What Does 2nd Degree Murder Mean?

Apr 12, 2012
Originally published on April 12, 2012 11:37 am
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We turn now from the arrest of George Zimmerman to the potential trial ahead. As we mentioned, George Zimmerman is facing second degree murder charges in the death of Trayvon Martin. And to make sense of what that means and what we might expect in the courtroom, we turn to Professor Paul Butler. He's with the George Washington University Law School and he's a former federal prosecutor. Professor, thanks for coming back on the program.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey. It's great to be back.

HURTADO: Professor, so can you tell us about the charge of second degree murder? We know the maximum sentence is life in prison; minimum 25 years. But what does the prosecution have to prove?

BUTLER: So the prosecutor threw the book at Mr. Zimmerman. This is the most serious charge that she could have brought. It's second degree murder, which means that she has to prove that he had a depraved mind, that he acted willfully and maliciously. You know, on the "Today" show this morning, Trayvon's mom said that she thought that the shooting was an accident, that it was a fight that got out of hand.

No, that's not evidence in the case, but if that's true that means the jury has to find him not guilty on murder. That would be more consistent with a manslaughter charge, which is what a lot of the legal experts were thinking would be brought.

HURTADO: And in fact, Professor, you're just saying right now that the special prosecutor threw the book. But earlier this week you told host Michel Martin that you thought this looked like a, quote, "garden variety manslaughter case," unquote. So, what's the difference between second degree murder and manslaughter?

BUTLER: So, manslaughter would be not necessarily an accident but recklessness. That Mr. Zimmerman should've known better but something - he got too emotional, he got overly excited, and created this horrible result. Murder implies something more malicious, something more intentional. It's not first degree, so it doesn't have to be premeditated. But it has to come close to that in terms of being willful.

And, you know, I don't know that we've heard much evidence of that so far. Now, Ms. Corey, the special prosecutor, was careful to emphasize in the press conference that she knows a lot more than what's been reported in the press. You know, on the other hand, she's known for being a very tough prosecutor and what some hardcore types do is overcharge. Because what they're trying to do is coerce a plea deal. So what people suspect is maybe she's charging Mr. Zimmerman with the most serious charge hoping that he'll agree to plead guilty to manslaughter.

HURTADO: And let's turn from the prosecutors to Zimmerman's defense. How will Florida's Stand Your Ground law play in this case?

BUTLER: So, what it does is provide immunity. So, in most jurisdictions that don't have this kind of weird law, it's a defense at trial. Here, it's a determination that, first, the judge will make. The judge will decide if it was reasonable for Mr. Zimmerman to believe that he was being attacked, that his life was being threatened or in jeopardy by Trayvon. And if that's true, the case is over. It doesn't go to the jury. And, again, in most jurisdictions, the jury would decide that right at the outset. The judge gets to make that decision in Florida.

HURTADO: And let's go to a quick clip from George Zimmerman's new lawyer. Here's Mark O'Mara addressing the media last night.

MARK O'MARA: I cannot imagine living in George Zimmerman's shoes for the past number of weeks, only because he has sort of been at the focus of a lot of anger and maybe confusion and maybe some hatred and that's got to be difficult.

HURTADO: So there are a lot of emotions that Mark O'Mara is highlighting in all the media coverage of the case. Can you shed some light on the challenges posed in finding an impartial jury?

BUTLER: You know, it's going to be difficult because lots of people have heard of the case. So, neither the prosecutor nor the defense will want jurors who don't know anything about the case because that would mean that they were living under a rock.

What the challenge will be is to find folks who haven't already made up their mind. You know, in the segment, the congresswoman said that the entire community was elated about this prosecution. And I'm not sure that that's exactly right. I think that there are a number of supporters of Mr. Zimmerman, as well as a number of people who think that he's a murderer. And so, the challenge will be to find people who can set aside everything that they've heard and that they think they know and can just listen to the evidence in court.

HURTADO: And, Paul, this really goes to a question of time as far as how the public has digested it. It's been a month and a half since Trayvon Martin was killed. Can you talk a little bit about the problems that the prosecution faces?

BUTLER: You know, they have to deal with the fact that the investigation wasn't as quick or as thorough - the initial investigation - as a lot of prosecutors would hope. So, amazingly, there was apparently a forensic exam, a drug test on Trayvon, but not on Mr. Zimmerman. So that's just one illustration of how the prosecutor has a lot of work to do 45 days after the killing.

HURTADO: Paul Butler is a former federal prosecutor. He's currently a professor at the George Washington University Law School and he joined us here in our D.C. studio. Thanks so much for being here.

BUTLER: It's always a pleasure.


HURTADO: Coming up, she inspired the new television show, "Scandal," by advising everyone from presidents to sports stars on how to manage a crisis.

JUDY SMITH: The truth has a funny way of not going away. And telling the truth is extremely important in dealing with any problem or crisis.

HURTADO: High profile crisis manager Judy Smith shares her thoughts on the show and advice from her new book, "Good Self, Bad Self." That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.