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I thought I was justified in killing someone, but I still got arrested. My lawyer told me that I can use a justification defense in my case, but I was arrested because the prosecutor thought my belief that I was acting in self defense was unreasonable. My lawyer told me that if the jury believes that I was acting in self defense, but that my belief was unreasonable, I won’t be convicted of Murder, but instead Voluntary Manslaughter. He said this is called imperfect self defense. Can you explain this to me?

In Pennsylvania, Voluntary Manslaughter is defined in 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2503 as:

§ 2503. Voluntary manslaughter.

(a) General rule.–A person who kills an individual without lawful justification commits voluntary manslaughter if at the time of the killing he is acting under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by: (1) the individual killed; or (2) another whom the actor endeavors to kill, but he negligently or accidentally causes the death of the individual killed.

(b) Unreasonable belief killing justifiable.–A person who intentionally or knowingly kills an individual commits voluntary manslaughter if at the time of the killing he believes the circumstances to be such that, if they existed, would justify the killing under Chapter 5 of this title (relating to general principles of justification), but his belief is unreasonable.

(c) Grading.–Voluntary manslaughter is a felony of the first degree.

Subsection b covers this topic. An example of this is self defense when viewed only based on the amount of force used by the defendant versus the amount of forced used by the decendent. Someone comes at you and attacks you. They have no weapon. You can turn and escape. You don’t. You stand there. The person hasn’t touched you. You warn them to get away from you. They don’t. They put their fists in the air as if they are going to punch you. They don’t. However, you unholster your gun. You fire it one time at the person. They die.

Your belief that you could use deadly force to defend yourself was completely unreasonable based on the amount of force facing you, so you would be convicted of Voluntary Manslaughter because your self defense was imperfect. Learn more about criminal defense in murder cases.

If the jury believed that you were justified in using self defense once it seemed like you were about to be attacked, but the use of deadly force was totally unreasonable based on the situation, you would be guilty of Voluntary Manslaughter.

Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.