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Difference Between First and Second Degree Murder?

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on August 29, 2011 6:51 AM

When it comes to the degrees of murder, things can get a little tricky.

There's first and second degree murder, and even sometimes a third. Then there's voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

And don't forget "adequate justification," which can downgrade a murder to a lower level.

To help make sense of the degrees of murder, we're going to start with the two most serious crimes in the murder spectrum, and pinpoint just what differs between a first and second degree killing.

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

  • Premeditated, intentional killings
  • Felony murder

While second degree murder is either:

  • An unplanned, intentional killing; or
  • A death caused by a reckless disregard for human life

Putting aside felony murder, the real difference between first and second degree murder is the degree of intent under which the defendant acted when carrying out the killing.

First degree murder requires that a defendant plan and intentionally carry out the killing, whereas 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's death is arguably a more serious crime.

An outlier, felony murder is a form of first degree murder that occurs when a person dies--even accidentally--during the commission of a violent felony.

For instance, if a robber unintentionally kills a patron in a liquor store, he's still committed first degree murder.

While it's easy to pinpoint the differences between degrees of murder in a theoretical manner, this is not always the case in real life. When faced with evidence, there is often a very fine line between a first and second degree killing. If you have been charged with a serious crime, get in touch with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. It will make all the difference.

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