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Understanding first and second degree murder in Massachusetts

Murder is perhaps the most serious criminal charge that can be leveled at a person. Most residents of Massachusetts understand that murder is the crime of intentionally killing another human being. Less well understood is the difference between first and second degree murder.

An act that leads to the death of another person must be committed with intent to injure or kill in order to be considered either first or second degree murder. Conviction for the felony of first degree murder requires the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an unlawful killing occurred, that the defendant had formed the intent to kill before committing the murderous act known as premeditation and acted intentionally to inflict serious bodily harm or death on the victim known as malice aforethought.

Second degree murder is a killing committed with an intention to kill or inflict serious bodily injury but without the element of premeditation that is required for a first degree murder conviction.

The difference between the two crimes can be explained with an example. If Bill discovers that his wife Mary is having an adulterous affair and hits her with a hammer in a fit of anger when he confronts her, he has committed second degree murder. If Bill discovers the affair and takes a week to plan Mary's murder, the act is now first degree murder because the act was premeditated.

Anyone charged with either first or second degree murder will be facing possible life imprisonment. Because of the dire penalties associated with each crime, a defendant facing either type of murder charge may wish to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney for an evaluation of the evidence, an explanation of possible sentences if convicted and assistance in negotiating a favorable plea agreement if warranted by the facts of the case.

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