First Degree vs Second Degree Murder


First Degree vs Second Degree Murder

It can be pretty tricky spelling out the different degrees of murder. But yes, murder can be categorized in different degrees – first-, second-, and even third-degrees’ murder, commonly called manslaughter.

Manslaughter can as well be divided into voluntary and involuntary.

That said, with adequate justification, the most-severe first-degree murder can be downgraded to a second or even third-degree case.

To get a better grasp of murder and their degrees, we will extensively address the two most implicating murder cases and spotlight the and see how the two ‘relatives’ differ.

What is First Degree Murder?

First Degree vs Second Degree Murder

Cross many states, intentional and premeditated unlawful killing is termed first-degree murder. That is, for murder to rank in the first-degree category, it must have been planned.

For instance, Jerkins, after a scuffle with Dave at a party, seeks revenge. The next day, he pulls over in front of a grocery store in wait for Dave, his perceived rival. Dave eventually walks out. Jerkins pulls out a pistol, shoots, kills him, and sped off. Remember the keywords? Intentional and premeditated!

Many sates also follow the legal provision called felony murder rule. Under the rule, a person is said to have committed a first-degree murder where there is a record of death – even if accidental – in the act of specified felonies including

  • Robbery
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Burglary
  • Arson

For instance, Mike and Jones rob Jack’s home. As they flee with their loots,  Jack reaches for his gun, shoots, and kills jones.

The felony murder rule holds Mike liable for the first-degree murder of Jones, even if their planned victim, Jack, was the actual killer.

What then is a second-degree murder?

Unlike first-degree murders, second-tier murder refers to intentional but unpremeditated. Such killings aim at causing bodily harm and exhibit high-level indifference to life. Exact definitions widely vary across state laws.

Although it is not termed “second-degree murder” in some states, they most likely still categorize criminal killing into two degrees of severity and attach less punishment for the lower crime.

The Element of Murder

The elements of murder are ‘ingredients’ that defines the severity of the criminal killing as well as applicable punishment.

For First Degree Murder

First-degree murders feature three basic elements, namely:

  • Deliberation
  • Willfulness
  • Premeditation
  • Malicious aforethought (not recognized by all states)

Concerning malicious forethought, states differ on what constitutes malice and whether or not it is a different requirement from premeditated, deliberate, and willful termination of another’s life.

Some jurisdictions have state-specific components that define first-degree murder even without the general tripartite elements – Deliberation, intent, and premeditation.

Also, some states do not categorize murder in the three-tiered degrees. Across certain states, the most severe murder are called names like “capital murder” – not first-degree.


Talking willfulness, for killings to be considered first-degree murder, it must have a defined intent to take a life. The eventual victim must not necessarily be the subject of the intent. A criminal homicide where the killer targets a wrong – or random – person still passes for first-degree murder.

Premeditation and Deliberation

To determine the inclusion of premeditation and deliberation in the killer’s action may be possible only on a case-by-case basis.

By premeditation and deliberation, the perpetrator may not necessarily spend that much time contemplating and planning way ahead of the killing.

While the killing may occur in seconds, there must be the pre-killing premeditation and deliberation must happen prior to, and not on the spot.

For second-degree murder

Intent without premeditation

These killings may be intentional, but not pre-planned. That is, although the killer’s intention was to kill right in the act, there was no initial plan for murder.

Devon and Christie, for example, are divorced. The ex-couple had so much left unsettled. Christie visits Devon to discuss issues concerning their son. One thing led to another and it soon turns messy. Devon picks his pistol hanging over the fireplace, shoots, and kills Christie.

Remember, in the above scenario, Devon reacted to the on-the-spot provocation. It was not premeditated. When he fired his gun, Devon intentionally wanted to shoot – and kill – Christie. Based on these conditions, he would most like face charges for second-degree murder.

Conversely, if it was that Devon and Christie had no previous issues, but a sudden scuffle that led to provocation, Devon would like to be tried for voluntary manslaughter.

This is murder influenced by “heat of passion” may lessen the severity.

Intent to inflict severe bodily harm

Another situation is when the perpetrator had the intent to cause severe bodily harm, of which death is a possibility.

