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Second Degree Murder: Definition & Law

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  • 0:01 Differentiating…
  • 0:26 Mental State & Murder
  • 1:14 Degrees of Murder
  • 3:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

What constitutes second degree murder, and why does it matter what a killer's state of mind is when he or she kills? How does second degree murder differ from first degree murder? Learn the answers to these questions in this lesson.

Differentiating Degrees of Murder

Are all murders the same? Is someone who plots and plans for weeks to kill someone the same as someone who kills someone after being overcome by anger? There are legal rules that define exactly what murder is and how different types, or degrees, of murder are differentiated. This differentiation often involves the mental state of the murderer and the malice behind the act.

Mental State & Murder

When you think of the word 'malice,' you may envision an evil person who spends his or her days plotting the downfall of others. While this description could apply to the term, the legal concept of malice can include much more than that. In criminal law, malice refers not just to hatred and anger, but also to any mental state involving the intent to kill or even an extreme disregard of the likelihood that one's dangerous actions may kill another person.

Murder is defined as the unlawful killing of another person with malice aforethought, which is the required mental state for murder. Malice aforethought essentially means that a person who commits murder must have the requisite state of mind - malice - before committing the act of murder, whether it's a year before or a moment before.

Degrees of Murder

If a person premeditates and deliberates before committing murder, then that person has committed first-degree murder. Premeditation refers to planning ahead. Deliberation involves a weighing of options and the decision-making involved before taking an action. Essentially, first-degree murder involves calculation.

Imagine that Sarah has been jealous of her cousin Dan for years because of his award-winning antique motorcycle collection. Over time, her jealousy and anger build, and she decides to kill Dan by pushing him from the roof of his high-rise garage because she can no longer tolerate his happiness. She premeditates Dan's murder by planning how she will go about killing him, and she deliberates by considering possible consequences to her actions and still chooses to do it. If Sarah then carries out her plan by visiting Dan in his garage and pushing him to his death, she has committed first-degree murder.

But what if Sarah hasn't been planning to kill him? What if she's just visiting Dan, they begin to argue about the best method to restore his newly acquired motorcycle, and Sarah becomes angry at Dan, decides on the spot to kill him, and then pushes him off the roof to his death?

If Sarah intentionally kills Dan, but does so without premeditation and deliberation, she has committed second degree murder. According to the law, Sarah's malice as well as the premeditation and deliberation Sarah engaged in in the first scenario makes her eligible for the most serious murder charge--first degree murder. In the second scenario, though, she only possessed malice. The law says this is not quite as bad as the first scenario. Still, Sarah intended to kill her cousin, and that is second-degree murder.

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