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The Common Law Manslaughter

In Arizona, the homicide statutes span the range from First Degree Capital Murder, to First Degree Felony Murder, to a simple Negligent Homicide. And just about every possible homicide scenario falls within that range.

But what about the commonly understood, common law, "manslaughter," i.e., the offense that, to be blunt, is a little bit excusable.

In the old days, even our founding fathers were involved in firearms "duels" over perceived slights imposed on one or the other. Alexander Hamilton, one of the architects of the United States Constitution, died as a result of a gunshot wound suffered at a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr – over politics!

With that background, the law has always recognized that there are some circumstances where the victim of a homicide did something to provoke the attack. And yet the attack was not so defensible as to be completely excusable. More than likely, the most common instance of "provocation" homicide, or manslaughter, arose in the context of marital affairs. But the defense was not necessarily limited to those instances – really, the "manslaughter" verdict could arise from any situation in which the jury found that the extenuating circumstances partially, but not fully, excused the homicide.

The same principles are present today in Arizona statutory law. Arizona's manslaughter statute, set forth in A.R.S. § 13-1103, provides the grounds for the manslaughter offense. Those grounds include, among other circumstances, where the offender committed what would otherwise be a second degree murder "upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion resulting from adequate provocation by the victim."

What does that mean? We can only use common sense and rely on the jury's verdict. One thing is for sure though – the prosecutors and police, in their charging decisions, will see a lot fewer manslaughters than the juries see.

Our job, as defense attorneys, is to assess the risk and let our clients decide whether to send it to the jury!