For instance, in the Devon-Christie case study mentioned, if instead of using a gun, Devon picks a lawn-tennis bat and ‘smashes’ Christie in the head.

Sure, Devon had no specific intention to kill Christie with the hit, he only intended to inflict pain with the smack. But the action, he should have thought, could possibly cause death. Legally, this killing deserves a second-degree rating.

Indifference to Life

Another main ingredient of second-degree murder is death caused due to the perpetrators’ high-level indifference to human life. Extreme indifference refers to complete disregard that an act can possibly cause death.

Back to Devon and Christie’s. Let’s assume Dev, instead of using the bat on Christie’s head, gets extremely provoked, fires the gun at neighbors attracted by their heated arguments.

No, Devon’s intention was not to kill. But still, he would have known better to think of the likely possibilities of his action. Here, Devon is thought to exhibit an extreme indifference to life’s value.

If a bullet from Devon’s gun hit and killed one of the neighbors, he may be liable for second-degree murder.

 Felony Murder

Across many states, killings that happen while committing another felony are regarded as murder of a second degree. Some states, however, recognize such killings as first-degree murder.

Also, note that persons can be sentenced for felony murder, whether or not they killed the victim.

For instance, if Devon and Christie rob a bank and Devon kill one of the bank customers, Christie – who wasn’t the shooter – may be sentenced for murder, since he played a role in the initial felony ( robing at gunpoint) which caused the death.

Takeaways: first-degree murder vs second-degree murder

First-degree murder is defined by either of the following:

  • Premeditated, intentional and willful killings, or;
  • Felony murder

Second-degree murder, on the other hand, contains, either

  • Unplanned but intentional killing
  • The killing caused by extreme disregard for the value of human life.

Besides felony murder, the key disparity between first-degree and second-degree murder is the gravity of the defendant’s intention that inspired the killing.

For first-degree, the killing must have been planned and intended. For second degrees, the killing must be either reckless or intentional and happened without planning.

Indeed, spending time to plan a killing is itself a severe crime.

Felony murder, an outlier, is a type of first-degree murder where an individual is killed during a violent felony. For example, a robber (already committing a felony) kills a customer in a bank, he’d be liable for first-degree murder.

Although it might feel easy discussing the difference, theoretically, it isn’t entirely so in practice.

In real life, evidence may cause a thin line between first-degree murder and its second-degree counterpart.

If charged with a severe offense, do well to discuss with a local criminal defense lawyer. That can make a whole lot of difference.

Difference Between 1st and 2nd Degree Murder

Drawing a line between first- and second-degree murder has been a tricky task – particularly for the uninitiated in legal matters.

The unlawful killing of another individual is called murder – a crime punishable across the globe.

Murders are typically defined by their degrees – such as first-, second-, third-degree murder.

While first-degree murders are planned killings, second-degree murders are killings committed intentionally, but without a plan. Third-degree murders, on the other hand, are regarded as voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

Each of these criminal activities attracts individual state- and country-specific penalties.

This article seeks to explain the difference between the two most severe forms of criminal killing – first-degree and second-degree murder.

First Degree Murder – Explained

In different jurisdictions across the world, legislations differ in penalizing criminal activities – murder inclusive. The variations are religion-, region-, and culture-dependent.

In the United States, for example, killing is grouped in the first degree if the act was intended and planned. So, in the United States, a person who kills another, intentionally, after a period of deliberation and planning, is guilty of the most severe murder – first-degree murder.

In many US regions, besides planning, some other circumstances may qualify a killing as first-degree murder. Such conditions may include blackmailing, torture before the murder and collective killing.

In simple terms, a preplanned and painfully executed murder may pass for first-degree murder. Such killings are usually inspired by jealousy, hatred, etc.

Felony Murder

This is a type of first-degree murder where the defendant kills another – even if accidentally – while committing a violent felony.

If, for instance, during a bank robbery operation [violent felony]  a customer was shot dead, the robber, if caught, may face first-degree murder charges.

Second Degree Murder – Explained

Yes, murder is murder. Indeed there is no worthy justification for taking of another’s life.

However, the law acknowledges some factors in its murder judgments. The intensity, on-the-spot circumstances, and other surrounding factors may reduce the legal implication of murder to a second-degree case.

