Murder, Manslaughter and Adequate Provocation

February 22, 2006

To what extent the passions must be aroused and the dominion of reason disturbed to reduce the offense from murder to manslaughter, the cases are by no means agreed; and any rule which should embrace all the cases that have been decided in reference to this point, would come very near obliterating, if it did not entirely obliterate, all distinction between murder and manslaughter in such cases.  We must, therefore, endeavor to discover the principle upon which the question is to be determined.  It will not do to hold that reason should be entirely dethroned, or overpowered by passion so as to destroy intelligent volition.  Such a degree of mental disturbance would be equivalent to utter insanity, and, if the result of adquate provocation, would render the perpetrator morally innocent.  But the law regards manslaughter as a high grade of offense; as a felony.  On principle, therefore, the extent to which the passions are required to be aroused and reason obscured must be considerably short of this, and never beyond that degree within which ordinary men have the power, and are, therefore, morally as well as legally bound to restrain their passions.  It is only on the idea of a violation of this clear duty, that the act can be held criminal.  There are many cases to be found in the books in which this consideration, plain as it would seem to be in principle, appears to have been, in a great measure, overlooked, and a course of reasoning adopted which could only be justified on the supposition that the question was between murder and excusable homicide.  The principle involved in the question, and which I think clearly deducible from the majority of well considered cases, would seem to suggest as the true general rule, that reason should, at the time of the act, be disturbed or obscured by passion to an extent which might render ordinary men, of fair average disposition, liable to act rashly or without due deliberation or reflection, and from passion, rather than judgment.

Maher v. People, 10 Mich. 212, 5 (1862).

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