What is 1st 2nd and 3rd Degree Murders?

It does not take a legal expert to know that murder is one of the most severe charges police can levy against an individual. Thousands of movies and television shows focus on murder, and it is a crime that receives the most media attention.

If you are someone you know has been charged, you may be wondering what is 1st 2nd and 3rd degree murders. Well, we will explain the degrees of murder and the types of penalties they carry. 

Being charged with murder or gun crime can have serious consequences. Find a criminal lawyer who can provide expert legal advice and help defend your case.

What is 1st 2nd and 3rd Degree Murders and Which Form of Murder Is the Most Severe?

Before looking at what each form of murder means, we should establish the hierarchy of seriousness. First-degree murder is the most severe crime and carries the harshest punishments. Second-degree murder is quite serious as well but carries lower penalties than its first-degree counterpart.

Third-degree murder is the least serious, but rest assured that it is no laughing matter.

No matter what form of murder the police charge an individual with, the punishments and stigma are life-altering. If you find yourself charged with any form of murder, you will want to invest in a capable defense attorney to try and prove your innocence. 

First-Degree Murder Explained

first degree murder

First-degree murder is the most serious degree of murder, but also the hardest to prove and convict. Officials tend to shy away from pursuing a charge of first-degree murder unless there is substantial evidence. 

Why is first-degree murder so difficult to prove in court? 

There are three factors that the prosecution must prove before a jury can convict an accused individual of first-degree murder. While the definitions and punishments vary slightly between states, the three elements remain largely the same. 

The first element is intent. The court must determine if the defendant killed the person with murderous intent. First-degree murders are not accidents, but instead are attacks with the intent to harm or end the life of the victim. Proving intent is difficult for prosecutors, who often show a motive or use physical evidence to reconstruct the circumstances of the crime.

The second element the court considers is premeditation. Premeditation is the factor that most separates first and second-degree murders. Prosecutors have a tough job attempting to prove premeditation. 

First-degree murders are not crimes of passion or attacks made in the spur of the moment. You must have planned the murder for some time before the actual act for a court to convict you of first-degree murder. Defense attorneys will attempt to discredit attempts to show premeditation to avoid 1st-degree murder sentences for their clients. The prosecutor may use witness testimony or messages to showcase premeditation.

The final element is malice aforethought. Malice aforethought covers much of the same ground as the previous two elements, but it typically means the attacker went after the victim with no regard for life.

Felony Murder

While we often think of premeditated murder as the most common type of first-degree murder, there is also felony murder. Felony murders are killings someone commits while in the act of another felony.

The most obvious example of a felony example would be a burglary where the burglar kills someone. Felony murders often carry the same punishments as premeditated murder. 

2nd Degree Murders Explained

Second-degree murder is a slightly less severe crime, but the punishments it carries are very real, and you should not trifle with them. The primary difference between first and second-degree murder is the premeditation factor. 

Perpetrators do not premeditate second-degree murders and commit them in the heat of the moment. If an argument turns heated and death occurs with no break in the action, that would qualify as second-degree murder likely. The line between the degrees of murder can be fuzzy, and some states may punish similar crimes in different ways.

Another example of a crime that prosecutors may charge as second-degree murder is an attack where the defendant intended serious injury but not death. If someone intended to beat a person up severely but ends up killing them, that would possibly qualify as second-degree murder.

What Is 3rd Degree Murders?

Third-degree murder is the least common degree of murder you will hear about or see charged. The reason is simple: only Florida, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota have third-degree murder crimes on the books. All other states charge these killings as either manslaughter or second-degree murder.

The three states have varying definitions of what constitutes third-degree murder as opposed to manslaughter. In Minnesota, for example, prosecutors reserve third-degree murder for crimes committed due to extreme mental distress. 

For instance, if you saw your spouse in bed with another person and killed one of them. Or the courts may charge you with this type of crime if you drive drunk and kill someone. 

Pennsylvania, meanwhile, defines a third-degree murder simply as one that does not meet the qualifications of first or second-degree crimes. This definition is a catch-all for a killing committed with some form of intent or recklessness but does not meet the criteria of a second-degree killing. 

Manslaughter Versus Third-Degree Murder

Manslaughter and third-degree murder are similar and people often confuse the two. Rest assured that there is a slight difference.

The primary difference between third-degree murder and manslaughter is the intent. In murder of the third degree, the perpetrator intends to do bodily harm to the victim. Prosecutors often try a defendant for manslaughter when the defendant did something reckless that led to a fatality but had no malice. 

What Are the Penalties for Different Degrees of Murder?

what is 1st 2nd and 3rd degree murders

Every state has its punishment outlines for different forms of murder. However, states often have similar scopes in sentencing guidelines. We will give a broad overview of the types of penalties for each crime so you have a general idea of the severity regardless of state.

See Also: What are the penalties for attempted murder?

First-Degree Murder

Every state treats first-degree murder with the most severity. It can be difficult for prosecutors to try and convict a defendant of murder in the first degree, but the punishment is severe. 

