Tennessee Manslaughter Law

In Tennessee, the crime of murder is by far the most serious, and anyone who is found guilty of murder will undoubtedly face an extremely destructive prosecution. This page isn’t about murder, however it is about the different kinds of violent manslaughter crimes that fall just short of murder, which also coincide with potentially drastic sentences.

This page serves as an informational tool to navigate the nuances of each category of manslaughter charges. It’s crucial for anyone involved with such charges to know these charges are extremely serious. If you or a loved one is involved in a manslaughter accusation, you’ll have no choice but to hire an experienced defense attorney who can help negotiate a fair outcome.

If you are simply interested in learning more about Tennessee’s manslaughter laws and the recent changes in manslaughter sentencing, this page provides an exorbitant amount of useful legal facts including a comprehensive overview of manslaughter laws in Tennessee, statistics, the Tennessee penal code, the causes of manslaughter, what you can do and prevention tips, lawsuit information and the penalties that are associated with each category of manslaughter.

By going through each section of this page, you’ll not only be more informed about everything that’s necessary to know about Tennessee’s manslaughter laws, but you’ll also be more prepared for any legal action that is associated with these violent crimes.

Types of Manslaughter

There are two types of manslaughter, and these include voluntary and involuntary manslaughter charges. Within both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, there are several other more specific crimes, and this section will cover each and every one of these crimes extensively.

In general, manslaughter is the act of unintentionally killing another person, but it tends to get much more complicated than this simple definition. In order to fully understand manslaughter charges, it’s important to first and foremost understand Tennessee’s definition of first-degree murder as defined in the Tennessee Penal Code 39-13-202. 

First-degree murder is any one of the following:

  • A premeditated and intentional killing of another
  • The killing of another person within the perpetration or an attempted perpetration of a murder, act of terrorism, rape, robbery, burglary, arson, kidnapping, aggravated child abuse, theft, aggravated child neglect, child rape, aircraft piracy
  • The killing of another person as a result of the unlawful placing, throwing or discharging of any bomb or destructive device

Premeditation is really important in terms of deciphering the differences between murder and manslaughter, and is defined as an act done after the exercise of judgment and reflection. This means that someone had the intent to kill before the actual violent act and alleged decision to kill occurred. With every manslaughter case, the mental state of the accused is carefully considered so that judges and juries can determine whether or not the accused was sufficiently free from passion and excitement to be capable of premeditation.

Premeditation is the fundamental cornerstone for any voluntary manslaughter defense which is why it’s necessary to know the letter of murder laws in order to fully understand voluntary manslaughter.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter is when someone intentionally kills another person, very much like murder. The fundamental difference between the two crimes, is that a voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person acts out of a sudden anger or passion before they have sufficient time to calm down. A good way of contrasting the two crimes is to think of them distinctively as heat-of-the-moment manslaughter vs. cold-blooded murder.

In Tennessee, you can be charged with voluntary manslaughter when you kill someone directly because you were provoked in an emotional way that would lead a reasonable person to also act irrationally. If the specific circumstances that provoked the killing of a person are not found to be a sufficient provocation or emotional excitement, then the killing is considered murder. It’s also considered murder if the killer had time to calm down after the provocation occurred before killing the person.


A common example of a voluntary manslaughter is self-defense, but is an overreaction that leads to a killing of another person. In certain domestic abuse situations, a victim may kill their abuser, and even though they may have acted with intent to kill their abuser, they were acting in self-defense during a heat of passion moment. This is known as battered women’s syndrome and is a common defense for voluntary manslaughter.

Another more obscure example of voluntary manslaughter, is in situations of infidelity. One example is, when a husband walks in on his wife with another lover and is so surprised and outraged that he kills both of them right in the moment of finding them. This situation is a little more doubtful, but a court could potentially find that this crime was voluntary manslaughter as long as the husband didn’t have any time to cool off and acted out in the heat of passion.

Penal Code

The Penal Code number for voluntary manslaughter is 39-13-211 and it includes the following:

  • Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional or knowing killing of another in a state of passion produced by adequate provocation sufficient to lead a reasonable person to act in an irrational manner.
  • Voluntary manslaughter is a Class C felony.

