2nd Degree Murder Laws & Charges

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In federal law and in most states, 2nd degree murder is defined as intentional killing that is not premeditated, or a killing that is caused by the person’s lack of concern for human life. Generally, 2nd degree murder is somewhat of a middle ground between first degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.

For instance, say a man comes home from work to find his wife in bed with another man. At a store the next day, the man sees the other man in one of the aisles. He then pulls out a gun and fires it, but hits and kills someone else. That could be viewed in some jurisdictions as second degree murder.

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Second Degree Murder Laws

The precise definition of second degree murder will vary between jurisdictions, but there are some common elements that second degree murder has in all areas. As noted above, the essential elements in second degree murder are different than first degree. While both involve the killing of another person, the mental state of the accused is different.

First degree murder must involve premeditated killing. The killer must be proven to have made a plan to kill the person and he then carried out the plan. Second degree murder does not have the element of premeditation. Instead, there are usually one of three situations that will make up second degree murder:

  • A killing that is done impulsively without a plan, but with malice aforethought.
  • A killing that results from an action that was intended to cause serious harm.
  • A killing that occurs from an act that shows the person’s indifference to human life.

Second Degree Murder Crimes and Charges

These are the most common specific types of crimes associated with second degree murder:

-Impulsive with Malice Aforethought

This is the type of killing that happens in the heat of the moment and does not involve premeditation. At the second the murder happens, the killer does intend to kill but up to that second, he or she did not plan to kill.

For instance, let’s say two men are neighbors, and they have been disagreeing about a fence between their properties. Man 1 visits Man 2, but Man 1 gets angry suddenly and pulls out a gun and kills Man 2.

Man 1 did not plan to kill Man 2, so there was not any premeditation. At the second the murder happened, though, Man 1 did intend to kill due to his anger about the fence, so there was malice aforethought. Most states would consider this second degree murder.

-Killing After Act Intended to Cause Bodily Harm

This type of second degree murder is where the accused intends to cause serious bodily harm with knowledge that death could result from the act. The killer may not want to kill necessarily, but he knows that death could occur.

For instance, say in the above example that Man 1 hits Man 2 in the head with a rock. He may not have intended to kill him and he knew hitting him in the head could kill him.

-Depraved Indifference to Human Life

This type of second degree murder happens when the victim dies because of the accused’s indifference to human life. This generally means that the accused had complete and utter disregard for potential damage to human life that his accident could cause.

For instance, assume that Man 1 grabbed his shotgun and fired randomly at other people. He did not mean necessarily to kill, but he did not think about the damage his action could cause. This shows indifference to human life.

Second Degree Murder Punishment

There are several factors that will determine how long the sentence will be for a person convicted of second degree murder. First, depending upon the state, the sentence can be different according to the statute. Also, most states will consider any aggravating and mitigating factors that are involved.

For example, a person who has been convicted of crimes in the past could get a longer sentence. Also, if the murder is committed with a firearm, this can bring additional penalties. Some states, such as California, provide additional penalties when the murder is committed against a law enforcement officer.

For many states, the sentence for this crime can range from 15 years to life, depending upon the circumstances. The federal statutes for second degree murder have a great deal of leeway, with a term of any number of years up to life deemed appropriate in certain cases.

For federal crimes, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines state that the judge may increase the penalty if the conduct of the defendant was especially brutal or cruel.

Second Degree Murder Sentencing Guidelines

Many state laws detail specific factors that can make those found guilty of first degree murder subject to harsher sentencing guidelines. Aggravating factors usually include some aspect of the crime or the defendant. Some of the most frequent aggravating factors that can increase the sentence are:

  • Defendant has a previous murder conviction
  • Killing occurred during the commission of another serious crime
  • Victim was a law enforcement officer who was performing his duties at the time
  • Victim was a prosecutor or judge
  • Killing was especially heinous, may have involved torture
  • Defendant laid in wait
  • Defendant used poison
  • Killing involved a bomb

First Degree Murder Statute of Limitations

There is no statute of limitations for first degree murder in any US state.


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