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

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By FindLaw Staff on June 15, 2020 6:51 AM

Differences Between Murder Charges

To help make sense of the degrees of murder, we're going to start with the most serious crime in the murder spectrum. We will also pinpoint exactly what differs between a first-, second-, and third-degree murder (or manslaughter) charge.

First-Degree Murder

First-degree murder usually falls into one of the following two categories:

  • Premeditated, intentional killings (like stalking someone before murdering them)
  • Felony murder

Second-Degree Murder

Second-degree murder is generally either:

  • An unplanned, intentional killing (reacting in the heat of the moment when angry)
  • A death caused by a reckless disregard for human life

The Difference Between First and Second-Degree Murder

Putting aside felony murder, the real difference between first and second-degree murder is the intent or mindset the defendant had when they took the action they did.

Third Degree Murder/Manslaughter

Third-degree murder (also called manslaughter) is an unplanned, unintentional killing that is not part of another felony. It can be either:

  • Involuntary (you fall and push someone off a ledge by accident)
  • Voluntary (you punch someone and unintentionally kill them)

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

The biggest difference between third-degree murder and the other two is that it is not planned, and it doesn't rise to the level of reckless disregard for human life. In the eyes of the law, a person committing third-degree murder still shows ill will toward someone else by harming them.

Whether someone intends some harm but not death or there is an accident, they can still face manslaughter charges if someone dies because of their actions.

Third-degree murder charges only exist in three states: Pennsylvania, Florida, and Minnesota. Every other state uses the charges of manslaughter.

Degrees of Intent Between Murder Charges

First-degree murder requires that a person (called the defendant) plan and intentionally carry out the killing. In contrast, second-degree murder requires that the killing either be intentional or reckless and occur in the spur of the moment.

Taking the time to plan another person's death is arguably a more serious crime.

There is also "adequate justification," which can change how murder is charged.

Felony Murder Basics

Felony murder is a form of first-degree murder that occurs when a person dies - even accidentally - during a violent felony.

For instance, if a robber unintentionally kills a patron in a liquor store during the course, he may still be charged with committing first-degree murder even though the murder is unintentional.

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