The penalty for Class C felonies does range in Tennessee from a prison sentence of 3-15 years and a fine up to $10,000.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when someone causes the death of someone else on accident, but because of their own reckless, unlawful or grossly negligent behavior and actions. What makes involuntary manslaughter a criminal act is the disregard for the risk of death or safety of others, and not necessarily the intent to harm another person. All involuntary manslaughter categories are considered criminal, but they aren’t considered as bad as any kind of intentional killing charge.

The three main categories of involuntary manslaughter in Tennessee include reckless homicide, criminally negligent homicide, and vehicular homicide. This section provides an overview of each of these crimes, the penal code for each crime and the associated penalties.

Reckless and Criminally Negligent Homicide

Reckless and criminally negligent homicides are rather loosely defined within the Tennessee Penal Code because there simply are so many different acts and behaviors that can be considered accidents as opposed to actions that substantiate a severe criminal sentence.

Criminally negligent homicide is defined in the Tennessee Code Section 39-13-212 as causing a death due to one’s criminally negligent conduct. This crime is a Class E felony in Tennessee, which constitutes a prison sentence of 1-6 years and a fine up to $3,000.

Reckless homicide is defined in the Tennessee Code Section 39-13-215 as recklessly killing a person (other than with a vehicle). It’s considered a Class D felony, which constitutes a prison sentence up of 2-12 years and a fine up to $5,000.

It’s difficult to distinguish these two categories of involuntary manslaughter, so we’ll provide an example of both crimes so you can better understand the differences between reckless and criminally negligent homicides.

An example of reckless homicide is playing Russian roulette with a friend and picking up a gun with a single bullet in it and shooting it at them. There’s clearly a substantial risk the friend will die in this situation making it reckless.

If you pick up a gun that you believe is empty, but don’t check it, and then shoot at your friend and kill them that’s considered criminally negligent. In this situation a court will rule that you should have looked to be sure that the gun was empty even if you had no knowledge or belief it was loaded.

Both of these crimes are lesser offenses than vehicular homicide, which requires its own section.

Vehicular Homicide

According to the Tennessee Code Section 39-13-213, vehicular homicide is defined as the reckless killing of another person while driving a car, boat, plane or other vehicle. The defendant’s actions must have created a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury, been the result of illegally drag racing or been the result of being intoxicated from drugs or alcohol. Vehicular homicide can also be a result of a driver’s negligent conduct while in a posted construction zone in a situation in which the person killed was a Department of Transportation or Highway construction employee.

Some of the causes of vehicular homicide can include speeding, distracted driving, driving under the influence and many other reasons.

It’s important to distinguish that aggravated vehicular homicide is a little different from vehicular homicide in that it involves a repeated offender of either a DUI, vehicular assault or any combination of these offenses. It also applies to anyone who’s been convicted of vehicular homicide in the past or blew over a .20 blood alcohol concentration at the time of the offense.

Penalties for Vehicular Homicide 

In 2015, Tennessee changed the sentencing of vehicular homicide by establishing new mandatory minimum sentences. Vehicular homicide is a Class B felony that entails a potential prison sentence of 8-30, and today those who are convicted of vehicular homicide while intoxicated are not eligible for probation. Before this change in the law, those convicted of vehicular homicide while intoxicated were eligible for probation given that their sentence was less than ten years long.

One of the main reasons for the change in the law was because of the pressures that an investigative report from a Memphis publication called Commercial Appeal put on Tennessee legislators. The report found that Tennessee was among the most lenient states in terms of DUI-related vehicular homicide while at the same time having some of the country’s most strict drunk driving laws.

Aggravated vehicular homicide is a class A felony, which constitutes a prison sentence of 15-60 years.

Vehicular homicide convicts can also have their licenses revoked for 3-10 years.

What You Can Do

A lot of times voluntary and involuntary manslaughter sentences are reductions from murder allegations. Due to the severity of all these violent crimes, it’s crucial that anyone facing these charges contact an experienced Tennessee criminal defense attorney or public defender for the legal guidance and assistance that is necessary.

All categories of manslaughter display a blatant disregard for human life, but not all people who commit manslaughter are killers who deserve to be locked up in prison on murder charges, or even executed.

That’s why when it comes down to it, hiring an attorney to handle all of the complications that are involved with all categories of manslaughter is really the only thing you or your loved one can do.

In some cases, getting charged with voluntary or involuntary manslaughter can be seen as a legal victory from murder allegations. Getting these reductions undoubtedly requires extensive legal expertise on your side.