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Second-Degree Murder Penalties and Sentencing

Generally, second-degree murder is the unpremeditated intentional killing of another. It's a lesser charge than first-degree murder. It's more severe than voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.

But what separates first-degree murder from second-degree murder? Premeditation is the defining detail that separates first-degree murder from second-degree murder. With second-degree murder, there is no deliberation and premeditation.

After a judge or jury finds 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.

Several factors determine the sentence a person may get, such as:

This article discusses how courts determine the sentence following a second-degree murder conviction. It first provides an explanation of second-degree murder and the degrees of murder. It then explains how federal and state law may set specific sentences. Then, it describes how special circumstances may allow the court to deviate from the laws. For more information, consider contacting a criminal defense lawyer.

Degrees of Murder Explained

Most states separate murders and violent crimes into degrees. The exact definitions of murder may vary between the states. Generally, the degrees of murder are as follows:

  • First-degree murder typically involves the premeditated killing of another person. This means the murderer typically planned the murder for some time before carrying it out. First-degree murder charges may also apply if someone kills another person during a felony. This type of murder is felony murder. First-degree murder is a serious crime and may lead to life imprisonment or the death penalty.
  • Second-degree murder generally occurs when one person kills another without premeditation. They usually must have a general intent to cause harm to another. This mental state is "malice aforethought." It also covers murders resulting from someone's actions that were recklessly indifferent to human life. Causing serious bodily harm to someone that results in their death may count as well.
  • Only three states (Florida, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania) have third-degree murder laws. The states' definitions of third-degree murder differ. Generally, it encompasses any murder that first- and second-degree murder doesn't cover.

A killing without malice is manslaughter. States generally split manslaughter into voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. For more information about these topics, consider reading the following articles:

The following section describes second-degree murder in further detail.

Second-Degree Murder

The difference between first- and second-degree murder is the murderer's mental state before the killing. If someone thinks about or plans to kill someone before doing so, the government may bring first-degree murder charges. If the murderer did not plan the murder, second-degree murder charges are appropriate.

For example, suppose Anna gets into an argument with her neighbor, Bill. For the next week, Anna plans to kill Bill. She buys a gun, digs a grave in the woods, and stalks Bill to learn his routines. She then shoots and kills Bill and buries his body. The government could file first-degree murder charges against her. This is because she intended to cause the death of another person, and she planned it for months. She may face a lifetime prison sentence without the possibility of parole. In some states, she may face the death penalty.

Suppose instead that Bill invites Anna over for dinner. They get into an argument over Bill's cooking. Anna, intending to cause serious bodily harm to Bill, throws a knife at him. She did not intend to kill him. Unfortunately, the blade cuts Bill deeply, and he dies. Although she did not intend to kill Bill, the government could charge Anna with second-degree murder. Her intention to cause serious bodily injury is enough to charge her with second-degree murder. It also showed a reckless indifference to human life.

Second-Degree Murder Sentencing Procedure

The sentencing procedure for a second-degree murder will depend on where the trial occurs. After a conviction, the court will hold a sentencing hearing. There, the court examines the nature of the offense and weighs any aggravating or mitigating factors. After deliberation, the court will hand down the defendant's sentence.

This section describes the factors the court may examine during the sentencing hearing.

The Letter of the Law

Second-degree murder statutes generally contain a discussion of the appropriate punishments. Usually, this takes the form of a general time period, such as 25 years to life. But, the laws often don't contain specific information about the sentences. In those jurisdictions, courts may have wide latitude to determine penalties.

For example, the federal second-degree murder statute 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.

Other jurisdictions' statutes set specific punishments for certain situations. For instance, California's Penal Code sets out specific minimum punishments for second-degree murder. California law requires different minimum punishments for the second-degree murder of a peace officer or when shooting a firearm from a motor vehicle.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

Special circumstances known as aggravating and mitigating factors may affect second-degree murder penalties.

Aggravating factors increase the severity of the imposed sentence. Aggravating factors may include:

  • The defendant's criminal history and prior convictions
  • Whether the defendant is remorseful for their actions
  • The heinousness of the crime
  • Other circumstances, such as using a deadly weapon

Mitigating factors decrease the imposed sentence's severity. Mitigating factors may include:

  • Whether the defendant is remorseful for their actions
  • Whether the defendant accepts responsibility for their actions
  • Whether the defendant suffers from a mental or physical illness or disability
  • The defendant's lack of a criminal record
  • Whether the defendant indicates a desire and ability to reform
  • Past good deeds

These factors vary by jurisdiction. Most jurisdictions will examine a few basic factors when deciding punishments.

Mandatory Sentencing

Sometimes, mandatory sentencing guidelines take sentencing discretion away from judges. Congress has established mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes. If a mandatory minimum sentence guideline applies to a convicted person, the judge must sentence them accordingly.

For example, some sentencing guidelines may require a judge to sentence someone to life in a federal or state prison. Following a capital murder offense, the guidelines may require either life imprisonment or the death penalty.

The federal guidelines allow an upward departure if a second-degree murder was particularly cruel or heinous. Your state may also have mandatory sentencing guidelines that apply. Consider contacting a criminal defense attorney.

Get Legal Help With Your Second-Degree Murder Case

Second-degree murder charges carry the potential for significant prison sentences. If the government has charged you with a murder charge, contact a criminal defense attorney near you. An experienced attorney can give you helpful legal advice, such as:

Contact a criminal defense lawyer today to understand your criminal charges.

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