The jury in the murder trial of former BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserler returned a verdict of involuntary manslaughter today. How can a person cause the death of another without the act being considered a murder?

In the universe of legalese, words can perform in unusual ways. Manslaughter, simply defined, is “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice.” American law designates two types of manslaughter, voluntary and involuntary.

Voluntary manslaughter roughly means that accused intended to hurt or possibly kill the victim, but extenuating circumstances influenced the situation. This classification is used if the accused was provoked by the victim, or if the accused was mentally compromised when committing the crime.

Involuntary manslaughter generally applies where death is the unintentional consequence of the actions of the accused. Wikipedia uses this example: “If a person throws a brick off a bridge into vehicular traffic below,” and a person were to die as a result.

U.S. law also distinguishes between types of murder. First degree murder is defined by the planning (premeditation) of the act, whereas second degree is considered a “crime of passion,” the accused killing out of emotional strain or impulse.


  1. CreateAFreeWebsite -  October 2, 2012 - 6:18 pm

    The concepts here are very interesting.First Degree and Second Degree Murder. Not sure this will happen in real life. God now there should some third degree murder as well, third degree is quite often heard thing.
    Thanks for sharing

  2. WTFO -  December 10, 2010 - 9:05 am

    Y’all make me laugh. This site tries to do something good by giving us information that may be useful in our lives and some of you have nothing better to do than find fault with the data. Reading is fundamental! Read ALL the words; not just what you WANT TO SEE!
    In the United States of America, the terms are defined in the legal word as stated above. In other countries, they have their own words, thoughts, and “justice” system.
    NONE of us should be casting stones at anyone. Causing death to anyone in a harmful manner, intentional or not, pre-meditated or not, is murder. The terms just describe how much time you spend in prison and THAT is defined by how much money you have to hire the best representation you can afford! With THAT, I agree with the person above!
    And remember this, if ANYONE in this world told you life was fair, they lied to you!
    Why is it that no matter WHAT we read, we always have to hear about the unfairness of the slaves? They were plainly mistreated years ago. Can we move on and stop seeing color? If we all stop playing the “race” card in every single conversation, just MAYBE we could all get along.
    GOD!!! WHAT COLOR IS HE/SHE????? Be kind to one another!!! We’re all we have!!! And be THANKFUL for the soldiers providing you the freedom you have!!! It is your CHOICE not to be part of our military. But it’s our military that provides you the freedom to cut them down! How DARE you?!
    Some of you REALLY need to get a REAL LIFE!

  3. Wildbreeze -  December 9, 2010 - 2:56 pm

    I don’t like the example of throwing a brick off a bridge into traffic. If you’re in your right mind, there’s no conceivable way you could think that that wouldn’t cause damage. A better example, perhaps, is if a person were driving on a poorly lit street at night, and hit a person wearing dark clothing. If they couldn’t see the person, and had no intention of killing anyone, then that’s involuntary manslaughter.

  4. anon -  December 9, 2010 - 11:56 am

    @Morbid: so people about to be killed are to sit and allow themselves to be killed? Are they evil and bad people if they, in trying to prevent their own death kill someone who is about to kill them?

  5. Morbid -  November 5, 2010 - 5:49 pm

    Killing is killing no matter what it’s called. There’s no justifiable killing. No matter whatever you think “justifiable” killing is. It’s still just wrong!

  6. Justin beiber is terribad -  November 5, 2010 - 2:34 pm

    So war is justified killing… hmmm.. justified by?

  7. Kate -  October 25, 2010 - 9:37 am

    I’ve always wanted to know the difference. Thanks :)

  8. The cat's purr -  July 13, 2010 - 2:38 am

    oops. suppose to say terminology that does NOT have relevance in the real world

  9. The cat's purr -  July 13, 2010 - 2:37 am

    WOW I normally love these debates but who let Mr Monkey IQ in?
    It would be safe to say that the legal world has its own terminology that does have relevance in the real world. Great thought happening though.

  10. magic texta -  July 11, 2010 - 5:45 pm

    Opps… Looks like I put my foot in it agen. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like that, all I was asking was “what is it called”?

    I’m not against the soldiers risking their lives for global safety, In fact, I’m in full support of it. I just wanted to know the legal terminology.

    Thx 4 the info.

  11. R.D. Bharadwaj -  July 10, 2010 - 12:28 am

    Thanks for explaining two seemingly similar terms / words, but meaning quite different things. This forum really helps us to clarify your doubts and know in details the nity-grity of minute differences of words. It is interting to read this column daily.

    R.D. Bharadwaj, New Delhi

  12. JfromI -  July 9, 2010 - 4:52 pm

    PHILIP, BREENAH RUSH, Tabatso and others:

    It is unnecessary to yell for your whole post.

    Simple rule: All caps = YELLING!

  13. Curly Hair -  July 9, 2010 - 10:24 am


    You wrote, “So then, what’s the difference between second degree murder and voluntary manslaughter? VM is defined above, “This classification is used if the accused was provoked by the victim” whereas SDM is “killing out of emotional strain or impulse;” wouldn’t that be provoked, as well?”


    SDM just means that is wasn’t planned, that the person just killed out of emotional strain at the time, as opposed to FDM, which is premeditated.

    VM, on the other hand, has nothing to do with whether it was planned or not.

  14. RaRa -  July 9, 2010 - 6:53 am

    it’s called protecting YOUR ass, be grateful to the soldiers!

  15. Saddened -  July 9, 2010 - 6:13 am

    It is disturbing to know that a person can receive a lesser charge for being provoked (a little or a lot??) by someone and a lawyer saying that they have emotional problems?? …it is a serious matter to take a life. It will be accounted for. Amazing….stay away from unstable people – they can get away with it.

  16. Joe -  July 9, 2010 - 6:06 am

    What is the word for a goverment/intelligence orgnaisation killing about 3000 people of their own so they can get an excuse to invade two soveriegn countries. Any human being with half the IQ of a monkey knows how three high rise builidngs came down? one of which wasn’t struck by anything.

  17. J.B -  July 9, 2010 - 5:48 am

    Is there any special word for stoning a woman to death?
    It is intentional but is it murder, Specially when it is
    for nothing but I guess in the Middle East human torturing
    killing innocent people is acceptable

  18. Josef -  July 9, 2010 - 5:27 am

    Dear magic texta,
    In WAR, the term is “Defending your Country and your FREEDOM”. It give YOU the right to comment, offer criticism and protest, but remember; others have fought and DIED for thaat right that you savor here in the good old USA.
    Try not to be so politically correct and enjoy the freedom that others have provided for you…

    US Marine 1964-1969(Ret.)

  19. Giveit A. Rest -  July 9, 2010 - 4:05 am

    They’re preserving your taken-for-granted freedom. That’s what it’s called.

  20. Wondering -  July 9, 2010 - 3:48 am

    and how is that “justifiable” homicide?

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