Defining Homicide in Virginia

In a recent article in the Charlottesville Daily Progress, UVA Law Professor Anne Coughlin discussed the different crimes for which George Huguely might be convicted: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, felony murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Those are all familiar terms and we all have some sense of their degrees of seriousness. As a legal researcher, though, I thought “Well, what are the different elements that the jury would have to find for those different crimes?” I went to the Code of Virginia, which is easily available online, and was quickly able to find statutes defining first and second degree murder, along with felony murder. But what about voluntary and involuntary manslaughter? The Virginia Code explains how voluntary and involuntary manslaughter are to be punished, but it gives no definition of the crimes themselves. How can Virginia punish a crime that it does not define?

The answer is that in Virginia, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter are common law crimes. Their elements are still defined only by case law. Again I thought, “Is that normal, to have crimes that are still not defined by statute?” I checked Westlaw’s 50 State Statutory Survey on Aggravating and Mitigating Factors for Homicide and found that, at least for manslaughter, it is not the norm, but is not unheard of. Only Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Michigan do not define manslaughter by statute. Montana and Wisconsin don’t either, but do have statutorily defined crimes of negligent or reckless homicide, which seem to be the same crimes by different names. All other states set forth the definitions for manslaughter in their codes.

– Ben Doherty 

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Ben Doherty

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