What Is the Difference Between First- and Second-Degree Manslaughter?


Murder charges generally involve an intentional killing, but if you kill someone and did not intend to do it, you might be accused of the crime of manslaughter instead. If you have been charged with this crime, you must contact a qualified criminal defense attorney immediately to protect your rights.

At Wolfe & Stec, Ltd., our seasoned Illinois criminal defense attorneys believe that everyone who faces charges in the criminal justice system deserves fair representation and the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. Being accused is enough to cause others to treat you differently, but we will listen to your story and prepare the strongest case possible for you. Contact us online or call our offices today to set up your free consultation.

Illinois Defines Manslaughter Differently

When you are first charged, you may ask yourself, “What is the difference between first- and second-degree manslaughter?” In Illinois, manslaughter is defined as the unintentional killing of a person without lawful justification (720 ILCS 5/9-3). Unlike the terms that are used in some states (first- and second-degree manslaughter), Illinois recognizes other terms to describe the forms of this offense:

Even when the killing was unintentional, any charges of manslaughter are taken seriously and will be vigorously prosecuted.  A conviction could mean years in jail and a large fine, as well as consequences that will ruin your reputation and negatively impact your relationships, career, education, housing, and benefits.

Serious Charges Need a Serious Defense

If you are facing allegations of manslaughter, you need the best defense available, as prosecutors will be fighting to impose the steepest punishment.  The team at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. has extensive experience in all areas of homicide. We know that there may be aspects of a manslaughter charge which could allow us to seek a dismissal or request reduction of your charges to a lesser offense or penalty.

We will examine the issues in your case and determine what we can do to help fight for your rights and freedom.

What Is the Difference Between the Different Degrees of Manslaughter?

It is crucial to understand the differences between the two potential charges of manslaughter. When you speak with your criminal defense attorney, they will assess your case and explain which offense may apply to you. They can also determine whether you could be eligible to plead to a lesser charge.

Voluntary Manslaughter

In Illinois, the term “voluntary manslaughter” is now used only for the voluntary killing of an unborn child. What used to be considered voluntary manslaughter is now categorized instead as second-degree murder. Second-degree murder is similar to first-degree murder but has certain mitigating circumstances that lessen the charge. These elements include being seriously provoked or believing the killing was lawfully justified.

Voluntary manslaughter of an unborn child may occur in one of two circumstances:

  1. When a person acts under a “sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by another whom the offender endeavors to kill, but negligently or accidentally causes the death of the unborn child.” (Illinois Criminal Code Sec. 5/9-2.1)
  2. When a person intentionally kills an unborn child and, at the time of the killing, unreasonably believes that the circumstances justify or exonerate the killing.

The person may believe they are justified in performing the manslaughter, but if their explanation is found to differ from what a reasonable person would do in the same circumstances, they will be charged with the offense.

The difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter of an unborn child is that voluntary manslaughter requires the mental states of “knowingly” or “intentionally.”

Penalties for Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter is a Class 1 felony with punishments of:

  • Four to fifteen years in prison
  • Periodic imprisonment of up to four years
  • Probation or conditional discharge of up to four years
  • A fine of up to $25,000
  • Restitution of damages to the victim’s family.

Involuntary Manslaughter

In Illinois, it is involuntary manslaughter when a person causes an unintentional killing by “recklessly” performing acts that caused someone’s death. “Recklessly” is defined as being when the person “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that circumstances exist or that a result will follow.” This disregard must be shown to be “a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise in the situation.”

In Illinois, involuntary manslaughter is called “reckless homicide” if the cause of death is from operating a motor vehicle. It may also be referred to as vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter.

Penalties for Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter and reckless homicide are considered Class 3 felonies, with punishments of two to five years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. Under some circumstances, the charge may become a Class 2 felony carrying penalties of:

  • Three to seven years in prison
  • Fines up to $25,000
  • Periodic imprisonment of 18 to 30 months.

A lesser option is to assign the defendant to probation or conditional discharge for up to four years, a fine of up to $25,000, and restitution paid to the victim’s family.

Potential Defenses Against a Manslaughter Charge

The range of sentences allows judges to have discretion in determining punishment based on any aggravating or mitigating factors in a case. Accepting responsibility for what happened is considered a mitigating factor and may decrease the penalties. Aggravating factors, such as past history or reckless behavior, increase the severity of punishment.

There are several potential defenses your attorney may consider to fight against your manslaughter charges. Each case is unique, and your lawyer will tailor your defense strategy to your specific circumstances, interpreting the law to your best advantage whenever possible. Potential defense options include:

  • The defendant acted with lawful justification in making the decisions that led to the death.
  • The defendant acted in self-defense while defending their home against unlawful entry or while defending others.
  • The defendant has been diagnosed with insanity or a mental defect.
  • The defendant was involuntarily intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.
  • The act was not reckless but accidental, and the defendant exercised reasonable care.
  • For the death of an unborn child, there was the consent of the pregnant woman (as in abortion), or the death occurred during diagnostic testing or treatment that followed usual and customary standards of medical practice.

Why Choose Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. for Your Manslaughter Defense Case

Remember, in Illinois, the answer to the question, “What are the degrees of manslaughter?” is simply, “voluntary and involuntary.” There are important differences between the two, and you must understand how they are interpreted under Illinois law and how this will affect the way you defend yourself.

If you or a loved one is charged with manslaughter, you need to hire a highly experienced and fearless criminal defense attorney to give you the best chance at beating or reducing your charges. Your case may seem impossible, but with skillful representation, you can provide a robust argument for yourself in court. The law places a heavy burden on the government prosecutor, and they must prove you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The manslaughter defense lawyers at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. are skilled trial lawyers who know the judges and the court system. We will aggressively explore every avenue for your defense, examining the facts, the individuals involved, and the evidence available. Our qualified and dedicated team will work hand in hand with you to come up with an effective defense strategy built around the strengths of your case.

Speak With a Top-Notch Defense Lawyer Today

At Wolfe & Spec, Ltd., our goal is always to minimize the negative impact of your situation and to focus on protecting your freedoms, liberties, and rights. You deserve superior legal representation to preserve your innocence in the minds of the judge and jury. We work tirelessly for each client and litigate fiercely to ensure you have a fair trial.

If you have been accused of manslaughter, contact us online or call our offices at 630-305-0222 to set up your free consultation today.

Attorney Marc Wolfe

Marc Wolfe has been representing clients in criminal matters in Chicago and the entire State of Illinois for over 30 years. Mr. Wolfe has tried over 300 cases to verdict and represents clients facing investigation or prosecution for a broad range of state and federal criminal offenses, including murder, embezzlement, sexual abuse, drugs, marijuana and white collar crimes. [ Attorney Bio ]