The Difference Between First, Second, and Third Degree Murders

Murder is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being. 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 for how 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 murder impacts both the sentencing and penalties the accused may face.

But what are first-, second-, and third-degree murder? In this article, we look at each of these separate crimes in more detail, along with examples and penalties for each. We then compare murder categories to help you distinguish between the three.

What is First-Degree Murder?

First-degree murder is the most severe form of murder defined in the US legal system. In these cases, the murder is committed with malice aforethought. In other words, the crime was committed with the intent to cause harm to and kill the victim with no regard for human life. The unlawful killing must also be premeditated for it to be deemed first-degree murder.

Elements of a First-Degree Murder

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

  1. Malice Aforethought: First-degree murder is always committed with malice aforethought. This is a legal term that means the crime was committed with a blatant disregard for human life and a clear intent to kill or otherwise commit evil acts.
  2. Premeditation: All first-degree murders are premeditated. This means it was purposeful and planned out. In such cases, the defendant will have made arrangements and preparations for the murder, such as purchasing a murder weapon or waiting for the victim to come home to strike.
  3. 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, be that murder itself or some other type of serious felony such as robbery, arson, or kidnapping.


First-degree murders can further be defined into three types:

  1. Premeditated Murder: A premeditated murder of the first degree describes a situation wherethe murderer planned the crime carefully and committed it with the intent to kill. It was wilfully done and the defendant had a strong desire to end the life of the victim.
  2. Felony Murder: A felony murder is the term used when a human being is killed during the commission of another felony. The felony must be an inherently dangerous crime, such as a robbery, burglary, rape, kidnapping, or arson.
  3. Murder by Specified Means: This is a specific form of killing 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

As first-degree murders are the most serious type of all murder charges, it follows that they also have the most severe punishments. Sentences and penalties vary by state, but many charge the victim with the death penalty for capital murder or life imprisonment as the maximum charge. Some defendants will be awarded lesser sentences if certain mitigating factors apply, such as the defendant being mentally ill, under duress, or if they are a minor. Conversely, the harshest sentences are awarded to those who committed a murder in conjunction with another crime or where the defendant has committed murders in the past.

What is Second-Degree Murder?

Second-degree murder is where the unlawful killing of another human being was carried out 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 still be carried out with malice aforethought for it to be classified as second-degree.

The Elements of Second-Degree Murder

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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. However, the intent to otherwise harm the victim would also satisfy this element.


The following examples all constitute murder of the second degree:

  1. Intentional Murder Without Premeditation: This refers to intentional killings that were not planned or premeditated in any way. Usually, murders in this situation are the result of provocation or passion. In some states, this is deemed as a separate crime known as voluntary manslaughter.
  2. Involuntary Manslaughter: When a human being is killed by accident, this is known as involuntary manslaughter. For example, the defendant 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.
  3. 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 they know has a high likelihood of causing death, such as shooting a firearm into a crowd.

Sentencing and Penalties

The precise sentencing for second-degree murder varies by state. In general, the penalty awarded in most jurisdictions is 15 years to life imprisonment. The penalty depends on the specifics of the crime and any aggravating and mitigating factors that apply. For example, showing genuine remorse and having a clean criminal record will lessen the sentence, whereas committing multiple murder offenses or high levels of brutality can have it increased.

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.

The Elements of Third-Degree Murder

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

  1. 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. All murder cases where there is specific intent to cause death are classified as 1st or 2nd-degree cases.
  2. No Premeditation: A murder of the third degree cannot be premeditated nor planned in any way. They are usually the result of committing other minor felonies or as a result of reckless behavior.
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For a murder to be classified as a third-degree murder depends on the precise laws for each state that uses this categorization. Here is a look at some examples:

  1. Non-Violent Felony Murder: In Florida, a person that unintentionally kills another human being while committing a non-violent felony could be charged with third-degree murder. The exception is certain drug felonies.
  2. Depraved Indifference Murder: Rather than being classified as second-degree murder, a depraved indifference murder is classed as a third-degree murder in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. This is where the killing is a result of committing a reckless act the defendant knows could cause death, also known as a negligent homicide. 
  3. Drug Delivery in Death: In Minnesota, the killing of a human being by directly or indirectly providing the victim with drugs is classified as third-degree murder. This also used to be the case in Pennsylvania, but it is now a separate crime.

Sentencing and Penalties

The maximum sentence for third-degree murder depends on which jurisdiction the crime took place in. The maximum sentencing for the three states that use this categorization is (1) 25 years imprisonment and $40,000 fines in Minnesota, (2) 40 years imprisonment in Pennsylvania, and (3)15 years imprisonment and $10,000 fine in Florida. As you can see, despite being a lesser crime it still carries a serious punishment.

The Key Difference Between First-, Second-, and Third-Degree Murders

The main differences between in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree murder are found in the severity of the crime and the severity of the sentencing:

  • Severity of the Crime: First-degree murder is the most serious crime and is always premeditated and carried out with intent. This is followed by second-degree murder which is carried out with intent but with no premeditation. Finally, third-degree murder is then the lowest level of criminal homicide with no intent to kill and no premeditation.
  • Severity of the Punishment: The severity of punishment aligns with the seriousness of the crime. As such, first-degree murders carry the highest sentences followed by second-degree murder, then by third-degree murder. However, despite being the lowest level of unlawful killing, third-degree murders still carry serious penalties.


The differences between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree murders 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 the laws for the state the crime occurred in for a more comprehensive understanding of the categorizations and associated punishments, as there is some overlap between the laws in multiple states.

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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