Second Degree Murder: Penalties and Sentencing

Second-degree murder typically consists of a killing that is not premeditated or a killing caused by reckless conduct with a lack of concern for human life. Second-degree murders are different from voluntary manslaughter as the killing is committed without being in the heat of passion. However, a lack of premeditation differentiates it from first-degree murder. There are three common situations considered second-degree murder:

  • murder committed on impulse with malice aforethought
  • A murder that results from the intent to cause serious harm
  • A murder that shows disregard for human life

Due to the many variables involved, penalties for second-degree murder can vary widely from state to state. State second-degree murder statutes give judges a lot of discretion in sentencing. A second-degree murder conviction in California carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to a maximum of life in prison. A similar conviction in Vermont, however, would range from a minimum of 20 years in prison to the maximum of a life sentence.

Aggravating Factors

During a trial, the prosecution can present evidence of aggravating factors. These factors can add harsher penalties to a second-degree murder conviction. Aggravating factors can involve either the offender or the specifics of how the act was committed. On the federal level, acts that are exceptionally cruel, heinous or degrading can result in a sentence elevated to match the nature of the crime. Other factors might include:

  • The use of a firearm
  • Whether the killing was a hate crime
  • Whether the defendant had a criminal history
  • Whether the victim was a law enforcement officer
  • Whether the offender played a main role

The California statute specifically states that if second-degree murder is committed by shooting a firearm from a moving vehicle, as in a drive-by, the minimum prison sentence rises from 15 years to 20 years.

Mitigating Factors

The defense in a criminal trial for second-degree murder may also present evidence of mitigating factors in the case. Mitigating factors will be considered by a judge after a conviction and can result in a reduction of the sentence. Mitigating factors are generally not as prominently defined in criminal statutes, but the defense may introduce relevant evidence about the act itself or the defendant's character. Some common mitigating factors might include:

  • Accepting responsibility or showing genuine remorse for the crime
  • Mental or physical illness
  • The defendant's civic contributions
  • The nature of the defendant's childhood
  • The lack of a criminal record

In Vermont, if the defendant was only an accomplice in a second-degree murder or if the victim participated or consented to the conduct, these are considered mitigating factors. If mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors, then the minimum prison term can be reduced from 20 years to 10 years.

In North Carolina, the minimum sentence for second-degree murder is 144 months in prison. However, if an inherently dangerous or reckless act is what causes a second-degree murder, the sentence may be lighter. An example might include a murder committed by shooting a bullet into a crowd without the intent to kill anyone. The sentence can also be lighter if the distribution of certain narcotics, such as opium, cocaine or methamphetamines, is what leads to the user's death. In both of these situations, the minimum sentence is only 94 months in prison.

The Death Penalty for Second-Degree Murder

Generally, the death penalty is not a sentence for second-degree murder. In most states, the death penalty is only an option in cases involving aggravated first-degree murder. Life sentences, however, are possible for second-degree murder in some states, including Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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