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What Is Second Degree Murder?

The crime of murder – in general – involves intentionally taking another person’s life. To prove murder, the prosecution must establish that the defendant:

  • Acted with intent to kill or do serious bodily harm
  • Death resulted as a consequence of the act

The degree of murder charged depends on whether there was premeditation or not. Second degree murder involves the unlawful killing that was not premeditated. A premeditated murder is almost always categorized as a first degree murder.

There are various premeditated first degree murder examples, including poisoning and lying in wait to attack. All other murders are usually classified as second degree.

Elements of Second Degree Murder

Second degree murder is typically defined not only by intent but also by a lack of premeditation. Although premeditation and intent are often confused, they are actually different from a legal perspective.

For example, if Allen visits Chris, his neighbor, to discuss local politics but ends up impulsively grabbing a wrench and clubbing Chris with it while there, Allen could face second degree murder charges if Chris dies as a result. While he did not plan to engage in any violence on his way over, and there was little to no emotional provocation for his actions, he committed an act of intentional violence with the prospect of serious bodily harm and/or death.

So-called “depraved heart” murders, or killings that take place due to extreme disregard for human life, also often fall under the umbrella of second degree murder. Firing a gun into a crowded area without intent to kill any particular individual and killing one or more people as a result, is an example of this type of murder.

Second Degree Murder Punishment

At the federal level, any sentence, including a life sentence, can be punishment for a second degree murder conviction. The main difference between a first degree murder conviction and a second degree murder conviction in federal court is that second degree murder does not call for the death penalty. The death penalty is a potential penalty for first degree murder.

Almost all states have severe penalties for second degree murder. California and Florida both have a potential penalty of life in prison in response to second degree murder convictions, as does Alaska. A minimum penalty of 15 years is also about the average floor for second degree murder convictions across state jurisdictions, in addition to hefty fines and financial remuneration to the victim’s family.

First Degree vs. Second Degree Murder

First degree murder focuses almost entirely around the element of premeditation. Forethought, planning and executing an unlawful intentional killing in any manner, as long as there is enough evidence, will generally result in first degree murder charges.

Second degree murder may involve an intent to kill or grievously harm in the moment (typically impulsively or recklessly), but lacks the element of premeditation. This distinction is generally held up from a legal perspective in both state and federal courts.

Second Degree Murder vs. Manslaughter

Second degree murder and manslaughter are often confused, as both crimes involve the unlawful killing of a victim without the element of premeditation.

However, manslaughter is typically categorized as a crime of passion, or a killing that takes place in the “heat of the moment,” where heightened emotions and a lack of typical reason apply to the situation. If a husband arrives at his home, after a day of work, to find his wife engaging in adultery, he may face charges of manslaughter if he kills either his wife or the third party. This would be an example of voluntary manslaughter or vehicular manslaughter.

Intent to kill or grievously harm may not even be a necessary component in cases of involuntary manslaughter, by contrast. If, say, a college student is driving down a busy highway while texting and causes a major accident resulting in at least one fatality, they could face charges of involuntary manslaughter. The offender in this scenario may not have set out to kill anyone but their recklessness resulted in a lethal accident.

Second degree murder is a very serious charge, considered to be more severe than voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help

If you have been charged with the crime of second degree murder, you should seek legal counsel. Because this crime could be one of impulse or passion, there are many areas where you might have a viable defense against the charge.

An experienced second degree murder defense attorney can help to identify your defenses and prepare your legal defense.

A second degree murder defense attorney can also:

    • Help protect your rights
    • Advise you on legal strategy
    • Represent you in court
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