Second-degree murder is defined as an intentional killing that was not premeditated. In some states, second-degree murder also encompasses “depraved heart murder,” which is a killing caused by a reckless disregard for human life. Second-degree murder is often seen as a catch-all category for intentional or reckless killings that do not fall within a state’s definition of first-degree murder. For instance, in California second-degree murder is defined as all murders that do not constitute first-degree murder. Understanding the precise contours of second-degree murder therefore requires looking to the laws of your particular state.
Although the act of killing may be the same in first-degree murder and second-degree murder, the mental state of the defendant at the time of the crime is different. Second-degree murder requires that the defendant acted impulsively, and without premeditation, but with an intent and understanding of his actions. This is distinguished from voluntary manslaughter, which is reserved for crimes committed in a “heat of passion” where the defendant may not have fully understood what he or she was doing. Additionally, while second-degree murder may result from impulsive actions of the defendant, voluntary manslaughter is typically reserved for impulsive killings that are provoked.
In addition to a killing that is intentional, but not premeditated, second-degree murder can also result from a defendant who acts to cause serious bodily harm. In such circumstances, although the defendant does not necessarily intend to kill, he or she acts to cause harm with the full knowledge that death might result. For instance, a wife who hits her husband in the head with a large rock, killing him, may be charged with second-degree murder even if she did not intend to kill him, as she would have known that such a blow to the head could kill him.
Similarly, when a defendant does not intend to kill, but acts with a complete and utter reckless disregard for human life, or “depraved heart,” this mental state is also sufficient for second-degree murder. One common example of “depraved heart murder” is where an individual shoots a gun into a crowd. He or she may not intend to kill, or to cause a particular person serious harm, but such actions demonstrate a total indifference to human life.
Some states also classify felony murder as a form of second-degree murder. You will want to check the laws of your state to determine if this rule applies.
Punishments and Defenses
Because second-degree murder is a lesser crime than first-degree murder, it is not typically subject to a death penalty sentence. Instead, defendants may face a long term of imprisonment or the possibility of life in prison. This will vary by state. In Arizona, for example, a defendant convicted of second-degree murder will be sentenced to no less than ten years in prison, but no more than twenty-five. In California, that same defendant would face a sentence of anywhere from fifteen years to life in prison. In many states, aggravating circumstances, such as killing a police officer or use of a firearm, will result in a harsher sentence.
As with first-degree murder, a defendant charged with second-degree murder may argue that he was justified in committing the killing because he was acting in self-defense or the defense of others. However, in order for this defense to be successful, the defendant must show that the killing in self-defense or defense of others was proportional to the threat of harm that he faced.