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Most jurisdictions make a distinction between the different types of murder and provide different penalties accordingly.
Commonly, states will have both first degree and second degree murder for intentional killings. For states that carry capital punishment, someone convicted of first degree murder could face the death penalty. Someone convicted of second degree murder usually faces life imprisonment.
But if both first degree and second degree murder involve intentional killings, you may be wondering just what distinguishes the two crimes.
The exact definition of the different types of murder will vary among the jurisdictions. However, the distinction between the crimes usually revolve around the mind-state of the perpetrator.
Typically, first degree murder involves a premeditated killing. In other words, the killer must have made a plan to kill the victim and then carried that plan. On the other hand, second degree murder does not require premeditation to kill. Instead, it can involve impulsive killings, an intentional act to seriously injure someone that actually leads to death, or an act that demonstrates a depraved indifference to human life.
For example, if Matt hatches a plan to kill his wife for her life insurance money, and successfully murders her, he likely will be prosecuted for first degree murder. Matt had a definite plan in place and the killing was premeditated.
On the other hand, suppose that Matt and his wife have a violent argument. During the argument, Matt gets his gun and kills his wife. In this example, Matt will likely be liable for second degree murder. Matt intentionally killed his wife; however, he did not have a plan in place before the argument to shoot her.
The differences between first and second degree murder can be subtle. If you or someone you know has been accused of one of these crimes, you will definitely want to talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney.