Second Degree Murder Overview

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Second-degree murder is best viewed as the middle ground between first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. While some states don't use the term "second-degree murder," they probably still divide the crime of murder into two different degrees and impose lower sentences for the lesser crime.

While the exact definition of murder in the second degree varies by jurisdiction, the crime generally covers killings that:

  • Are intentional but lack premeditation.
  • Result from acts intended to only cause serious bodily harm.
  • Result from acts that demonstrate extreme indifference to human life.

Read on to learn about the different types of killings that are usually classified as murder in the second degree with helpful examples of each type of killing.

Intentional Killings Without Premeditation

These sorts of killings don't involve any planning on the part of the killer. At the moment the murder occurs, the killer definitely intends to kill the victim, but up until that moment, the killer had no plan to commit murder.

For example, Adam and Bill are neighbors, and lately they've been having disagreements over the fence between their properties. Adam pays Bill a visit to discuss the matter, and while there impulsively grabs a shotgun hanging above the fireplace and shoots and kills Bill.

Adam didn't have any plan to kill Bill when he went to Bill's house that day, so there was no premeditation. At the time he pulled the trigger, however, Adam fully intended to kill Bill. Given these circumstances, prosecutors would probably charge him with second-degree murder.

If, on the other hand, Adam kills Bill during a sudden quarrel with provocation, the charge would likely be voluntary manslaughter. The idea is that if Adam is driven by the "heat of passion," it lessens the moral blame.

Intent to Cause Only Serious Bodily Harm

A second situation that constitutes second-degree murder is where the perpetrator intends only to cause serious bodily harm but knows that death could result from the act. For example, in the situation above, instead of shooting Bill, Adam grabs a shovel and whacks Bill in the head with all his strength. While Adam didn't specifically intend to kill Bill when he hit him, he did intend to strike him with the shovel knowing that such a blow to the head carried with it a distinct possibility of death. Adam killing Bill in this way would be classified as murder in the second degree.

Extreme Indifference to Human Life

The third main type of second-degree murder occurs when a victim dies as a result of the perpetrator's extreme indifference to the value of human life. Generally speaking, extreme indifference means an utter disregard of the possibility that an act will kill someone.

Going back to Adam and Bill, imagine that instead of hitting Bill over the head with a shovel, Adam grabs his gun and wildly fires toward a crowd of neighbors that have gathered to observe the argument between Adam and Bill. Adam didn't necessarily mean to kill anyone, but also didn't give any thought to the harm that his actions could cause to people in the crowd. This demonstrates Adam's extreme indifference to human life. If one of Adam's bullets struck and killed anyone in the crowd, then Adam has probably committed a murder in the second degree.

Felony Murder

Some states also classify killings that occur during the commission of another felony as second-degree murders, although other states characterize these types of killings as murders in the first degree. It's also important to note that an individual can be found guilty of felony murder even if they didn't personally kill anyone.

For example, if Adam and Bill go into a convenience store intending to rob it at gunpoint (which is a felony), and Adam ends up shooting the store owner, a jury could also find Bill (who didn't shoot anyone) guilty of murder, on the ground that he was involved in the original felony when the killing took place.

What if You're Facing Second-Degree Murder Charges? Call a Lawyer

If you've been accused of any type of murder or another crime, don't waste a minute before retaining an experienced attorney to protect your legal rights, help you establish a defense, and preserve evidence that may help your case. Contact a criminal defense lawyer near you today to get started.

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