When serving on the front lines, military servicemen and women may face the difficult responsibility of killing enemy soldiers on the battlefield. This type of killing is lawful because it is done against a hostile force during a war. However, when done without legal justification or excuse, killing a fellow human being is against the law.
If a service member kills someone outside the realm of a battlefield, they may be charged with manslaughter under Article 119 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Two different situations are covered under Article 119—voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Learn the difference between these charges and how best to defend yourself during a court martial.
Voluntary manslaughter is when a person unlawfully ends another person’s life with the intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm “in the heat of sudden passion caused by adequate provocation.” Emotional or disturbing circumstances leading up to the event do not excuse the homicide, but they make the act different from a pre-meditated murder charge under Article 118.
Examples of voluntary manslaughter include:
- Striking and killing an adulterous spouse in a fit of rage
- Pushing someone down the stairs during an argument, which leads to their death
- Purposely causing a car accident or hitting a pedestrian due to road rage
The maximum punishment for voluntary manslaughter under the UCMJ is dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for up to 15 years. If the victim is under 16 years old, maximum confinement increases to 20 years.
Involuntary manslaughter doesn’t require a specific intent to kill or inflict serious injury. Instead, the death occurs because of the culpable negligence, recklessness, or non-felonious illegal activity of the perpetrator. In other words, the homicide is unintentional, but the accused is still held responsible.
Note that “culpable negligence” is different from “simple negligence” as outlined in Negligent Homicide under Article 134. Culpable negligence is defined as a “a negligent act or failure to act accompanied by a gross, reckless, wanton, or deliberate disregard for the foreseeable results to others.”
Examples of involuntary manslaughter include:
- Conducting target practice toward an inhabited dwelling and accidentally shooting someone
- Pointing a pistol at someone in jest, not checking to see if it’s loaded, and pulling the trigger
- Hitting and killing a pedestrian while driving intoxicated
Involuntary manslaughter is punished less severely than voluntary manslaughter. The maximum punishment under the UCMJ is dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for up to 10 years. If the victim is under 16 years old, maximum confinement increases to 15 years.
How to Create a Defense Against Manslaughter Charges
When your career and life after the military are at stake, it’s vital to work with an experienced military lawyer who can help you create a viable defense against manslaughter charges. Some of your options include:
- Justification: The defendant may argue that the death occurred as a result of the proper performance of a legal duty and is therefore justified and not unlawful.
- Obedience to orders: The defendant could claim that a superior officer ordered them to commit the act that led to the victim’s death.
- Self-defense: The accused could take the position that their actions were in self-defense, thereby making the homicide excusable and justifiable.
- Accident: If the accused is facing voluntary manslaughter charges, they could argue that the incident was, in fact, accidental, potentially lessening the sentence.
- Lack of mental capacity: It may be possible to prove that the accused is mentally unfit to be held accountable for their actions. They may also have an honest but unreasonable belief that the situation required deadly force, a condition that could result in a lower sentence.
- Innocence: A defendant can attempt to prove that they didn’t commit the homicide.
Communicate Early and Often with Your Lawyer
If you’re facing manslaughter charges and haven’t already arranged legal defense, do so immediately. The sooner you contact a military attorney, the sooner you can begin building your defense. Early communication also lets you learn more about the potential penalties you face and the possible arguments and plea agreements available to you. It’s crucial never to speak to anyone about your case without first checking with your attorney to ensure you don’t incriminate yourself unintentionally.
Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law is prepared to represent you. Having served in the army as an enlisted soldier and eventually a JAG officer, Joseph L. Jordan has a personal understanding of how the military justice system works. Our firm will work tirelessly on your behalf to help lessen the sentence you may face for voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.