The Difference Between First, Second, and Third Degree Murders

Murder is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being. According to Current Law 2022 in the American legal system, murder is divided into three distinct categories: first-, second-, and third-degree murder. Each category refers to the different circumstances in which the murder was committed, including the reasons for the murder, the weapon used, and whether the crime was premeditated and performed with intent. The classification of the murder impacts the sentencing and penalties the accused may face. 

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But what are first-, second-, and third-degree murders? Each of these separate crimes is described in more detail below, along with examples and penalties. 

Differences Between Murder Charges

There are three types of murder, and it is important to distinguish what is 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree murders clearly. Murder, in general, is usually prosecuted in state legal proceedings as a state crime. Murder is rarely considered a federal crime from a federal perspective.

A number of states have enumerated murder offenses as a means of simplifying the classification of murder charges when they are brought. Knowing the differences between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree murders is easier with an understanding of the unique aspects of each. The severity of the crime and the punishment that goes with it are the main differences between these three types of murders.

Intentional murder and premeditated murder are the highest levels of crime and are punished accordingly. However, second-degree murders still involve the intent to harm or kill. Third-degree murder is the lowest level of criminal homicides, but it can still result in a severe sentence.

What Is First-Degree Murder?

First-degree murder is the most severe form of murder defined in the U.S. legal system. In these cases, the murder was committed with malice aforethought. In other words, the crime was committed with the intent to cause harm to and kill the victim or victims with no regard for human life. Unlawful killings must also be premeditated for them to be deemed first degree murders.

Elements of a first-degree murder

For a crime to be classed as murder in the first degree, criminal law states that it must have the following three elements:

  • Malice Aforethought—First-degree murder is always committed with malice aforethought. This is a legal term meaning that the crime was committed with a blatant disregard for human life and a clear intent to kill or otherwise commit evil acts, such as torture.
  • Premeditation—All first-degree murders are premeditated. This means that the crime was purposeful and planned, regardless of any mental disorders the murderer may have. In such cases, the defendant planned carefully for the murder, which may include purchasing a murder weapon or waiting for the victim to come home.
  • Intent—Finally, all first-degree murders are carried out with criminal intent. This means that the defendant fully intended to carry out a criminal act, whether that is murder or some other type of serious felony, such as robbery, arson, or kidnapping.

Examples of first-degree murder

First-degree murders can be divided into three types:

  • Premeditated murder—A premeditated murder in the first degree describes a situation in which the killer planned the crime carefully and committed the crime with the intent to kill. The crime was wilfully done with a strong desire to end the life of the victim.
  • Felony murder—A felony murder occurs when a human being is killed and physically injured during the commission of another felony. The felony must be an inherently dangerous crime, such as a robbery, burglary, rape, kidnapping, or arson.
  • Murder by specified means—This is a specific form of murder that is carried out using a heinous method of killing. Examples include a drive-by shooting, detonating a bomb, or lying in wait.

Sentencing and penalties for first-degree murder

As first-degree murders are the most serious type of all murder charges, it follows that they also come with the most severe punishments through law enforcement. Sentences and penalties vary by state, but either the death penalty for capital murder or life imprisonment is the maximum charge. Some defendants will receive lesser sentences if certain mitigating factors apply, such as the defendant is mentally ill, under duress, or a minor. Conversely, the harshest sentences are given to those who committed a murder in conjunction with another crime or to a defendant who was licensed to murder in the past. 

What Is Second-Degree Murder?

Second-degree murder involves the unlawful killing of another human being without any form of planning or premeditation. The defendant may have intended to cause harm but did not necessarily intend to kill. However, the crime must have been carried out with malice aforethought for it to be classified as second-degree.

Elements of second-degree murder

For a crime to be classed as murder in the second degree, criminal justice states that it must have the following elements:

  • Lacks premeditation—A second-degree murder lacks planning and premeditation. Instead, murders in this classification are usually the result of acting impulsively due to rage and with no intent to kill the victim before that moment in time.
  • Intent to harm—Despite not being premeditated, all second-degree murders are carried out with the intent to cause harm of some kind, including the intent to kill. 

Examples of second-degree murder

The following examples all constitute murder in the second degree:

  • Intentional murder without premeditation—This refers to intentional killings that were not planned or premeditated in any way. Usually, murders of this type are the result of provocation, passion or financial gain. In some states, this is deemed as a separate crime known as voluntary manslaughter.
  • Involuntary manslaughter—When a human being is killed by accident, this is known as involuntary manslaughter or accidental manslaughter. For example, a person may have pushed someone in a rage only intending to cause pain, but the action resulted in the victim’s death. While there is still an intent to cause harm, the victim’s death was not the intention.
  • Depraved indifference murder—This refers to cases in which death results from an extreme indifference to human life. In other words, the defendant commits a reckless act that has a high likelihood of causing death, such as shooting a firearm into a crowd.

