Understanding the differences between first, second and third degree murder is difficult especially if you are not in a state where murder is classified in that order. They all involve the killing of one person by another. However the legal punishment for those three offences are not the same. The law always treat them with caution.
Having said that, in this article we will be looking closely at the different degrees of murder in law. I highly encourage you to read this work from start to finish so that you will be able to grasp the information contained here.
Table of Content
Meaning of murder
Murder is the unlawful killing of another human being without justification or valid excuse, with malice aforethought. In criminal law, it refers to the unjustified killing of one person by another, and is usually distinguished from manslaughter by the element of malice aforethought.
Malice aforethought is the intention to kill or harm. It exists where a defendant intends to kill another person or to cause severe bodily harm without legal justification or excuse and is usually erroneously mistaken for premeditation. For a killing to be termed as murder, it has to be intentional, unlawful, and committed with malice aforethought.
However, the term “malice aforethought” isn’t restricted to intentional killings alone. It can also exist if the killer unintentionally inflicts serious bodily harm or torture that causes the victims death; or behaves in a manner that portrays extreme and reckless disregard for human life and results in the victim’s death, or has the intent to commit a dangerous felony which accidentally results in the death of another.
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Murder is usually categorized into degrees in most states. The degrees of murder include:
a. First Degree murder: otherwise known as premeditated murder.
b. Second degree murder: Unpremeditated murder where the defendant intended to inflict grievous bodily harm.
c. Third-degree murder: This is known as manslaughter.
These three categories would be discussed in detail as we continue. Nonetheless, I highly encourage you to watch the YouTube video below for a better understanding of the different kinds of murder.
Meaning of first degree murder
First degree murder is defined as an unlawful killing which is premeditated, deliberate and willful. Premeditated means it is was planned. It is murder committed after planning or “lying in wait” for the victim.
For example, Jonathan discovers that his wife has been cheating on him with his brother. Jonathan visits his brother and waits till nighttime. While the brother is taking his bath, Jonathan kills him with a baseball bat.
Another example is if Anabelle suspects that her brother was wrongly punished by his schoolteacher. Annabelle follows the teacher home the following day and cuts his car brakes. The teacher drives the car, gets involved in an accident and dies. The charge would be first-degree murder.
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Factors necessary to constitute first degree murder:
State laws generally require that first degree murders include three basic elements which are willfulness, deliberation, and premeditation. Federal law and some states also require malice aforethought as one of the elements. Most states also regard certain kinds of killings as first-degree killings without the need to prove intent, deliberation and premeditation. In some states, the top highest level of murder crime is called capital murder. These states do not practice the murder degree system.
a. Willfulness: in terms of willfulness, first degree murder defendants must have the intent to end human life or to cause severe bodily damage. This intent isn’t limited to the actual intended victims. A murder where the killer has the intent to kill but kills the wrong person or just any random person would still amount to first degree murder.
b. Deliberation and premeditation: This does not mean that the murderer plans far ahead or long before the murder. Any time enough for a reasonable person to second guess the decision is time enough to determine premeditation and deliberation. However, premeditation and deliberation must occur before the killing, not during the killing.
Some first-degree murder that does not regard deliberation and premeditation includes:
- The killing of a child by the use of unreasonable force.
- Certain killings committed in a sequence of domestic abuse.
- Murder of a law enforcement officer.
- Homicides occurring in the commission or attempted commission of other crimes such as rape, arson, robbery, or other violent crimes.
Meaning of Second Degree Murder
Second degree murder is a type of murder that is not premeditated, or murder that is caused by the defendant’s reckless conduct and obvious lack of concern or human life. It entails all other murders that are not included in first degree murder, actions taken that result in death without premeditation.
For example, if a man gets into a fight with a bus conductor and ends up stabbing and killing him with a piece of broken glass, it amounts to second degree murder. Another example of second-degree murder is if jones carries a knife in his pockets, gets pissed and stabs his boss. If Sharon gets into a fight with her mom and stabs her with a hair pin and kills her, she has committed second degree murder. In second degree murder, the intention to kill is present but the killing wasn’t premeditated. Other examples are:
Shooting a weapon into a crowd.
Any act that was intended to cause severe injury but ended up in death.
The distinction between first degree murder and second-degree murder is the premeditation.
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Felony Murder/Third Degree Murder
Felony murder is the killing that happens during the commission of another crime whether the killing is intentional or not. In some states, the legal concept known as the “felony murder rule” is adhered to. It states that a person commits first degree murder if any deaths [even an accidental or indeliberate one] results from the commission or attempted commission of some particular violent felonies. These felonies include robbery, rape, arson, kidnapping, and burglary.
For instance, Jackson rapes Hannah and she dies from multiple injuries sustained. John will be charged for felony murder. Another example is if Daniel, Absalom and Chris rob a bank and, in the process, Daniel and Absalom die. Chris will be charged with felony murder for the deaths of Daniel and Absalom.
It is important to distinguish between third degree murder and manslaughter. The major difference being that in third degree murder, the accused knew they were unreasonably risking the lives of other people, or that their act was dangerous enough to cause death and were reckless about it. Manslaughter charges arise in cases where the accused had no intention to kill the victim. Manslaughter is categorized into voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.
Voluntary manslaughter is when a person kills another person without any premeditation under extreme provocation or while under the heat of passion. It involves the intent to kill or cause bodily harm to the victim, but it wasn’t premeditated.
Involuntary manslaughter is the least serious of the charges resulting as to the death of a person, and it involves the killing of a person by acts of recklessness or gross negligence resulting in the death of the person. For example, Tanesha and Trisha are best friends. Tanesha leaves the gas on in the kitchen and a fire starts, killing Trisha. This is involuntary manslaughter. In some states, the jail term for involuntary manslaughter is 4 years.
Defences against a charge of third degree murder are:
Insanity: this defence succeeds where the accused proves successfully that he committed the offence under the influence of insanity. That is, he did not understand his actions, he didn’t know the implications and he could not control his actions.
Self defence: this includes defence of self and defence of others. However the act resulting to the death should be proportionate the act of the accused. That is, supposing Mr A slaps Mr B, Mr B cannot stab Mr A and fall under the defence of self defence, because his act is not proportionate to the first conduct of the deceased.
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Differences between 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murder
In summary, 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murder involves the death of a person, however, the court takes into account the state of mind of the accused, circumstances around it, and whether or not the death occurred by accident, in giving judgement as to the jail term, in certain cases, life imprisonment or death.
First degree murder involves the willing and premeditated killing of a person. Second degree murder on the other hand involves the killing of a person which is not premeditated. Lastly, third degree murder involves the killing of a person as a result of committing a felony/crime.
Hope this article was insightful? With the points above, I believe you now understand the different degrees murder in criminal law.
Edeh Samuel Chukwuemeka ChMC, is a Law Student and a Certified Mediator/Conciliator in Nigeria. He is also a Developer with knowledge in HTML, CSS, JS, PHP and React Native. Samuel is bent on changing the legal profession by building Web and Mobile Apps that will make legal research a lot easier.