What exactly is a second-degree murder charge? In the sometimes mysterious world of criminal law, it can be difficult for defendants and their relatives to understand exactly what any charge means. Here’s a basic explanation that can help you better prepare for the days ahead.
Murder in the second degree is a charge that bridges the gap between manslaughter — a killing that occurs without prior intent, usually in the heat of the moment — and first-degree murder, which is a premeditated act. On the other hand, murder in the second degree involves a killing that was unplanned, but the result of an intentional act or behavior that clearly fails to show a proper regard for other people’s lives. The difference between these charges is often hard to discern — although prosecutors will generally try to charge defendants with the highest charge they can so that they have the leverage to negotiate a plea bargain.
For an example of how the charges work, imagine that Andy and Ben have a long-running feud. Imagine Andy and Ben exchange threats at a party. If Andy shoots him right there, that might be considered voluntary manslaughter. If he waits until later and shoots Ben as Ben leaves the party, that’s likely to result in a first-degree murder charge. If Andy misses when he fires the gun and kills Cassidy by accident, that would likely be second-degree murder because Andy’s actions were reckless.
A second-degree murder charge isn’t impossible to defeat. Many defendants are able to prove that they are innocent of the charges altogether. Mistaken identity is a common problem when eyewitnesses are involved. In other situations, defendants are able to assert a claim of self-defense. If you were compelled to act out of fear for your life, that might be a valid excuse for otherwise reckless behavior. Involuntary intoxication, such as the kind that comes from a bad drug reaction, might also be a plausible defense.
It’s important for defendants to take their advice from their defense attorneys — not the prosecution or the police. A case is seldom as clear-cut as the prosecution would have you believe, and an experienced defense attorney can often raise issues of reasonable doubt in a juror’s mind.