Criminal Law

Second Degree Murder

Second-degree murder is a serious charge that can have severe consequences if you're convicted, though the exact terms of your sentence will depend on the state you're tried in. In order to build your defense, you'll need to understand the elements of your charge and what your options are in the case.


What is Second-Degree Murder?

Generally, second-degree murder is an unplanned homicide caused by actions the perpetrator knew or should have known could lead to the victim's death. Getting into a sudden fight and battering a person to death could be an example of second-degree murder. The fight wasn't premeditated, but if the perpetrator knew or reasonably should have known their attacks could be deadly, that may lead to a second-degree murder charge.

Contrast this to the more severe charge of a first-degree murder, which is usually either a premeditated homicide, a homicide that happened during certain other crimes like a robbery, or a homicide that includes specific types of victims, such as law enforcement officers.

Manslaughter, on the other hand, is a lesser charge that may come from an accidental killing or an assault that was less likely to result in death but did anyway.

What Happens During a Second-Degree Murder Trial?

Each state court and the federal court may have slightly different processes for conducting their second-degree murder trials. Many types of second-degree murder will be tried in a state court in the state the crime was committed in, but some murders, such as those that occurred during a sex crime, may constitute a federal offense.

In general, you can expect a second-degree murder case to be tried by a state or federal prosecutor who will represent the state or federal government to prove their case, that you committed a second-degree murder.

The prosecuting side and your defense side will both produce evidence, like weapons used, camera footage, physical evidence such as DNA, eye-witness testimony, and character witnesses to prove their side. In some cases you may testify on your own behalf, but that strategy may be inadvisable sometimes.

You have the right to a trial decided by a jury of your peers, 12 citizens who have been called to serve on the jury and were then screened by the court and the attorneys from both sides of the case. In some cases, you may be able to opt for a bench trial where instead of a jury, your verdict may be decided by a judge alone. In either case, to convict you the prosecutor will need to prove your guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

What Are the Penalties for a Second-Degree Murder Conviction?

The minimum and maximum penalties for a second-degree murder conviction vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and whether it was tried in a state court or a federal court. In general, you can expect a sentence of 15 years to life in prison. Whether or not you may ever be eligible for parole or early release will also depend on your jurisdiction.

The severity of your sentence will depend on your mitigating factors, elements that could lessen your sentence, or aggravating factors, which could increase your sentence.

Common mitigating factors include:

  • Not having a prior record of criminal activity
  • Having a verifiable mental illness
  • Showing genuine remorse

Common aggravating factors include:

  • Committing second-degree murder as a hate crime
  • Using exceptional brutality in the murder
  • Operating a gun or other deadly weapon during the murder

In some cases, first-degree murder charges could be lowered to second-degree murder charges based on mitigating circumstances, or as part of a plea deal.

Working with an experienced criminal lawyer is critical to building the best defense you can get, which could lessen your sentence or prevent a sentence all together if you're acquitted. It will be important to find and hire an attorney as soon as possible, because any misstep, even early on in the investigation and trial, could strengthen the case against you.