Skip to content

Exploring Second-Degree Murders: Navigating Legal Nuance

Ben Michael

In this article, we’ll explain how second degree murders are defined under Texas law, the ways that they differ from other homicide charges, and how an Austin criminal defense lawyer can help you with your case.

Understanding Second Degree Murders

It is important to understand that Texas law does not use the term “second degree murder.” Instead, this state categorizes homicides into different classes, such as capital murder, murder, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide. 

Under Texas Penal Code Section 19.02, murder is defined as: 

  • Intentionally or knowingly causing the death of another person;
  • Causing death by intending to cause serious bodily injury or; 
  • Causing death during the commission of a felony (other than manslaughter). 

Murder is a first-degree felony in Texas. During sentencing, however, the defendant may present the argument that the crime was committed in the “heat of passion” due to a significant provocation. If the court finds this to be the case, the charge may be reduced to a second-degree felony, which is punishable by a prison sentence ranging from two to twenty years and may include a fine up to $10,000. 

Murder Charges in Texas

In Texas, homicides are categorized as follows:

  • Capital Murder: Capital murder covers more serious circumstances, such as the killing of public safety officers, multiple murders, murders for hire, and murders committed during the commission of felonies like kidnapping or robbery. It is punishable by the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole.
  • Murder: Penal Code § 19.02(b)(1) defines the act of murder as killing another person under circumstances previously outlined. It is a first-degree felony, generally punishable by five years to life in prison, although the charge may be dropped to a second-degree felony at sentencing if the defendant can prove that they acted in the heat of passion.
  • Manslaughter: This is a charge for recklessly causing the death of another person. A second-degree felony in Texas, manslaughter is typically punishable by two to twenty years in prison.
  • Criminally Negligent Homicide: This is the least severe homicide charge and involves causing death by criminal negligence. It is categorized as a state jail felony.

Premeditation and Planning

Premeditation refers to the deliberate intention to commit a crime before it occurs. When a murder is committed with premeditation, it implies that the individual planned the killing ahead of time. This level of planning and intent often results in a first-degree felony charge. In contrast, if a murder occurs in a sudden heat of passion and immediately after adequate provocation, the charge might be reduced to a second-degree felony at sentencing.


Provocation can be a key factor in determining whether an incident leads to manslaughter charges instead of murder charges. When a person is provoked in a manner that causes them to lose self-control and kill someone, it may lead to manslaughter charges. While this doesn’t excuse the act, it acknowledges that the killing wasn’t premeditated.

Degrees of Intent: Malice Aforethought

Malice aforethought refers to the intention to kill or cause serious harm without legal justification or excuse. It doesn’t necessarily mean the perpetrator planned the crime far in advance; rather, it indicates a hostile intent at the time of the crime.

Murders punished as second-degree felonies usually involve intentional killing that is not premeditated or planned in advance. However, it is done with malice – meaning the perpetrator had the intention to kill or cause serious harm. This distinguishes it from a first-degree felony murder, which involves premeditation, and from manslaughter, which involves recklessness without intent.

Physical Action (Actus Reus) and Mental State (Mens Rea)

The physical and mental elements in Texas murder cases help determine the nature of the charge and the appropriate level of culpability.

  • Physical Element (Actus Reus): In the context of a homicide charge, the physical element is the act of killing another person. The nature of this act – how it was carried out – forms a big part of the assessment.
  • Mental Element (Mens Rea): The mental element involves intent or knowledge. This means that the person either intended to cause death or serious bodily injury or knew that their actions were likely to create such outcomes. 


Causation in a legal sense means establishing a link between the defendant’s actions and the outcome, which, in a murder case, is the death of another person. It’s about proving that the defendant’s conduct directly led to or significantly contributed to the victim’s death.

For a murder charge, it must be demonstrated that: 

  • The defendant’s actions were the direct cause of the victim’s death. For instance, if someone intentionally shoots another person, and that person dies from the gunshot wound, the causation is clear. 
  • The harm must also have been a foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions. This means that a reasonable person would have anticipated that the action taken could result in serious harm or death.
  • There was an unbroken chain of events leading from the defendant’s actions to the victim’s death.

During legal proceedings, both the prosecution and defense will present evidence and arguments related to causation, and the determination is ultimately made based on the evidence presented.

Defenses and Mitigating Factors

Texas law recognizes certain defenses and mitigating factors in murder cases. They can result in the charges being dropped, their severity reduced, or a lighter sentence upon conviction. Defenses include:

  • Self-Defense: This means that the killing was a necessary response to an immediate threat. Texas law allows individuals to use reasonable force to protect themselves from harm.
  • Defense of Others: Similar to self-defense, this defense involves arguing that the defendant’s actions were necessary to prevent harm to another person.
  • Accident or Mistake: This defense may be viable if the death was unintentional and occurred as a result of an accident or a mistake on the part of the defendant.
  • Insanity: This means that the defendant was incapable of understanding the nature of their actions or distinguishing right from wrong due to a severe mental illness or defect at the time of the crime.
  • Lack of Intent: Arguing that the defendant did not have the intent required for a murder charge may lead to a lesser charge like manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.

Mitigating factors influencing sentencing include:

  • Lack of Criminal History: A defendant with no prior criminal record may receive a more lenient sentence.
  • Age and Mental Capacity: The defendant’s age (especially if they are a juvenile) and their mental capacity can be considered.
  • Role in the Crime: If the defendant played a lesser or non-lethal role in the crime, it could influence the sentence.
  • Provocation: Evidence that the defendant acted under provocation might reduce the severity of the sentence.