Sentencing and penalties for second-degree murder

The precise sentencing for second-degree murder varies by state. In general, the penalty given in most jurisdictions is 15 years to life imprisonment. The penalty depends on the specifics of the case and any aggravating or mitigating factors that may apply. For example, showing genuine remorse and having a clean criminal record may lessen the sentence, whereas committing multiple murders or displaying brutality can result in a harsher sentence.

What Is Third-Degree Murder?

Third-degree murder is the least severe form of murder that only exists in three US states—Florida, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. It is usually defined as a non-premeditated killing that is committed with the intent to cause bodily harm rather than death.

Elements of third-degree murder

For a crime to be classed as murder in the third degree, criminal law states that it must have the following elements:

  • Intent to harm—For third-degree murder charges, there must be some intent to cause harm to the victim. However, there is no intent to kill. Intent to cause death is classified as 1st- or 2nd-degree murder.
  • No premeditation—A murder in the third degree cannot be premeditated nor planned in any way. They are usually the result of committing other minor felonies or reckless behavior.

Examples of third-degree murder

To classify a crime as a third-degree murder depends on the precise legal information for each state that uses this classification. Some examples include:

  • Non-violent felony murder—In Florida, a person who unintentionally kills another human being while committing one of the various non-violent offenses could be charged with third-degree murder. The exception is certain drug felonies.
  • Depraved indifference murder—A depraved indifference murder is classed as a third-degree murder, rather than second-degree, in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. This is when the murder is a result of committing a reckless act that the defendant knows could cause death and is also known as negligent homicide. 
  • Drug delivery in death—In Minnesota, the killing of a human being by directly or indirectly providing the victim with drugs are classified as third-degree murder. This also used to be the case in Pennsylvania but is now a separate crime.

Sentencing and penalties for third-degree murder

The maximum sentence for third-degree murder depends on the jurisdiction in which the crime took place. The maximum sentence for the three states that use this classification is: 

  • 25 years imprisonment and $40,000 in fines in Minnesota; 
  • 40 years imprisonment in Pennsylvania; and 
  • 15 years imprisonment and $10,000 in fines in Florida. 

Despite being a lesser crime, third-degree murder still carries a serious punishment.

What’s the Difference Between First-, Second-, and Third-Degree Murder?

The main difference between the degrees of murder is found in the severity of the crime and is matched by the severity of the sentence given.

The severity of the crime

First-degree murder is the most serious homicide crime and is always premeditated and carried out with intent. Second-degree murder is carried out with intent but with no premeditation. Finally, third-degree murder is the lowest level of criminal homicide with no intent to kill and no premeditation.

The severity of the punishment 

The severity of punishment aligns with the seriousness of the crime. As such, first-degree murders typically carry the greatest sentences, and third-degree murders carry the least. However, despite being the lowest level of unlawful killing, third-degree murders still carry serious penalties.

What are the degrees of murders?

First-Degree MurderSecond-Degree MurderThird-Degree Murder
Premeditated murderUnplanned murderUnplanned murder
Intentional murderIntended to cause harm and committed impulsive murderUnintentional consequences
Life imprisonmentTen years without parole to life imprisonmentFour years minimum if a firearm is involved

Conclusions

What are 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree murder? The differences between each of these murder charges in the US legal system are based on the jurisdictional laws for each state, which explains why third-degree murder is only classified in three jurisdictions. Always refer to these legal matters in the state in which the crime occurred for a more comprehensive understanding of the classifications and associated punishments, as there is some overlap between the laws of many states and only one state’s laws will usually apply.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the four types of homicide?

The four types of homicide are:

  • Capital murder—Criminal defense attorneys and courts recognize capital murder as the most serious type of homicide. The act of capital murder is especially heinous due to the additional criteria of intentionally killing another individual.
  • Murder—The act of intentionally killing another individual is defined as murder. Likewise, causing a death while fleeing after committing a felony or intentionally injuring someone severely enough to cause that person’s death is included in this charge.
  • Manslaughter—Voluntary manslaughter is usually the result of provocation or passion but without premeditation. Involuntary manslaughter is an accident, when a person is killed unintentionally due to reckless behavior, such as vehicular manslaughter.
  • Criminally negligent homicide—An unintentional negligence charge is made when another person dies as a result of someone’s negligence. Prosecutors argue that a reasonable person would have taken more precautions in these cases and that the defendant’s actions were unreasonable.

Why is it called the 3rd degree?

An unintentional crime that was committed without any planning but resulted in a person’s death is considered a 3rd-degree murder because there was a lack of intent and premeditation.

What is the highest felony degree?

The highest level of a felony is Class A or a level 1 offense.

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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