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Understanding Article 119, UCMJ – Manslaughter

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Manslaughter is among the most serious UCMJ offenses. It’s a crime that everyone has heard of but only a few understand the legal definition. So what’s the difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter? What are the possible punishments? And, most importantly, how do you defend against a charge of manslaughter? Find out these answers, and more, below.

MJA has defended service members facing investigation, court-martial, and discipline for the most serious offenses under the UCMJ, including manslaughter. Contact one of our military defense lawyers today to learn more.

Article 119, UCMJ (Manslaughter)

There are two types of manslaughter under the UCMJ: voluntary and involuntary.  Voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person is unlawfully killed “in the heat of sudden passion caused by adequate provocation.”  Involuntary manslaughter is when a death results from “culpable negligence” or occurs during the commission of certain offenses.  The elements for these offenses are as follows:

Voluntary Manslaughter

  • That a certain named or described person is dead;
  • That the death resulted from the act or omission of the accused;
  • That the killing was unlawful; and
  • That, at the time of the killing, the accused had the intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm upon the person killed.

Involuntary Manslaughter

  • That a certain named or described person is dead;
  • That the death resulted from the act or omission of the accused;
  • That the killing was unlawful; and
  • That this act or omission of the accused constituted culpable negligence, or occurred while the accused was perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate an offense directly affecting the person other than burglary, rape, rape of a child, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, aggravated sexual contact, sexual abuse of a child, robbery, or aggravated arson.

Manslaughter Explained

Voluntary manslaughter, like murder under Article 118, requires the intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm. The difference between the two acts is that voluntary manslaughter occurs if the unlawful killing is “committed in the heat of sudden passion caused by adequate provocation.”  Common examples of circumstances which may constitute adequate provocation are unlawful infliction of great bodily harm, unlawful imprisonment, and when one spouse catches another spouse in an act of adultery. Adequate provocation does not excuse the homicide but does preclude a conviction of murder.

Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, does not require a specific intent to kill or inflict great bodily injury.  Rather, involuntary manslaughter occurs when a death is the result of “culpable negligence.”  Culpable negligence is greater than simple negligence—as is required for a charge of Negligent Homicide under Article 134—and is defined as a “negligent act or omission accompanied by a culpable disregard for the foreseeable consequences to other of that act or omission.” 

In other words, culpable negligence occurs if an act might foreseeably result in someone’s death.  Common examples of acts that could be considered culpable negligence include conducting target practice in the direction of an inhabited house or pointing a pistol in jest at someone and pulling the trigger, believing, but without taking reasonable precautions to determine, whether it was loaded.


Rule for Court-Martial (R.C.M.) 916 provides defenses to manslaughter. These include justification (that the death caused was in the proper performance of a legal duty and is justified and not unlawful), obedience to orders, self-defense, accident, and lack of mental responsibility.

An experienced military attorney will be able to evaluate your case to determine what defense may apply and what evidence is needed to support that defense. An accused’s abillity to raise a defense may be limited by the facts or law, or may become difficult to raise if the service member provides a statement to law enforcement during the investigation.

Maximum Punishment

The maximum punishment for voluntary manslaughter is a dishonorable discharge and confinement for 15 years.  Involuntary manslaughter carries the risk of a dishonorable discharge and confinement for 10 years.  The maximum punishment for both charges increases by 5 years of confinement for the death of a child under 16 years of age.

Pretrial Confinement

Service members suspected of manslaughter are often placed in pretrial confinement pending court-martial. This is a devastating punishment which significantly impacts a service member’s ability to prepare for trial. What’s worse, it prevents them from being with loved ones when it matters most. Service members held in pretrial confinement beyond their end of active service (EAS/ETS) are not entitled to pay and allowances while in confinement.

Any commissioned officer may order any enlisted person into pretrial confinement. Officers may only be ordered into pretrial confinement by their commanding officer. Within 7 days of the imposition of pretrial confinement, a “detached and neutral” officer is required to independently review the confinement decision. The officer may order that the service member be released from pretrial confinement. Later, the military judge assigned to the case may also order their release.

MJA has successfully fought to have service members released from pretrial confinement confinement for some of the most serious UCMJ offenses, including manslaughter. When properly litigated, a service member unlawfully confined may be entitled to significant sentencing credit and even back pay.

Know Your Rights

The decisions you make while under investigation will directly impact your likelihood for success at trial. Here are some key rights you can, and should, invoke:

Right to remain silent. Service members have an absolute right to remain silent if questioned about a suspected UCMJ violation. Providing a statement to law enforcement almost never helps and may result in additional charges. If the statement you make is different from that of the alleged victim, you may be charged with making a false official statement or obstructing justice. “Cooperating” with law enforcement won’t prevent the command from taking adverse action against you–it just makes the government’s case stronger.

Right to refuse consent. There is also no obligation to consent to any search or seizure of your person or property. If investigators have probable cause to believe that there is evidence of a crime in a certain location, they must obtain an authorization from your commander before conducting a search. Absent probable cause, the only way law enforcement can search or seize your property is with your consent. Providing consent gives law enforcement the right to search your phone, vehicle, residence, or person for evidence which they intend to use against you. Don’t be fooled.

Right to counsel. Service members suspected of a crime have the absolute right to consult with an attorney, military or civilian, before waiving their rights. It is crucial to consult with an attorney if you are suspected of a crime. Remember that no matter the specific legal circumstances you are facing, you are entitled to legal counsel and should utilize it.

Protect Your Freedom and Your Military Future

When your life, career, and future are on the line, you need an experienced law firm in your corner. The skilled and assertive attorneys at Military Justice Attorneys have decades of combined military justice experience and will zealously fight for you. We have defended service members facing investigations, trials, and discipline for the most serious offenses under the UCMJ, including manslaughter, and will ensure that every avenue of defense is aggressively pursued on your behalf. Contact MJA on our website or call us today at (843) 773-5501 for a free consultation.

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