Each case is different, and the applicable defenses and mitigating factors depend on the specifics. An Austin criminal defense attorney can present the most solid defense based on the facts of the case.


Texas law recognizes the right to protect oneself from harm. The right to self-defense can be invoked if a person reasonably believes that force is necessary to protect himself or herself. This applies even if the force used in self-defense results in the death of the aggressor.

For self-defense to be a valid defense, the perceived threat must be reasonable. This means the average person in the same situation would also believe there was an imminent threat of harm. The threat doesn’t have to be actual as long as belief was reasonable under the circumstances.

It is important to note that the level of force used in self-defense must be proportionate to the threat faced. In other words, using deadly force is only justifiable if the threat involves a risk of death or serious bodily harm. It is also noteworthy that Texas follows the “stand your ground” law, which means that in many situations, a person does not have a duty to retreat before using force in self-defense. This is particularly applicable in one’s home (the “castle doctrine”).

Mental Incapacity

The term mental incapacity refers to a state in which an individual is unable to understand the nature of their actions or distinguish right from wrong because of a mental disorder. If a person charged with murder can demonstrate that they were mentally incapacitated at the time of the offense, it can impact their culpability. 

The insanity defense is one of the most common ways mental incapacity is used in murder cases. In Texas, if a defendant successfully proves they were insane at the time of the crime, they can be found not guilty by reason of insanity. This defense requires substantial proof, which often includes expert psychiatric testimony.

Mental incapacity can mitigate penalties during sentencing even if not sufficient to qualify as an insanity defense. It can also be relevant in determining whether a defendant is competent to stand trial. A defendant must understand the proceedings against them and be able to assist in their defense- if found incompetent, they may undergo treatment until competency is restored.

Defending yourself against murder allegations requires extensive legal knowledge, strategic planning ability, and firm advocacy. When you respond to the charges by hiring a criminal defense lawyer, you benefit from the following: 

  • Legal Acumen: Fighting murder charges requires a thorough understanding of Texas criminal law. An experienced attorney can interpret these laws and apply them to your defense.
  • Stronger Defense Strategy: A skilled lawyer will assess your case and create an appropriate defense strategy. This includes presenting evidence and arguing on your behalf.
  • Support and Guidance: A good criminal defense lawyer offers both legal advice and emotional support, which can help you better understand and cope with everything.

At Michael & Associates, we prioritize zealous advocacy. Our team is selected from the top tier of Texas criminal defense lawyers, ensuring you receive knowledgeable and skilled representation. Our attorneys bring diverse capabilities, including trial expertise and negotiation skills, to provide you with a well-rounded defense.

When you work with Michael & Associates, you get our entire firm on your side. Our team approach means you benefit from a pool of expertise, with a dedicated focus on defending your rights and striving for the best outcome in your case. For more information, call (512) 729-1720 or contact us online to schedule a free case review. 

FAQs About Second-Degree Murder

What Distinguishes First-Degree Murder from Second-Degree Murder?

Texas does not categorize murder charges as first-degree or second-degree like many other states do. Instead, state law differentiates homicide charges based on the circumstances surrounding the alleged crime. Under Texas Penal Code Section 19.02, murder is typically prosecuted as a first-degree felony in Texas, although the charge may be reduced to a second-degree felony at sentencing if the defendant can prove that they were provoked and acted in the heat of passion.

Can Charges for Second-Degree Murder Be Upgraded or Reduced During Legal Proceedings?

In Texas, a murder charge can be reduced to a second-degree felony under certain circumstances. This reduction mainly hinges on the concept of “sudden passion” arising from an “adequate cause.”

Sudden passion refers to a significant emotional reaction such as fear, terror, anger, or rage, while adequate cause is a situation that would provoke a similar response in an average person, leading to a loss of self-control. These heated emotions must occur at the time of the offense: it cannot be a premeditated or long-standing emotional state. If a defendant successfully proves their case, the murder charge can be reduced to a second-degree felony.

Are There Mandatory Sentencing Laws for Second-Degree Murder Convictions?

For murder convictions that fall within the second-degree felony category, Texas does have mandatory sentencing guidelines. According to the Texas Penal Code, a second-degree felony carries a mandatory sentence of two to 20 years in prison. There may also be a fine of up to $10,000.

How Do Degrees of Intent Impact the Severity of Homicide Charges?

Texas law considers murder an offense where the individual intentionally or knowingly causes the death of another person. This level of intent, where there is a conscious objective or knowledge to cause death, usually results in a charge of a first-degree felony or, in some cases, a second-degree felony.

Manslaughter, on the other hand, involves recklessly causing the death of another individual. Here, the intent differs significantly from murder because it does not involve a deliberate plan to kill or knowledge that one’s actions are likely to cause death. Instead, there is a disregard for the risk associated with one’s actions. Manslaughter is usually charged as a second-degree felony.

In criminally negligent homicide, death is caused by negligence. This implies a lack of awareness that an action may result in death, representing a lower degree of intent than manslaughter or murder. This offense is charged as a state jail felony.

The degree of intent is essential in determining the nature of the charge and the potential penalties. Higher intent often leads to more severe charges and harsher sentencing. Legal counsel is vital in cases involving homicide charges, as an experienced lawyer can help ensure that all aspects, including the degree of intent, are appropriately considered in court.

Ben Michael

Ben has vast experience in defending criminal cases ranging from DWIs to assault, drug possession, and many more. He has countless criminal charges dismissed and pled down. Among many other awards, one of the Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorneys in Texas and winner of Top 40 under 40.

Scroll to Top