Second degree murder is a serious criminal charge that involves an intentional killing that is not premeditated or planned. The exact legal definition and sentencing guidelines for 2nd degree murder varies between jurisdictions.
However, it is generally distinguished from 1st degree murder in that the killing was not pre-planned and was instead a crime of passion or committed during the process of committing another felony crime. Here are 5 infamous cases of 2nd degree murder from recent history:
1. The Shooting of Trayvon Martin
One of the most prominent recent 2nd degree murder cases is that of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African American teenager who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Sanford, Florida in 2012.
Zimmerman had been patrolling the neighborhood due to a string of break-ins when he spotted Martin and called the police to report suspicious behavior. Despite being told not to engage and that police were on their way, Zimmerman confronted and got into an altercation with Martin that ended with Zimmerman shooting the unarmed teen.
Zimmerman claimed self-defense but was charged and arrested for murder. The ensuing trial gained major national media attention around issues of racial profiling, self-defense laws and more.
In July 2013, a jury found Zimmerman not guilty of 2nd degree murder, sparking protests across the country. The case became a symbol of racial injustice in the criminal justice system.
2. The Murder of Caylee Anthony
In 2011, Casey Anthony stood trial for the murder of her 2 year old daughter, Caylee Anthony, in Orlando, Florida. Caylee was last seen on June 16, 2008 but her disappearance was not reported to police until July 15, 2008 when Casey’s mother demanded answers about Caylee’s whereabouts.
A day later, Casey was arrested and charged with first degree murder. The nearly three year investigation revealed a complicated web of lies from Casey and little concrete evidence of exactly how Caylee died. At trial, Casey did not take the stand and her defense team argued that Caylee accidentally drowned in the family pool and that Casey’s father helped cover up the death.
In a shocking verdict, the jury found Casey not guilty of first degree murder but guilty of four misdemeanor counts of lying to police. The Casey Anthony case showed how difficult it can be to prove murder without direct evidence.
Read More: Famous 1st Degree Murder Cases
3. The Killing of Botham Jean
In 2018, Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murdering Botham Jean in his own apartment. Guyger had just finished a 13.5 hour shift and mistakenly thought Jean’s apartment was her own.
Believing he was an intruder, Guyger shot and killed Jean. Despite her claims of self-defense and making a mistake, Guyger was charged and eventually convicted of murder. The conviction was notable as police officers are rarely charged for fatal shootings, especially against minorities.
Guyger’s 10 year prison sentence for murder also sparked outrage from critics who felt the sentence was too lenient. The tragic killing of Botham Jean ignited conversations about police use of force policies and racial bias in policing.
4. The Woodward School Shooting
In 2007, 14 year old Asa Coon brought two guns to his Cleveland high school and opened fire, killing two students and injuring two others before taking his own life. This shocking school shooting made international news as a horrific example of gun violence among youth.
The shooter had a history of mental health problems and was bullied at school. One month prior to the shooting, Coon threatened students and was suspended. Coon’s parents were charged with multiple accounts of child endangerment for allowing access to firearms.
His mother was also charged with 2nd degree manslaughter. The Woodward School shooting led to debates about gaps in the mental healthcare system, prevention of school violence, and access to guns.
5. The Murder of Meredith Kercher
The sensational murder of British student Meredith Kercher captured headlines in 2007. Kercher was found stabbed to death in her bedroom in Perugia, Italy while studying abroad. Her American roommate, Amanda Knox, and Knox’s Italian boyfriend became suspects.
After a long investigation with many twists, Knox and her boyfriend were convicted of Kercher’s murder in 2009. An appeals process began that overturned the convictions, then reinstated them, in a complicated legal drama that spanned years and continents.
In 2015, after multiple appeals trials, Knox and her boyfriend were definitively acquitted and exonerated. The case remains unsolved but demonstrates how difficult it can be to find justice for 2nd degree murder when evidence is unclear.
Knox also spent years wrongly imprisoned for the crime, highlighting problems with wrongful convictions. The dramatic Kercher murder case fascinated the public and demonstrated complex challenges prosecuting transnational homicides.
6. The Shooting of Akai Gurley
In 2014, NYPD officer Peter Liang was charged with 2nd degree murder for the shooting death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28 year old Black man. Liang was patrolling a Brooklyn housing project when he entered a dark stairwell with his gun drawn.
Liang claimed the gun went off accidentally and the bullet ricocheted, fatally striking Gurley one floor down. The case was notable as police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, sparking protests over use of excessive force.
