Second-degree murder is generally described as the unpremeditated intentional killing of another. It's a lesser charge than first-degree murder, but more serious than manslaughter. After a jury has found a defendant guilty of second-degree murder, the case moves on to the sentencing phase. During this phase, the defendant will learn what penalties the state or federal government will impose for their crime.
There are several factors that determine what sentence a person convicted of second-degree murder will receive. First, there is the actual language of the law that sets the penalty. Second, there is a range of aggravating and mitigating factors that courts can consider when deciding on a sentence. All of these things taken together will determine the second-degree murder penalties that a defendant will face upon conviction.
The Letter of the Law
The statutes that specifically outlaw second-degree murder will generally contain some discussion of the appropriate punishments for the crime. Usually, this takes the form of a general time period, such as 15 years to life. Oftentimes, however, the discussions don't contain much specific information about the sentences, and give courts wide latitude to determine penalties.
For example, the federal statute criminalizing second-degree murder states that anyone guilty of murder in the second degree shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life. This vague sentencing declaration compels federal judges to use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in order to determine an appropriate punishment for a person convicted of second-degree murder.
Other jurisdictions' statutes give specific punishments for certain situations. For instance, California's Penal Code sets out specific minimum punishments for second-degree murder when committed against a peace officer or when resulting after shooting a firearm from a motor vehicle.
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors for Second Degree Murder
In addition to elements set out in the penal code, there are usually some aggravating and mitigating factors that courts examine to determine the second-degree murder penalties.
Aggravating factors are aspects of the crime or the criminal's behavior or history that increase the severity of the imposed sentence. Mitigating factors tend to demonstrate to the sentencing court that the defendant deserves a lighter sentence than they would normally receive without the presence of the mitigating factors.
These factors vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but most jurisdictions will examine a few basic factors when deciding on punishments.
In the federal system, for example, under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, a judge can increase a second-degree murder sentence if the defendant's conduct was exceptionally heinous, cruel, brutal, or degrading to the victim. Other aggravating factors include a defendant's criminal history, whether the crime constituted a hate crime, and whether the defendant used a firearm in the commission of the crime.
Federal mitigating factors include whether or not the defendant has accepted responsibility for the crime, any mental or physical illnesses the defendant has, the defendant's civic contributions, and the nature of the defendant's childhood.
States also examine similar aggravating and mitigating factors when determining second-degree murder penalties.
Second Degree Murder Sentencing Procedure
As with most aspects of the law, the exact procedure will depend on where the trial occurs. Generally, however, the court will hold a hearing at some point after the conviction to examine the nature of the offense and weigh the aggravating and mitigating factors. After deliberation, the court will hand down the defendant's sentence.
Get Legal Help with Your Second Degree Murder Case
The penalties and sentencing for a second-degree conviction are severe. If you're facing charges as serious as second-degree murder, or any charges for that matter, it's critical to speak with a criminal defense attorney to understand the penalties for the charges you're facing and the defenses available to you as you move forward.