Differentiating Higher Level Homicides: An Empirical Analysis of the Impacts of Legal Definitions in the Real World, Plus an Illumination of the Understudied Crime of Second-degree Murder
33 Pages Posted: 1 Oct 2019
Date Written: 2019
First-degree murder, second-degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter constitute the traditional hierarchy of higher level homicide offenses in 27 U.S. jurisdictions. The typical differences in potential sentences among the three crimes are dramatic, ranging from death or life without parole for first-degree murder down to a relatively short prison term for voluntary manslaughter. Accordingly, the level of crime of which a killer is convicted is crucially important to the prosecution, defense, and society.
The legal definitions of these three crimes are relatively clear-cut, but the definitions must operate in a messy, real world that is rife with variables. One purpose of this Article is to empirically examine the extent that real-world convictions are described by these legal definitions and to identify possible patterns when departures are observable.
This Article focuses on six states and covers 371 homicide case resolutions during the first six months of 2017, assembled using newspaper reports. A coding sheet with numerous variables was developed. One set of variables focused on the facts of each case, and the second set of variables reflected the resulting conviction in each case. After each case was coded, it was entered into a spreadsheet to facilitate data analysis. Finally, the results were analyzed qualitatively and quantitatively, using both descriptive statistics and ordered multinomial logistic regression, to ascertain the extent that the legal definitions of the three crimes — first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter — described the case convictions in light of the case facts.
A second purpose of this Article is to provide insights into the crime of second-degree murder, which is the understudied workhorse of U.S. homicide law; indeed, the data demonstrates second-degree murder is the most likely conviction by a significant margin. Remarkably, until now, not a single scholarly piece has ever focused on second-degree murder. This Article will provide indicia of the kinds of fact patterns that tend to result in second-degree murder convictions.
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