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What is Involuntary Manslaughter in Massachusetts?

A key component to murder is mens rea or a guilty mind. What separates murder from manslaughter is intent. In Massachusetts involuntary manslaughter is defined as an unlawful killing that was unintentionally caused as the result of wanton or reckless conduct that a defendant engaged in or an unlawful killing that resulted during the commission of a dangerous battery by a defendant. 

Wanton and reckless conduct is typically an affirmative act, such as driving a vehicle or shooting a firearm, but an omission to act when there is a duty to do so. 

In order for a defendant to be convicted of involuntary manslaughter on a theory of wanton and reckless conduct, the prosecution must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt 

  1. The defendant caused the victim’s death 
  2. The defendant intended the conduct that caused the victim’s death, but not the result of that conduct
  3. The defendant’s conduct was wanton and reckless 
  4. Where there is evidence of self-defense or defense of another, the defendant did not act in proper self-defense or in the proper defense of another 

Wanton and reckless conduct is defined as conduct that creates a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another. It is conduct involving the grave risk of harm to another that a person undertakes with indifference to or disregard of the consequences of such conduct. Whether conduct raises to the level of wanton and reckless depends on whether the defendant knew how a reasonable person would have acted under the same circumstances. If the defendant realized the grave risk created by their conduct, his subsequent act amounts to wanton and reckless conduct whether or not a reasonable person would have realized the risk of grave danger. 

Further, even if the defendant did not realize the grave risk of harm to another, the act would constitute wanton and reckless conduct if a reasonable person, would have realized the act posed a grave risk to another. 

Wanton and reckless conduct involves an act or omission that created a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another. 

Additionally, a defendant may be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter if the prosecution can prove a special relationship 

  1. There was a special relationship between the defendant and the victim that gave rise to the duty of care or the defendant created a situation that posed a grave risk of death or serious injury to another 
  2. The defendant’s failure to act caused the victim’s death 
  3. The defendant intentionally failed to act 
  4. The defendant’s failure to act was wanton and reckless. 

Some examples of involuntary manslaughter include Commonwealth v. Welansky, in which the owner of a nightclub was convicted of involuntary manslaughter based on his failure to provide a safe means of escape from the club during a fire that caused the death of over 400 people, Commonwealth v. Power, owner of unlicensed daycare facility were sufficient to support a jury verdict of guilty of involuntary manslaughter by wanton and reckless conduct, arising from the death of a three-month-old baby in defendant’s care in her home due to injuries from being shaken, Commonwealth v. Osachuk, here defendant gave a woman methadone tablets, money she used to purchase cocaine and heroin to use in “speedball,” and later injected the woman with cocaine after she experienced an adverse reaction to the mixture, evidence was sufficient to prove that defendant’s actions were the proximate cause of woman’s death from cocaine and heroin intoxication resulting in a conviction of involuntary manslaughter. 

Other examples include operating a vehicle in a reckless manner, playing Russian roulette, and selling laced drugs. 

A conviction of involuntary manslaughter is severe and can result in a 20-year prison sentence.

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