'Officer down': The aftermath of Detroit officer's fatal shooting

End distinction between first-, second-degree murder

John O'Neill

Having killed his first wife in 1991 (along with their unborn child), Gregory Green now stands accused of killing his two children and two stepchildren. On top of that, the Southfield man is accused of assault with intent to commit great bodily harm and torture of his current wife (the mother of the four Green is accused of killing).

Many are outraged that one convicted of murder could be free to do it again — in even more heinous fashion. But while people should be outraged, they should not be surprised. An examination of the Michigan Department of Corrections roster reveals a number of residents convicted of murder a second time.

The problem lies in the law’s distinction between first-degree murder (premeditated) and second-degree murder (not premeditated). Despite this distinction embedded in law, nowhere is it explained why premeditation makes murder more dangerous than one committed without premeditation. Premeditation does not make one killer more dangerous than another whose murder is not premeditated.

The distinction remains with grave consequences. First-degree murder in Michigan carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, second-degree murder carries a non-mandatory sentence of up to life in prison, making a shot at parole and eventual freedom conceivable.

And just as conceivable is the spectacle of one convicted of second degree murder repeating the same offense. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that the law in Michigan should be changed to eliminate the distinction between first- and second-degree murder.

But second-degree murder is institutionalized. And it’s hard to repeal an institution. The statute is rationalized by adolescent platitudes. Common is the notion that murder is a low repeat offense. And though murder is not repeatable in the frequent pattern of larceny or drugs, eventually the killer strikes again. Needless to say, a repeat killer poses a greater danger than a repeat thief or drug offender.

Then there is the adage that all of us are capable of murder, thereby rationalizing freedom for killers. This is the liberal’s version of the doctrine of original sin. It stands the presumption of innocence on its head by projecting the guilt of a killer on all of us, presuming society guilty.

In defense of the second-degree murder statute is also the common argument that killing can take place in the heat of rage any otherwise normal person could experience. Or the death resulting from the homicide might be unintentional. But these positions are already accommodated by the statutes for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. As already stated, the only distinction between first- and second-degree murder is premeditation.

Michigan outlawed capital punishment in 1848, the first jurisdiction to have done so. Capital punishment was banned out of respect for life. The time is past due to build on this respect for life by changing the way we think about murder. It is the ultimate crime not worthy of the categorization of first and second degree. Eliminating this distinction will be a blow for the respect for life on a par with ending the death penalty.

And it will eliminate the spectacle of future Gregory Greens.

John O’Neill is a writer based in Allen Park.