What's The Difference Between First And Second Degree Murder?

There are varying degrees when it comes to the most serious crimes including arson, kidnapping, rape, and murder. The classification is a form of hierarchy that depends on the severity of the crime, with first-degree convictions resulting in the harshest penalties, as noted by Thought Co. We often hear about murderers being charged with first-degree or second-degree murder, but what are the differences between the two? What makes one murder worse than another in the eyes of the law?

Murder, by definition, is the act of unlawfully killing a fellow human being. The circumstances surrounding a murder vary case by case, which is why the crime is separated into degrees. Most states only have first- and second-degree murder charges, but there are three states — Florida, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania — where third-degree murder exists (via Lawrina). The classification of murder depends on the intent of the perpetrator, the mode of killing, and other special circumstances involved in the commission of the act.

First-degree murder

First-degree murder is considered the most serious homicide. The main factor that classifies murder as first-degree is the intention of the perpetrator to take another person's life. According to Justia, the act must be premeditated, thus eliminating the possibility of accidental death. Some examples include deliberately poisoning another person with the intent to kill or purchasing a gun and lying in wait to shoot and kill a person. When it comes to premeditation, the length of time does not matter. Whether it involves meticulous weeks of planning before the commission of the murder or a quick act of picking up a random weapon to use in order to kill someone, it is considered premeditated if the perpetrator deliberated and pushed forward with committing the crime with the intent to kill.

A murder is also classified as first-degree if it occurred during the commission of a felony or under special circumstances, the most common of which include domestic violence, grand theft auto, arson, assault, and rape (per AMA Law). Since first-degree murder charges are considered the gravest offenses, it follows that sentences are the most severe. As reported by Diffen, those convicted of first-degree murder are given a sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Second-degree murder

The two factors that make a crime murder in the second degree are the intent to harm and the absence of premeditation. The intention to harm or kill a person is there, but there is no planning and deliberation on the part of the offender, as noted by Lawrina. In this type category of murder, the death is the result of extremely reckless conduct rather than careful deliberation. For instance, a person who kills someone while driving under the influence may be charged with second-degree murder, as even though there was no intention to kill, the driver was aware that the careless action may cause death. A person that shows extreme indifference to human life may also be charged with second-degree murder. An example of this is a person — who has no intention of killing someone — firing a gun in a crowded place and the act resulting in someone's death. Despite the lack of intent to kill, the person was knowledgeable that shooting might harm someone in a crowded place but still committed the act, which displayed indifference.

Those convicted of second-degree murder are sentenced anywhere from 10 years to life in prison, depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstances surrounding the crime (via Diffen). Convicts who show remorse or have no prior offenses may be given lesser sentences, while repeat offenders are typically given lengthier prison times.