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What Is Second Degree Murder?

Second degree murder is defined as having an intention to kill, but not premeditating the crime. An example could be if you walk into a bar and someone knocks over your drink and you decide to pull a gun on the person and shoot them. Second degree murder is often confused with manslaughter. For a killing to be considered manslaughter, the person in the bar would have to reasonably provoke you to kill them. This could happen if the victim is physically violent or threatening in some way, or if there is some kind of emotional trigger that would provoke a reasonable person to unpremeditated violence. 

Unlike manslaughter, second degree murder does not have a reasonable trigger. An example from the news is a case in which a Somerville man was convicted of second degree murder for shooting a Police Sergeant. The defendant, who was pronounced guilty of second degree murder after nearly 3 days of Jury deliberations, shot at a police officer and his K-9 who were serving an arrest warrant for a possible probation violation. 

The defendant’s attorney argued that he had been afraid because he was dealing drugs and someone had shot at him a few days before. However the prosecution cited text messages and voicemails to his girlfriend that proved the man was aware he had shot a police officer. The defendant’s state of mind was judged as intending to kill the police officer, not as being disturbed or afraid and reacting impulsively to a threat of violence from someone other than the police officer. 

Murder, Manslaughter or Felony Murder?

In the case above, it was possible to examine the defendant’s state of mind after the shooting. Not every case has such clear cut evidence, and evidence can be interpreted in different ways. There are many situations when the events that must be proved in court hang in the balance between intention to kill or an impulsive reaction. There are serious consequences depending on whether a person is charged with murder or manslaughter that will affect the rest of a person’s life. . 

When a crime of taking someone’s life is not charged as a first degree murder it can fall into the following categories:

  • Voluntary Manslaughter: When a person is reasonably provoked to seriously harm or kill someone in the heat of the moment. Voluntary manslaughter requires intention to harm but is unpremeditated and reasonably provoked.
  • Involuntary Manslaughter: When a person causes the death of someone else by a reckless action that was not intended to harm.
  • Felony Murder: When a person commits a specific felony that causes the death of someone else. The crime of felony murder is considered to be first degree murder in most cases and is controversial as it is complicated to prove and sometimes affects people involved in a crime, such as a robbery, who had a minor role and/or no intent to harm.
  • Second Degree Murder: When a person is not reasonably provoked to kill, but kills someone in the heat of the moment without premeditation.

The differences between a murder conviction and a manslaughter conviction cannot be overstated. Manslaughter incurs a maximum sentence of 20 years. First degree and second degree murder carry a life sentence. In Massachusetts it is possible to apply for parole for second degree murder after a minimum sentence has passed, often 15 years. Your criminal history and the nature of the crime can greatly contribute to the severity of sentencing in cases of second degree murder. Killing a police officer is one of the guidelines for harsher sentencing. Other considerations are being a member of a gang and having one or more previous murder convictions. 

If you have been charged with second degree murder in Massachusetts, it’s critically important to work with a criminal defense attorney who knows the law and can fight for your rights in court against a second degree murder charge. Many crimes are a result of a split second decision that has life altering consequences. At Dhar Law, LLP, we are experienced in defending the most serious and complex crimes in court. If you have been accused of a crime that might result in a life sentence, you should waste no time in speaking to a highly skilled criminal defense attorney who can build a robust defense.


Have you or a family member been charged or arrested? It’s important not to make mistakes early on in your case. Download our PDF on the top 3 things to do to help your defense or if you have been arrested by the State Police or FBI or you are the subject of an FBI Arrest Warrant.

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Heading up the firm, Vikas Dhar is widely recognized as a leader in the New England legal community. An accomplished business litigator and a “Top 40 Under 40” criminal defense attorney, he has also been honored as a New England Super Lawyer/Rising Star in the area of White-Collar Criminal Defense for each of the past six years by Boston Magazine.

I have the power and the skill to be able to save people from themselves. I can be your guide during the darkness. I can hold your hand and navigate you out of the darkness into the light.

— Vikas Dhar
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