Murder in the Second Degree

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Second-degree murder, in plain English, is when someone intentionally kills another person without premeditation. Unlike first-degree murder, which involves careful planning or happens during the commission of certain felonies, second-degree murder is more spontaneous. Picture a situation where two people get into a heated argument, and one person suddenly strikes and kills the other in a fit of rage. It’s an act done with the intent to kill or cause serious harm but without prior planning.

The Harm the Law Seeks to Prevent

The primary reason for laws against second-degree murder is the protection of human life. Life, as universally recognized, is the most precious and fundamental right of any individual. The legislature understands that while emotions can drive people to act impulsively, there must be a boundary that deters such fatal actions.

Laws against second-degree murder serve multiple purposes:

  1. Deterrence: These laws aim to deter potential offenders from taking life recklessly. By ensuring severe consequences, individuals might think twice before letting their emotions guide their actions to lethal ends.
  2. Retribution: As an act of justice, society demands punishment for someone who takes another’s life. The punishment meted out represents society’s condemnation of the act.
  3. Public Safety: It separates and isolates dangerous individuals from the community, ensuring the safety of others.
  4. Moral Balance: Society operates on a moral fabric. By punishing those who violate these norms, the law helps maintain a sense of moral balance.

Classification in Legal Codes

Most legal codes classify second-degree murder as a serious felony, but it is considered less severe than first-degree murder due to the absence of premeditation. However, it’s still more serious than manslaughter, which typically involves no intent to kill at all. The punishment for second-degree murder varies but often includes long prison sentences.

How Second-Degree Murder Fits into Criminal Categories

Second-degree murder is categorized under “crimes against persons.” Crimes against persons involve direct harm or threat to an individual, as opposed to “crimes against property” (like theft or vandalism) which target an individual’s possessions. It is distinguished from sexual crimes, which center on violating a person’s sexual autonomy.

Historical Perspective on Second-Degree Murder

Historically, the concept of distinguishing between degrees of murder can be traced back to ancient legal systems. However, a clearer understanding comes from the English common law.

Sir William Blackstone, a prominent legal scholar in the 18th century, discussed murder in his Commentaries on the Laws of England. Blackstone didn’t use “degrees” as modern law does but recognized the difference between premeditated murder and sudden heated acts. He emphasized that malice, either expressed or implied, is an essential component of the crime.

Early English common law did not differentiate between types of murders in the way current legal systems do. However, the idea that punishments should vary based on the offender’s state of mind and the circumstances of the act laid the foundation for modern distinctions.

As legal systems evolved, it became evident that there was a need for a more nuanced approach to different scenarios in which a life is taken. Thus, the classification of murder into degrees began to emerge, setting apart premeditated acts from those done in the heat of the moment.

The MPC Definition of Second-Degree Murder

The Modern Penal Code (MPC) has played a transformative role in refining and explaining criminal concepts. The definition of second-degree murder under the MPC is meticulous, ensuring clarity in its interpretation and application.

Defining Second-Degree Murder in the MPC

According to the MPC, second-degree murder can be generally understood as a homicide committed with the presence of intent but in the absence of premeditation or deliberation. Specifically, the MPC defines it under §210.2 as:

“Murder is committed purposely or knowingly; or it is committed recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.”

While first-degree murder under the MPC is often associated with purposeful, premeditated killing, second-degree murder captures those homicides that are less planned but are still undertaken with a clear intent or a reckless disregard for life.

Defenses in the Penal Code

The MPC provides various defenses that can be invoked to contest charges of second degree murder. Some of these defenses include:

  1. Self-Defense: Claimed when the accused believed it was necessary to use deadly force to protect themselves from an immediate threat of serious bodily harm or death. This is cited under §3.04 of the MPC.
  2. Defense of Others: This defense is invoked when an individual commits homicide believing it was essential to protect another person from immediate threat or harm, as mentioned in §3.05.
  3. Insanity: Recognized by the MPC under §4.01, this defense is grounded on the idea that the accused, due to a mental disease or defect, lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions.

Hypothetical: Second-Degree Murder in an Arkansas Bar Fight

In the vibrant setting of Little Rock, Arkansas, two local patrons, Bubba and Leroy, are ensnared in a rapidly escalating conflict at their regular bar. What starts as a minor disagreement soon takes a volatile turn. After a heated exchange, Leroy, in a moment of anger, splashes his drink onto Bubba and delivers a swift slap. This act, though not severely injurious, could potentially subject Leroy to charges under Arkansas Code §5-13-203, constituting third-degree battery, as it signifies an intentional infliction of minor physical harm.

Fueled by pain and humiliation, Bubba retaliates by breaking a beer bottle and menacingly brandishing it at Leroy. Leroy, sensing imminent danger, takes the first swing, landing several punches on Bubba, leaving him battered and bruised. Given the injuries Bubba sustained, Leroy might face charges under Arkansas Code §5-13-202, which deals with second-degree battery.

However, events spiral uncontrollably when Bubba, in a fit of unrestrained rage and without taking a moment to think, pulls out a pistol from his jacket. In his heightened emotional state, he fires a single shot, striking Leroy and causing fatal injuries. The immediacy of Bubba’s response to the beating, combined with the lack of any premeditative actions, positions this crime within the boundaries of second-degree murder. Arkansas Code §5-10-103 defines this as causing death under circumstances that demonstrate an extreme indifference to the value of human life, especially when performed impulsively in reaction to a strong provocation. Given Bubba’s immediate and emotional response to Leroy’s assault, it becomes evident that his actions, while tragically fatal, lacked the premeditation typically associated with first-degree murder.

Essential Elements of Second-Degree Murder

For a clearer understanding, let’s break down the crime into its essential elements:

  1. Mens Rea (Mental State): The individual acted “purposely” or “knowingly” or demonstrated a reckless indifference to life.
  2. Actus Reus (Action): The actual act of killing another person.
  3. Concurrence: The mental state and the act occurred simultaneously.
  4. Causation: The defendant’s action directly led to the victim’s death.
  5. Harm: Death of the victim.
  6. Attendant Circumstances: Other facts surrounding the event that might elevate or reduce the severity of the crime, such as the absence of premeditation.


Second-degree murder refers to the intentional killing of another person without prior planning or premeditation. While it’s less severe than first-degree murder, which involves detailed planning, it’s more serious than manslaughter, where there’s no intent to kill. Laws against second-degree murder aim to protect human life, emphasizing the importance of not acting on impulse in harmful ways. The Modern Penal Code (MPC) defines it as a homicide done either with intent or with extreme indifference to human life. Several defenses, like self-defense or insanity, can be raised against this charge. Key elements include intent (Mens Rea), the actual act of killing (Actus Reus), the simultaneous occurrence of intent and action (Concurrence), the direct cause of death (Causation), the actual death (Harm), and surrounding details (Attendant Circumstances).

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  09/28/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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