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There are various legal terms that can be confusing to those with limited experience of legal matters. Murder, for instance, is divided into three different categories: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and third-degree murder. What are 1st 2nd and 3rd-degree murders, and what is the difference between 1st and 2nd-degree murders compared to 3rd-degree murder? This guide will help cover all of the different types of murder to help you understand.

difference between 1st and 2nd-degree murders

Differences Between Murder Charges

In order to comprehend the difference between 1st 2nd and 3rd-degree murders, it’s vital to have a clear definition of each type. From a federal perspective, it’s important to note that, in general, murder is prosecuted in state courts as a state crime. It is not usually classed as a federal crime.

However, murder can become a federal crime if it violates federal law or occurs on federal land. An example of this would be the murder of a federal judge. Federal murder cases can be either first degree or second degree and may lead to punishments like life imprisonment or the death penalty.

First Degree Murder

California law defines murder as “unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought“. First-degree murder is the most serious form of murder, and in California, any murders that are committed with intent and premeditation are classified as a first degree.

The Elements of First Degree Murder

In order to classify murders in different degrees, criminal law highlights various elements or aspects to take into consideration. A 1st-degree murder must have three key aspects:

  • Intent: A 1st-degree murder must be committed with some sort of intent to kill the person. The murderer must therefore have attacked or harmed their victim with the purpose of ending their life or doing evil.
  • Deliberation and Premeditation: Deliberation and premeditation are essential parts of quantifying a first-degree murder. This type of crime must be purposeful and planned out, rather than simply occurring in the heat of the moment.
  • “Malice Aforethought”: “Malice aforethought” is a legal term that basically means that a person who committed the murder did so with an intent to kill and a general disregard for human life.

Enumerated First Degree Murders

In order to simplify the classification of murder charges, many states, including California, have enumerated first-degree murder offenses in order to simplify the conviction process. In California, examples of these charges include drive-by shootings and gang-related murders.

what is 1st 2nd and 3rd degree murders

First Degree Murder Sentencing and Penalties

As stated earlier, first-degree murders often have some of the strongest punishments, and this can be a big difference between 1st and 2nd-degree murders. In California, the punishment for this crime is death or imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole, provided certain factors are met.

  • Aggravating Factors

There are certain factors that might allow a defendant to be charged with the harshest possible sentence in California. These are called “aggravating factors” and include things like:

    • The defendant has already committed one or multiple murders in the past
    • The victim was a police officer, judge, witness, prosecutor, or juror
    • The killing occurred in conjunction with another violent crime like rape
  • The Death Penalty

The death penalty may be a possible punishment for those who have been convicted of first-degree murder, and this is the case in California.

  • Life without the Possibility of Parole

People with a first-degree murder conviction may also face life in prison without any chance of parole.

  • Lesser Sentences

In some situations, those with this type of conviction may face reduced sentences of around 25 years in prison, depending on the precise nature and surrounding factors of the crime.

first degree murder

Second Degree Murder

2nd-degree murder or second-degree manslaughter is still a very serious crime but is a step down in severity when compared to the 1st degree. In general terms, a 2nd-degree murder is one that doesn’t have any kind of premeditation and may only have been intended to cause harm, rather than death.

In California, the term second-degree murder is applied to all murders that do not qualify under the category of first-degree murder. The state defines second-degree murder as any type of unlawful killing that is done with malice aforethought but without premeditation.

  • Intentional Killings Without Premeditation

One of the defining aspects of a second-degree manslaughter or murder charge is that there isn’t any sort of plan or premeditation on behalf of the killer. Even if they intend to kill someone at the moment of the crime, it may simply occur in the heat of the moment and isn’t something that they planned out in advance.

  • Intent to Cause Only Serious Bodily Harm

This is another factor that might define second-degree murder. The defendant might not have actually intended to kill their victim. Instead, they may have only had the intent to cause serious bodily harm.

  • Extreme Indifference to Human Life

Another type of second-degree murder is when a victim dies because the defendant showed an extreme level of indifference for their life.

  • Felony Murder

Felony murder is when someone is killed during the course of a felony, like a robbery. This can be classed as both first-degree and second-degree murder in California.

second degree murder

Second Degree Murder Penalties and Sentencing

The sentencing for second-degree murders can vary from 15 years to life in prison in California.

  • Aggravating and Mitigating Factors for Second Degree Murder

A range of aggravating and mitigating factors can come into play during sentencing. Aggravating factors like cruel or brutal acts and previous convictions could increase the severity of the sentence. Mitigating factors like mental illness or a troubled childhood can reduce the severity of the sentence.

  • Second Degree Murder Sentencing Procedure

The procedure for sentencing in this kind of crime will depend on the location, the nature of the crime, and other factors. Usually, a court hearing will be held to find out more about the case and weigh up the factors, before sentencing is issued.

Third-Degree Murder

There is no such thing as third-degree murder under California law. California only recognizes three types of murder charges: first degree, second degree, and capital murder. The idea of a third-degree murder charge only exists in three states: Florida, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.

What Is the Difference Between Third-Degree Murder and Manslaughter?

On the face of it, 3rd-degree murder and manslaughter are very similar, but the states in which a third-degree murder charge can apply differentiate between them in different ways.

For example, in Minnesota, someone must act with disregard for human life and a depraved mind to be charged with 3rd-degree murder, but will only face manslaughter charges if they were aware of the risks to another life but went ahead with their actions anyway, such as vehicular manslaughter or driving under the influence – causing death to another person.

Penalties for Third Degree Murder

The penalties for this crime vary based on location. In Florida, the penalty can be up to 15 years imprisonment and fines of up to $10,000. In Minnesota, defendants can be sentenced to 25 years behind bars and $40,000 fines. In Pennsylvania, the maximum sentence is 40 years in prison, and the penalties for this crime are similar to penalties for attempted murder or voluntary manslaughter.

third degree murder

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

This guide has shown what is 1st 2nd and 3rd degree murders, and after understanding the unique aspects of each one, it’s much simpler to find the differences between them. The main differences are the severity of the crime itself and the severity of the punishment received.

First-degree murders are the most serious and punished accordingly, involving premeditated murder and intentional murder. Second-degree murders are the next step down but still involve intent to harm or to kill. Third-degree murders are the lowest level of criminal homicide but can still result in serious sentences.

A Los Angeles murder defense lawyer can help you learn more about the different types of unlawful killing charges, while a resentencing lawyer can help those who have already been convicted to appeal for a lesser sentence. It’s vital to get proper legal aid when dealing with these sorts of charges.

Shaheen Manshoory
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