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

Murder is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being. According to Current Law 2023 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. 

Do you need legal assistance?Find the right lawyer in your area.

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 essential to distinguish what are 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree murders. 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.

Several states have enumerated murder offenses to simplify 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 homicide, 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 US 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 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, including 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 murder or serious felonies, 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 victim’s life.
  • 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 robbery, burglary, rape, kidnapping, or arson.
  • Murder by specified means — This is a specific form of murder done using a heinous method. 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 severe 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 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 penalties 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?

When someone intentionally kills another person without premeditation, the case may be called second-degree murder. In such cases, the perpetrators comprehend that their actions can lead to death or considerable damage.

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 deliberate killings that were not planned or premeditated. Usually, murders of this type result from provocation, passion, or financial gain. In some states, this is deemed 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. While there is still an intent to cause harm, the victim’s death was not the intention. 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.
  • 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. Generally, the penalty given in most jurisdictions is 15 years to life imprisonment. The penalty depends on the case’s specifics 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?

Someone may be punished for third-degree murder only in three states — Florida, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. This type of murder is a non-premeditated killing committed with the intent to cause bodily harm rather than death.

Elements of third-degree murder

To be considered third-degree murder, a crime must have these things according to the law:

  • Intent to harm — Third-degree murder charges require intent to cause harm to the victim but not intended to kill. Intent to cause death is classified as 1st- or 2nd-degree murder.
  • No premeditation — A third-degree murder cannot be premeditated or planned in any way. It is usually the result of committing other minor felonies or reckless behavior.

Examples of third-degree murder

To classify a crime as 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 person while committing 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 results from 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 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 for third-degree murder

The maximum sentence for third-degree murder depends on the jurisdiction where the crime occurred. 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 severe 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 severe 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 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 most significant sentences, and third-degree murders carry the least. However, despite being the lowest level of unlawful killing, third-degree murders still have severe penalties.

What are the degrees of murders?

  • First-degree murder: premeditated murder, intentional murder, life imprisonment;
  • Second-degree murder: unplanned murder, intended to cause harm and committed impulsive murder, ten years without parole to life imprisonment;
  • Third-degree murder: unplanned murder, unintentional consequences, four years minimum if a firearm is involved.


What are 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree murder? The differences between 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 where 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.

Also read:Detained vs. Arrested: What’s the Difference?

In legal terms, there are significant differences between being convicted vs detained. Common law dictates that investigatory detentio...

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 severe 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 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 due to 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.

What is the punishment for 1st-degree murder?

The punishment varies depending on the state, the offender’s age, and circumstances. Some states give life in prison with no chance of getting out, while others give up to 25 years in prison. Sometimes, people can be sentenced to death.

What is second-degree manslaughter?

Second-degree manslaughter is a criminal charge for accidental or reckless killings. It’s usually less severe than 1st-degree manslaughter, so the punishment is lighter.

Some examples of second-degree manslaughter are causing a deadly car accident, medical malpractice, or killing someone in a fight. The penalty for second-degree manslaughter is a maximum prison sentence of 15 years in most cases.

Why is it called the 3rd degree?

An unintentional crime committed without planning but resulting 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 felony degree is a first-degree felony. A first-degree felony is the most severe criminal offense and can carry a sentence of up to life in prison. Examples of first-degree felonies include murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping, and burglary.

Article by Karyna Pukaniuk

Karyna Pukaniuk, Head of Legal at Lawrina. Experienced Tax and Corporate Lawyer, team leader, and legaltech pro. Led and backed the smooth operation of the legal team and accompanied several different projects simultaneously. Worked closely with department's leads, and shareholders and advised them through all legal, regulatory, and risk management matters. Supervised multi-million dollar M&A deals, and actively participated in the company's product development.

Thank You! Welcome on board
We use cookies to improve our website's work and deliver better services.
Our use of cookies
Upgrade the manual re-reading of agreements with Loio's AI-driven Highlights. Be in full control over every editing decision, but have the power of machine learning analysis by your hand. Turn on the Highlights tool whenever you need an extra check of your document's most essential details.
These cookies collect information that is used to help Us understand how Our Site are being used or how effective Our marketing campaigns are, or to help Us customize Our Site for You. We use Google Analytics to recognize You and link the devices You use when You visit Our Site or Service on Your browser or mobile device, login to Your User Account on Our Site, or otherwise engage with Us.
Communication services
These cookies collect information that is used to help Us to facilitate the interaction with You on Our Site. We also use those cookies to improve customer service by maintaining contact with visitors of Our Site through Intercom chat.
Ad Services
We and Our third-party partners may also use cookies and tracking technologies for advertising purposes. These third-party services collect information about Your use of Our Site over time so that they may play or display ads on devices You may use, and on other websites, apps, or services.