Second-degree murder is ordinarily defined as: 1) an intentional killing that is not premeditated; or 2) a killing caused by recklessness reflecting an extreme indifference to human life. 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.
First vs. Second-Degree Murder
The exact definition of second-degree murder varies by jurisdiction. However, the crime generally covers:
Intentional Killings Without Premeditation
These sorts of killings don't involve any planning ahead 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. Prosecutors would probably charge 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 second-degree murder.
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 onlookers. 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 second-degree murder.
Some states also classify killings that occur during the commission of another felony as second-degree murder, although other states characterize these felony murders as murder in the first degree. An individual can be found guilty of felony murder even if he or she 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 find Bill (who didn't shoot anyone) guilty of murder too, on the ground that he was involved in the original felony when the killing took place. Whether this felony murder would constitute a first or second-degree murder, however, depends on the law of the state in which it took place.
What If You're Facing Charges? You Probably Need a Lawyer
If you've been accused of second-degree 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.