There has been a recent development to classify manslaughter law in the same manner as homicide law. This trend has resulted in manslaughter being understood to exist as first degree manslaughter, as well as second degree manslaughter. Manslaughter law in different jurisdictions, however, defines second degree manslaughter in several different ways, with some commonalities across jurisdictions.
First degree manslaughter is the more severe of the two charges. First degree manslaughter law includes instances when the killer is faced with a provocation to which a reasonable person would respond strongly. First degree manslaughter law also covers instances of imperfect self-defense. This is a specific legal concept that holds that the person responded to a threat with an inappropriate level of force. While the threat must exist, it does not rise to such a level where the person was threatened with their own death, as is the case in instances of perfect self-defense.
Second degree manslaughter includes cases where the death of the victim was not intended by the killer and the killing happened without malice. Second degree manslaughter charges also recognize circumstances when the killing happened while the killer was performing an action that is not criminal or was performing an action allowed under the law in a way that did not follow the normal manner in which the act was meant to occur. As with other violations of manslaughter law, second degree manslaughter is considered an instance of criminal negligence.
Second degree manslaughter cases frequently involve hunters who believe they are shooting at animals but in fact fatally shoot human victims. Manslaughter law formerly did not recognize this circumstance under which the killing could be accidental, for although the weapon was discharged intentionally and was aimed at the victim, previous manslaughter law did not differentiate when the intended target was human or animal.
As manslaughter laws grew more specific, it became more common for individuals to face circumstances where existing manslaughter law did not make a distinction of the specific level of intent in their actions and the legal definitions. Therefore, second degree manslaughter has been a recent development to allow for prosecutions to more accurately reflect the reality when manslaughter laws confront the day-to-day implementation of legal statutes.
Juries sometimes elect to find defendants guilty of second degree manslaughter when they believe there are extenuating circumstances not specifically recognized in the law. This is often the result of the defense team being able to convince the jury that there is a lower level of culpability present.
One such incident was a September 2009 case dubbed the "Lady Vengeance" trial. In this case a jury found a woman guilty of second degree manslaughter after she bound, mutilated, and murdered her father. The defense claimed the killer had been subjected to years of molestation, rape, and other forms of abuse by the victim, her father. The defendant had lured the victim to her apartment, handcuffed him, beat the victim, removed his genitals, and placed a towel in his mouth after the defendant became convinced that the victim intended to abuse the defendant's nieces.
In this case the existence of a manslaughter law was used by a jury to assign a defendant with a degree of guilt, while recognizing that there were mitigating circumstances which affected the killer's intent to commit a crime.
In some states, second degree manslaughter charges are used to prosecute individuals who engage in assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is only allowed in three jurisdictions in the United States: Oregon, Washington, and Montana.
Involuntary manslaughter is a specific circumstance of second degree manslaughter. It is a new legal concept, which includes deaths that happen as the result of a failure by an individual to perform an action which would be expected of a reasonable person.