All homicides carried out without planning, that happens during a fight, or on the spot can be grouped in the second-class murder category.

In several regions globally, second-degree murder attracts lesser punishments than first-degree murder, which, if found guilty, may incur a death sentence or life imprisonment.

First-Degree and Second-Degree Murder – Compared

Here’s a more in-depth analysis of key differentiating elements of the two most-severe degrees of murder.


Talking intent, first-degree murder is an intentional homicide. Deliberations and planning usually precede such killings.

On the other hand, second-degree murder is referred to as an intentional killing committed at the spot, which might be caused by a sudden situation like a fight. Such killing is not planned. Such falls under the second-degree murder.


As expected, punishments for these forms of murder differ. While first-degree murderers get a death sentence or life imprisonment, second-degree murder convicts usually spend anywhere between ten years to life in incarceration.


First-degree murders usually involve the use of a weapon, poisoning, bombing, blackmailing, torture, etc.

Second-degree murders are on-the-spot murders, committed as a result of sudden circumstances. They may involve the use of weapons or other means available at the scene of the crime.


First-degree murders are usually planned. So, for a criminal killing to come under the second-degree category, the offender must have planned the event before time.

For second-degree murders, there is no form of planning before the act. The attempt was never conceived before the crime.

Special considerations

Across many jurisdictions, murder is considered a first-degree when followed by internal or external means and accompanied by a team of helpers.

What matters is the intent and on-spot circumstances that inspired the crime. These special circumstances may include murder inspired by the need to avert arrest and custody, uplift financial status, or murder of public officers like law enforcement, judge, and other statutory government officials.

On the other hand, second-degree murders do not recognize any special circumstances.


Murders in the first degree are more intense. They are well planned out, deliberate, and willfully implemented.

For second-degree murders are defined based on the circumstances that surround the attempt.

First-degree and Second-degree Murder – Case Examples

First-degree Murder Case Example


Richard comes home to find his wife sexually abused by her ex, Clinton. Richard gets furious. He drives off to Clinton’s house, met him on the driveway, and shoots him.


Since Richard took the time to plan his next line of action, this could mean a first-degree murder case. Why? The deliberation and premeditation elements make it so.

The court may not charge for voluntary manslaughter because it may not be considered one caused by ‘heat of passion’ even when it is assumed Richard committed the crime in anger.

Second-degree Murder Case Example


While shopping at a mall, Richard steps on Clinton without an apology. Clinton gets furious. It soon led to a brawl. In the heat of the arguments, Clinton picks up a knife, stabs and kills Richard.


This case fits into the second-degree murder category because although the murder was intentional, it was not premeditated.

Also, it may not be termed voluntary manslaughter since the heat of the passion element was missing.

So, although Clinton’s anger was well-founded, it doesn’t justify murder.

What is a Third-degree Murder?

Often termed manslaughter, the third-degree criminal killing can be described as one committed without a plan or even an intent to take life.

These murders may be further classified into voluntary and involuntary.

Voluntary manslaughter is one where the killer gets provoked and – in anger – causes the death of another.


Some circumstances might reduce murder punishment from a high-degree case to a lower one.

Post-traumatic stress, depression, self-defense, and mental disorder are examples of ‘adequate justification’ that may reduce a convict’s penalty.

While the types of murder can easily be spelled out in writing, in court, evidence and counter-argument may further twist one’s long-held interpretations.


First-degree murder cases are usually surrounded by more cruelty than second-degree murders. Besides, they are normally accompanied by special circumstances.

Also, first-degree murder is usually premeditated and planned. Whereas, second-degree criminal killing happens without any plan.

As with their severity, so are the accompanying punishments. While first-degree murderers are faced with life imprisonment, without parole, second-degree murderers may stay 20 to 80 years –or life – in incarceration, with chances of parole.

While the definition varies across jurisdictions, first-degree murder is typically any criminal killing with an intentional and deliberate attempt to end another’s life.

Contrarily, second-degree murder is widely defined as an intentional but unplanned murder. While the motive is to end a life, it is done on the spur of the moment – not planned. It also refers to killing caused by an extreme disregard for another’s life.