prior felonies or are convicted of any future felonies),
  • maximum $10,000 fine,
  • loss of right to own or possess a firearm pursuant to Penal Code 29800 PC California’s “felon with a firearm” law,
  • community service or labor (such as CAL-TRANS roadside work),
  • counseling services (such as anger management classes), and
  • any other situations that the court believes are logically related to the ‘
  • Conditions surrounding the case.

Some related crimes

There are numerous crimes that are connected to California’s voluntary manslaughter laws as they, too, include illegal killings.  Some of these are:

  • Penal Code 187 PC Murder
  • Attempted murder
  • Penal Code 192(b) PC Involuntary manslaughter
  • Vehicular manslaughter
  • DUI manslaughter/Watson Murder

A  DUI manslaughter/Watson Murder Scenario

If the driver was suspected of concurrently violating California’s driving under the influence laws, prosecutors would likely charge either:

  • Penal Code 191.5(b) PC California’s negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated law.
  • Penal Code 191.5(a) PC California’s gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated law, or
  • second-degree DUI murder (also known as Watson murder).

Ideally, prosecutors are most likely to file a Watson murder case if you are a repeat DUI offender and kill another person while intoxicated.  This is a common charge for repeat DUI offenders who have received special education about the dangers of driving under the influence and who, at the time of conviction, acknowledge what’s known as a Watson advisement.

About the Watson Admonition

  • it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and
  • if you kill someone while you are DUI, California prosecutors may charge you with murder.

What differentiates this offense from first-degree murder is that in second-degree DUI murder, there is no intent to kill another person.  If convicted, you face the same penalties that are imposed in connection with second-degree murder. That is 15-years-to life in the California state prison.

Call Spodek Law Group for your free, confidential consultation in office or by phone. We serve many clients in the, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Long Beach, Riverside, San Diego, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, Orange County, Sonoma County, Ventura, Sacramento, San Jose, the greater Los Angeles area and throughout the Golden State.

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