Second Degree Murder

Second degree murder is a criminal law term that describes the killing of another human being without premeditation, but with intent. Second degree murder may also refer to a death caused by an individual’s negligent or reckless conduct. To explore this concept, consider the second degree murder definition.

Definition of Second Degree Murder


  1. The killing of another human being intentionally, but without premeditation.


1945-1950       Americanism

What is Murder

Murder is the killing of another person without a valid excuse or justification, or with malice aforethought. Murder, as the unlawful killing of a human being, is a crime that society sees as deserving of the most severe punishment. As such, an individual convicted of murder may be sentenced to serve many years in prison, to serve the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of being paroled, or may be sentenced to death.

Degrees of Murder

Each state has specific definitions of murder, which are broken down by severity of the crime. The elements of each degree of murder, including first degree, second degree, and voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, are similar in each state.

First Degree Murder

First degree murder, also referred to as “capital murder,” involves intent to kill, and premeditation. In basic terms, the perpetrator planned to kill the victim, and then followed through with his plan. Even a few moments of planning or thinking about killing the victim may be counted as premeditation. Other circumstances that classify a murder as first-degree include:

  • A killing that occurred while the defendant was committing another felony. A person can be charged with first degree or felony murder if, while he is committing a dangerous crime, someone dies. In such cases, the defendant may face first degree murder charges, even if he is not the person who actually killed the victim.

For example:

John sets a house on fire, for which he is arrested and charged with the felony crime of arson. While putting out the fire, a firefighter is killed. Although John had no intention for anyone to be killed, his reckless and dangerous act has a high probability of causing serious injury or death. John may be charged with first degree murder.

  • Special Circumstances. In some jurisdictions, the law specifies certain special circumstances surrounding the crime which raise the degree to first degree or capital murder automatically. In these jurisdictions, the application of any of the listed special circumstances make the crime eligible for the death penalty. Special circumstances often include:
    • The killing of more than one person
    • The killing was accomplished through lying in wait
    • The killing was committed by poison, beheading, or torture

Second Degree Murder

Second degree murder is the criminal act of killing another person with intent, but without pre-meditation. In simple terms, a person can face second degree murder charges if he intentionally causes another person to lose his life, with no pre-planning, or without taking an opportunity to put some thought into it. Second degree murder is less serious than first degree murder, and is not subject to the death penalty. The exact laws regarding second degree murder vary by jurisdiction, but in all states, it is considered a felony crime, and the penalties are severe.

Typically, a person can be found guilty of second degree murder if any of the following circumstances exist:

  • The killing was the result of an act that was intended to cause serious harm
  • The killing was the result of an act that shows the perpetrator had an indifference to human life
  • The killing was done impulsively, in a time of high emotion

For example:

Jim and Rob are walking in opposite directions down the street. Jim bumps into Rob and continues walking without apologizing. Rob gets angry, pulls out a gun and shoots Jim. Rob can be convicted of second degree murder as he had intentions to kill Jim, but it was not premeditated.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter refers to a murder that is perpetrated in the heat of passion, or during the commission of another felony crime. Heat of passion refers to the emotional state of an individual who has been strongly provoked to violence, which leads to his act of murder. Heat of passion cannot be claimed if the perpetrator had a cooling off period between the provoking incident and the killing.

For example:

Mary comes home to find her husband having an affair with an other woman. Mary is so stunned and angry that she pulls a gun out of the bedside drawer and shoots her husband, killing him. Mary’s emotional state in the face of finding her husband in bed with another woman would be considered the heat of passion.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter refers to the unintentional killing of another person due to reckless, or negligent conduct, or during the commission of a crime that is not a felony.

For example:

After a couple hours of drinking at the corner bar, Brad gets into his car to drive home. Brad speeds through a stop sign, striking another car, killing its driver. Although Brad had no intention to kill someone, his reckless conduct in driving under the influence is likely to subject him to a charge of involuntary manslaughter.