In 2016, Liang was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct, but not 2nd degree murder. His punishment of no prison time, just community service and probation, led to outrage over racial double standards in use of police force.
7. The Death of Laci Peterson
In 2002, on Christmas Eve, 27-year-old pregnant Laci Peterson vanished from Modesto, California, drawing widespread media attention. After acting suspiciously himself, her husband Scott became the prime suspect.
In April of 2003, the body of Laci and her unborn child were discovered in the San Francisco Bay. Two counts of second-degree murder have been filed against Scott Peterson. His 2004 trial captured the attention of the entire nation.
Peterson said the robbers who killed Laci on their late night dog walk did it by accident. The prosecution was able to convince the jury that Peterson intentionally killed his pregnant wife. After being found guilty of murdering two people, he was sent on death row.
8. The Beating of Bryan Stow
At a 2011 Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game, Bryan Stow, a visiting fan of the opposing San Francisco Giants, was severely beaten in the Dodger Stadium parking lot by Louie Sanchez and Marvin Norwood.
Witnesses said it was an unprovoked attacked. Stow was left permanently disabled with traumatic brain injuries. His assailants were charged and pleaded guilty to mayhem and 2nd degree murder charges for the homicide of Stow’s unborn child, as his pregnant girlfriend subsequently lost the baby.
The high profile sports-related attack brought awareness to fan violence and led to increased stadium security measures nationwide.
9. The Murder of James Jordan
In 1993, the murder of legendary basketball star Michael Jordan’s father James Jordan shocked the sports world. James Jordan was napped and killed by two teenagers, Daniel Green and Larry Demery, as he napped in his car on a highway in North Carolina.
The motive was robbery of his luxury Lexus. Green shot Jordan during the crime. Both assailants were convicted of 1st degree murder and received life sentences.
Had the killing not been premeditated, it could have been charged as 2nd degree murder. The famous case highlighted the epidemic of deadly carjackings in the 1990s.
10. The Killing of Santana High School Shooter
In 2001, a 15 year old student opened fire at his San Diego high school, killing 2 students and injuring 13 others before being stopped by a school resource officer. However, the officer’s response also proved controversial.
To halt the shooter, the officer shot and killed the 15 year old assailant Charles Andrew Williams. This use of lethal force against a juvenile shooter led to debates about appropriate police responses and charges.
Had the officer not been acting in the line of duty during an active shooting, the killing of Williams may have been charged as 2nd degree murder given his young age. The case highlighted difficult issues for law enforcement around stopping violent crime while also using appropriate force.
- The Shooting of Trayvon Martin
- Botelho, G. & Yan, H. (2013, July 15). George Zimmerman found not guilty of murder in Trayvon Martin’s death. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/07/13/justice/zimmerman-trial
- The Murder of Caylee Anthony
- CNN Library. (2019, July 15). Casey Anthony Trial Fast Facts. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/11/04/us/casey-anthony-trial-fast-facts/index.html
- The Killing of Botham Jean
- CBS News. (2019, October 2). Ex-cop Amber Guyger gets 10 years in prison for murder of neighbor Botham Jean. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/amber-guyger-sentence-ex-dallas-officer-10-years-in-prison-for-murder-of-botham-jean-2019-10-02/
- The Woodward School Shooting
- Urbina, I. (2007, October 11). Student Kills 4, Then Himself, in Cleveland School. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/11/us/11cleveland.html
- The Murder of Meredith Kercher
- Davies, L. (2015, March 28). Amanda Knox acquitted because of ‘stunning flaws’ in investigation. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/mar/28/amanda-knox-acquitted-because-of-stunning-flaws-in-investigation
- The Shooting of Akai Gurley
- Berman, M. (2016, April 19). Peter Liang, NYPD officer convicted in Akai Gurley shooting, avoids prison time. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/04/19/peter-liang-nypd-officer-convicted-in-akai-gurley-shooting-avoids-prison-time/
- The Death of Laci Peterson
- NBC News. (2007, January 5). The Laci Peterson Murder Case. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna14810449
- The Beating of Bryan Stow
- Esptein, J. (2014, February 20). Two men plead guilty to 2011 beating at Dodger Stadium. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/local/la-xpm-2014-feb-20-la-me-stow-plea-20140221-story.html
- The Murder of James Jordan
- Johnson, V. (1993, August 16). Michael Jordan’s Father Is Killed; 2 Are Charged. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/16/us/michael-jordan-s-father-is-killed-2-are-charged.html
- The Killing of Santana High School Shooter
- CNN. (2001, March 8). Officer praised for shooting Santana High student. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2001/US/03/08/school.shooting.04/