First-degree murder often results in a charge of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. This sentence simply means the guilty party will live the rest of their life in a correctional facility with no opportunity for release. 

First-degree murder is one of the few crimes where the death penalty is on the table. States intend to use the death penalty to punish the most heinous murders. Anyone sentenced to death will complete a lengthy appeals process.

Of course, not every state has the death penalty as a punishment. States with the death penalty are:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Wyoming

Of these 27 states, three of them currently have a moratorium on death sentences. Those states with a prohibition on the death penalty are Pennsylvania, California, and Oregon. 

Some states will allow for a reduced sentence in the case of murder in the first degree if the judge discovers mitigating circumstances.

Second-Degree Murder

Second-degree murders cover plenty of ground, so the punishments do as well. Judges analyze a variety of factors to determine the exact sentence term in the case of second-degree murder. First-degree murders are quite cut-and-dry concerning sentencing, and the biggest debate is over the use of the death penalty. 2nd degree murder sentences can vary from 15 years in prison to a life sentence.

Before ruling on a prison term, judges will go over the facts of the case and any mitigating circumstances to concoct their punishment. Judges will look at how the perpetrator committed the crime, the victim, the method of killing, and other factors that may increase or decrease the sentence. Judges also examine any other factors like mental issues or trauma.

Regardless of the judge’s decision, each state will have sentencing guidelines for how much punishment one will receive for committing second-degree murder.

Third-Degree Murder

Third-degree murder sentences vary depending on the state that convicts you. Pennsylvania has the harshest penalties, with the maximum jail time being 40 years. Minnesota is more lenient with a maximum sentence of 25 years and $40,000 in fines. Florida is the most lenient with third-degree murder, with maximum fines of $10,000 and jail time of no more than 15 years.

Examples of Different Murder Degrees

We will look at a few scenarios to help you understand the difference between the three degrees of murder. There is a gray area between the different forms of murder, but these examples will give you a good idea of what constitutes each charge.

First-Degree Murder

The most obvious example of murder in the first degree is someone preparing for and carrying out a killing. The perpetrator may head to the store to pick up supplies or make preparations for an alibi to avoid legal trouble. Any sort of preparation and planning will lead to prosecutors bringing a first-degree charge against a defendant.

Another example may be a carjacking that goes wrong. The victim fights the attacker to maintain possession of the car and the attacker shoots the victim in the process. If the victim dies, the prosecutor would likely charge the attacker with first-degree felony murder.

Second-Degree Murder

Second-degree murder covers a lot of ground; typically these crimes deal with murder with no planning. For instance, if you were walking down the street, pulled out a gun, and shot a random person, the courts would likely charge that act as murder in the second degree. You had intent to kill and maliciousness, but it was not a premeditated crime.

You may see a person tried for second-degree murder after committing a crime in the heat of the moment. For instance, if an argument turns heated and one person pulls out a knife and stabs the other person, that will likely lead to a second-degree murder charge.

Third-Degree Murder

Third-degree murder is harder for us to define as it has significantly different meanings between the three states that use the charges. Third-degree murder may cover all other murders that the law does not specify, or it may be for someone who sells bad drugs that cause death. 

What Defenses Can Lawyers Use For You When Accused of Murder?

lawyer working on a case

No matter if you believe in your innocence, you should hire a lawyer if you are dealing with an accusation of murder. While you may think you can represent yourself and defend your innocence, the legal system is complex and byzantine, and lawyers are people who know how to get to the bottom of things. You need someone in your corner who understands legalese and can protect you as best as they can. 

Lawyers know how to read between the lines of a charge sheet and see if there are inconsistencies with the police or prosecutor’s version of events. Even if you cannot get a not-guilty verdict, an experienced lawyer may be able to reduce charges from second-degree to third-degree murder.

So, what kind of defenses can a lawyer use when someone is facing a murder charge? The most straightforward defense is that the accused was not the perpetrator of the crime. The defendant may have been mistakenly identified and uninvolved in the killing. 

Other common strategies include proving the police did not handle the forensic evidence properly or that the department violated a procedure during the investigation. A lawyer may also claim that the defendant is suffering from extreme mental illness and plead insanity.

There may be evidence that supports other versions of the crime, such as the defendant carrying out the killing in self-defense. Additionally, the death may have been accidental, leading to reduced charges or dropped charges altogether.

What is 1st 2nd and 3rd Degree Murders?

Staying one step ahead in the American legal system is always tricky. Understanding the differences in the degrees of murder is an excellent way to give yourself a chance if prosecutors charge you with one of these crimes.

There is a gray area between the three degrees of murder, and an experienced murder lawyer may be able to argue that your charges are too harsh for the crime.

Contact Garret T. Rice for Help

If you are facing an accusation of a violent crime like murder, the first person you should reach out to is Garret T. Rice. Mr. Rice has years of experience with these cases and will help you navigate the process. Murder is a serious crime, and you need a lawyer with the bona fides to fight for you.

Share this post

Take your first step, leave the rest to us

Give us a call


Send us a message

Fill out the form to schedule your consultation