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Criminal Law Spring 2017

III.B.ii Murder v. Voluntary Manslaughter

Distinctions within the group of crimes known as “homicide” depend on more than the different mens rea levels associated with a killing. Knowing that a person killed someone (act) with purpose or knowledge (mens rea) does not necessarily mean that the person committed “murder.” Criminal law sometimes takes additional circumstances into account when assigning blame. In the case of knowingly or purposefully killing someone, provocation or extreme emotional disturbance might mitigate the crime of murder down to voluntary manslaughter. As the cases below demonstrate, different courts have taken different approaches in defining whether and what circumstances might lessen the seriousness of an intentional killing. As you read these cases, consider the challenges that courts face when they downgrade a crime committed with the same basic act, result, and mens rea. Where and how do courts draw lines between which circumstances mitigate murder, and which circumstances don’t? In determining the effect of provocation or emotional distress, should courts look at a criminal’s individual nature, or hold him/her to an objective standard?