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What Is Second Degree Manslaughter?

By Vanessa Harvey
Updated May 16, 2024
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Second degree manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another person without implied or expressed malice, which is ill will toward someone. A charge of second degree manslaughter also indicates that the defendant had no intention of taking the life of the victim and that he or she took reasonable and ordinary action to prevent the victim's death. The terms negligent homicide and murder are seldom used to refer to the ending of someone's life that was the result of a defendant's illegal activity if the action was not a felony. Sometimes the victim's death is caused by the improper or negligent carrying out of an act that is legal or the taking of a usually lawful action in an illegal way.

Another important consideration when determining a charge of second degree murder is whether the defendant understood that his or her actions could lead to someone's death. The main difference between second degree manslaughter and second degree murder is that in the latter, there was malice in the killer. Some people see the distinctions between the degrees of manslaughter and murder as subjective. For example, manslaughter in the first degree indicates no malice but a positive intention to kill. Some people reason that a definite intention to kill or one to inflict violence that normally results in great bodily harm or death is itself the reflection of malice and calls for a charge of second degree murder.

There are some people who believe that the harboring of malice is intricately linked to a person's intentions. If there was intent to kill or to carry out an act of violence known to cause grave injuries that usually end someone's life, the reality is that the intention could have been fueled by malice. There actually are a wide variety of situations in which a person dies as a consequence of someone else's improper performance of legal activity or proper performance of an illegal activity.

A scenario that could involve a charge of second degree manslaughter is the accidental killing of someone by a hunter during hunting season. Most states in the United States allow certain animals to be hunted during designated seasons, but hunters must follow the regional laws governing the use of firearms. There's a prohibition in some areas against shooting a gun within 500 feet (0.15 km) of a residence. If a hunter ignores or misjudges distance and fires a gun that kills someone, he or she could be convicted of second degree manslaughter, which is a felony crime.

What Is the Difference Between Murder, Manslaughter, and Homicide?

Understanding the difference between murder, manslaughter, and homicide is a great topic to learn about if you are interested in studying criminal justice or law. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with these terms if you or a loved one has been convicted of a crime that involved the death of another person. What is the second-degree manslaughter sentence, for example, and how does this impact someone's sentence when compared to first-degree murder?

All of these legal terms refer to different situations in which one person kills another person. Often, the individual’s prison sentence — or lack thereof — rests heavily on which charge is assigned. Read through the definitions below to gain a basic understanding of these three legal terms.


This type of killing is illegal and is often intentional, but it is not always premeditated. First-degree murder is intentional, premeditated, and it occurred with malice, which implies the desire to commit an evil act. If you’re arrested for murder, you’re usually going to go to prison and may not have the possibility of getting parole.

Second-degree murder refers to acts of intentional killing of another person that is not premeditated, such as killing someone during a fight. You can still receive a long prison sentence for second-degree murder, but these cases usually do not involve malice.


Unlike murder, manslaughter is not intentional. Voluntary manslaughter cases involve one person killing another without premeditation or intent. These crimes may be referred to as incidents that happen in the heat of the moment.

Involuntary manslaughter includes killings that happen without intention and often without the intention to kill the person at all — such as a car accident, which may be termed “vehicular manslaughter” — but the victim does, unfortunately, die as a result. Both types of manslaughter can result in the perpetrator going to prison for years, but these charges are not as serious as murder in the eyes of the legal system.


This term simply refers to the fact that one person was killed by another person. Though homicide can be a crime if it is committed as murder or manslaughter, it can also refer to killings — both intentional and unintentional — that happen during war. “Homicide” as a standalone term refers to the act of killing, not the charges brought against the person who did the killing.

How Many Years for Second Degree Manslaughter?

How many years for second-degree manslaughter will differ by state. In Maryland, for example, the maximum sentence received will be around 10 years per charge. Involuntary manslaughter in California may result in two to four years in prison. In contrast, murder charges in most states can result in the perpetrator spending 20 years to life in prison — and sometimes without the option of parole.

Second Degree Manslaughter Sentence

A judge will determine whether the killer receives a second-degree manslaughter sentence or a murder sentence. Usually, these cases are clear-cut, such as when one person intentionally kills someone else with a weapon, but at times they are not. If several people were killed, one person can simultaneously receive charges of both murder and manslaughter.

For example, if someone shot another person on purpose and with premeditated intent, he or she would likely receive a charge of first-degree murder. If the victim’s spouse happened to show up during the killing and was additionally killed because the shooter fired the gun in his or her direction (without the knowledge that the spouse had arrived), the perpetrator could receive an additional charge of second-degree manslaughter if the shooting resulted in the death of the spouse.

Second Degree Murder vs Manslaughter

Both charges involve one person killing another person without malice. Second-degree murder is not premeditated, but the killer has a full understanding of his or her actions that lead to the death of the victim. For example, the perpetrator in a second-degree murder case may have punched the victim. By itself, punching is not an intent to kill, but if the victim hit his head on the curb and died as a result, the charge would be second-degree murder instead of manslaughter as the perpetrator knew that he was harming the victim.

Manslaughter, on the other hand, typically involves emotional disturbance, rage, or crimes of passion. It could also include giving someone too high of a dose of medication or causing a car accident that leads to someone’s death. While you wouldn’t want to find yourself in either of these situations, you would likely not be sentenced to as many years in prison when charged with manslaughter.

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Discussion Comments

By SteamLouis — On Jul 29, 2013

My uncle accidentally killed someone while he was hunting (legally). The bullet bounced and hit this man, my uncle had no idea there was someone there. He is charged with second degree manslaughter now, we have no idea how many years he's going to get.

By turquoise — On Jul 29, 2013

@fBoyle-- Premeditated is usually the term that's used. It means that there was deliberation and planning before the manslaughter took place. I'm not a law expert, so I can't explain in detail how premeditation is proven, but this is what differentiates first and second degree manslaughter.

Usually, if a lawyer is trying to prove that there is no premeditation, then he or she will argue that it was a crime committed as a result of provocation. The idea is to show that this individual would not have committed the manslaughter if the circumstances hadn't played out the way they did.

If the court can't prove premeditation, the decision will have to be a second degree manslaughter sentence.

By fBoyle — On Jul 28, 2013

So if someone doesn't plan to kill another, but ends up killing him or her, it's second degree murder or manslaughter? But how does the court know if there was a plan or not? Can't the defendant lie about it?

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