Punishment for Second Degree Murder

Second degree murder is a very serious crime, the punishment for which is set by the laws of each state. While the punishment for second degree murder may range from several years in prison to life in prison, the perpetrator is not subject to the death penalty. During the sentencing of an individual convicted of second degree murder, the judge and jury generally consider a number of aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

Aggravating circumstances are those which make the crime more abhorrent, and may be used to increase the harshness of the sentence. Mitigating circumstances are those which tend to lighten the defendant’s blame or culpability. Common mitigating factors include:

  • Defendant’s Age – whether the defendant was an adult or minor at the time of the crime.
  • Mental capacity – such as the defendant’s intellectual disability, or mental state at the time of the crime.
  • History of Abuse – whether the defendant has a history of being abused, which trauma may have been related to the crime.
  • No Criminal Record – whether the defendant has a criminal history as an adult.
  • Victim Culpability – whether the victim willingly took part in the crime, or events surrounding the crime.

Defenses to Second Degree Murder

There are a number of defenses that may be used when charged with second degree murder. While most defendants, as with any other crime, claim they did not commit the crime, others admit to killing the victim, claiming their acts were justified. Some of the most common defenses to second degree murder include:

Insanity Defense

Some defendants claim that they were legally insane at the time the crime was committed. This does not necessarily relieve the defendant of responsibility, as the court may determine that, even though the defendant had a mental illness, he was still aware of his actions, and knew right from wrong. Not all jurisdictions allow for an insanity defense. Such jurisdictions issue a verdict of “guilty but mentally ill,” which specifies that, although the defendant has a mental illness, he had control over his actions at the time of the crime.

Claim of Self Defense

When a person kills another while protecting his own life, he may claim he acted in self defense. In legitimate self defense situations, the defendant may escape legal prosecution. A claim of self defense require certain elements to be met, including:

  • The defendant was in a place he had a legal right to be
  • The defendant was not at fault for the situation
  • The defendant did not instigate the situation
  • The defendant had a reasonable fear of great bodily harm or death at the hands of the individual he killed
  • The defendant made an attempt to avoid or retreat from the threat of danger

Phil Spector Convicted of Second Degree Murder

In 2003, music producer Phil Spector met Lana Clarkson, the star of a 1985 film called “Barbarian Queen.” The two met after the actress took on a job as a hostess at a club, and Spector invited the actress to his home after work for a drink. Within hours, Clarkson was found dead in a chair in Spector’s mansion, with a gunshot to the face. The 911 call was made by Spector’s chauffeur, who claimed he heard a gunshot, after which Spector exited the house with a gun in his hand. Spector was arrested and charged with the woman’s murder.

Although Spector tried to claim Clarkson’s death was an “accidental suicide,” prosecutors presented five witnesses who testified that they too had been threatened with a gun to prevent them from leaving his home. As Spector’s defense attorneys argued that the chauffeur was giving an inaccurate account of the incident, and that forensic evidence showed that Clarkson had shot herself, the jury could not agree on his guilt or innocence. That 2003 trial ended in a deadlock.

A second trial, which ended in March 2009, gave the jury the option of finding Spector guilty of a lesser charge, such as involuntary manslaughter. However, the jury found Spector guilty of second degree murder, as well as using a firearm in the commission of a crime, which enhanced his sentence by four years. Spector was sentenced to serve 19 years to life in the California state prison.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Criminal Law – The body of law dealing with criminal offenses and their punishment.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Lesser Charge – A lesser charge, or included offense, shares some elements of the main charge or greater criminal offense. For example, trespassing is a lesser-included offense of burglary, aggravated sexual assault is a lesser-included offense of rape, and manslaughter is a lesser-included offense of murder.
  • Malice – The intention to do evil, inflict injury, or cause suffering of another.
  • Negligent – Failure to act as, or to exercise the level of care of, another reasonably prudent person would be expected to act.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
  • Recklessly – To act with no concern for the consequences, without caution, or carelessly.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.

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