Second degree murder, sometimes referred to as murder two, is defined the in the United States as non-premeditated killing of another person. That killing might or might not involve malice or ill will in the one who committed the homicide. If someone is killed as a result of another person's dangerous conduct or is killed in what is commonly referred to as a "heat of passion," a prosecuting attorney might charge the defendant with murder in the second degree, a crime that can carry a life sentence in a state penitentiary.
There are numerous forms of conduct and situations in which someone might end up being killed. Each one has to be evaluated to determine the degree of the charge that the defendant will face in court. If someone fires a gun in a public place, for example, and his or her actions end up causing the death of someone, he or she could be charged with second degree murder. To behave in such a manner reveals unacceptable negligence, dangerous conduct and little or no regard for the safety of the people whose lives were endangered. That person also could be charged with voluntary manslaughter, which is a lesser crime than second degree murder.
Another scenario that might result in a charge of second degree murder is that of a person catching his or her significant other in infidelity and responding in a jealous rage by killing the unfaithful partner. The most likely charge that such a person would face is one of murder in the second degree, which differs from murder in the first degree in that there is no premeditation on the part of the killer. Many people are of the opinion that the lines separating second degree murder and voluntary manslaughter are too fuzzy, and that the "gray" areas that are considered when charging a defendant can result in injustices because of the different length of sentences that can be pronounced and because the sentences often vary by location.
One of the most important differences between murder in the second degree and murder in the first degree is the penalty to which someone who is convicted can be sentenced. If a defendant is found guilty of first degree murder in a U.S. state that practices capital punishment, he or she could be sentenced to death. The same person would be sentenced to life in prison in states where the death penalty is not practiced.