Criminal law is a state creature; each state independently defines and punishes crimes. While slight variation exists among states as to the exact definition of second-degree murder, it is generally defined as intentionally and knowingly causing the death of another person or causing severe physical injury that results in the death of a victim. Second-degree murder is punishable as a felony in all states, and usually mandates one of the most severe felony classifications available under state law.
Second-degree Murder Generally
Second-degree murder occurs when an individual knowingly causes the death of another. The offender must have intended to cause the death, referred to in common law as "malice aforethought." Many states presume the use of a deadly weapon by an offender displays intent to kill. Intent to kill is what separates murder from lesser charges.
Murder in the second-degree is typically charged as the highest felony classification under state law. For example, in Missouri second-degree murder is classified as a Class A felony, and thus under Section 558.011 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, is punishable by a term of not less than 10 years. Many states such as Michigan under Section 750.317 give the trial court the discretion to sentence an offender to any term of incarceration up to and including life.
Defenses are possible to the charge of second-degree murder. For example, under New York's Penal Code Article 125.25, self-defense, extreme emotional disturbance and knowingly assisting in a suicide are possible defenses. Extreme emotional disturbance generally recognizes that reasonable individuals might be overcome with emotion in extreme situations. For example, if you were to walk in on your spouse engaged in sexual intercourse with another, it is reasonable that you might lose control in an ensuing physical altercation.
First-degree Murder and Manslaughter
Second-degree murder sits in severity between first-degree murder and manslaughter (voluntary and involuntary). Generally speaking, first-degree murder requires premeditation by the offender. This means the offender planned or prepared to commit the murder. Manslaughter occurs where someone dies unintentionally because of the offender's actions, the distinction being that the offender did not knowingly intend to cause the victim's death, but he is responsible by his actions for the victim's death.
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