Home Law Facts What is 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murders?

What is 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murders?

Second degree murders

All murders are not the same under the law in many jurisdictions. Murder is divided into three degrees of severity, 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murders. Many factors are considered in determining the degree a murder case falls under, according to the circumstances surrounding the murder.

The legal parlance that is used to categorize crimes of murder may sound complicated to the uninitiated, but that’s the purpose of this article.

Within this article, we explain what murder is, the degrees of murder, the difference between 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murder and address other relevant questions so you can be on top of the topic. Keep reading to know more.

What is 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murders

What is 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murders?

To better appreciate the differences between 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murder charges, we must first understand how the law defines murder and the elements of a 1st degree murder, 2nd degree murder and 3rd degree murder.

Most murder cases are prosecuted at the state level, unless the murder took place on federal land or a federal officer is involved in the act which then makes it a federal crime.

First degree murder

2nd degree murders

First degree murder, according to article 125.27 of the New York Penal code is a Class A-I felony and defined as the intentional and premeditated killing of a person or a third person.

A murder is classified as first degree in New York when the victim is:

  1. A police or peace officer while carrying out their lawful duty,
  2. A medical or emergency personnel while on duty or
  3. A prison or correction officer.
  4. A judge

The law requires that the perpetrator know or should have reasonably known that the victim was any of the persons listed above. A murder is also classified as first degree in New York when the following elements are present.

  • The defendant at the time of the commission of the crime, was incarcerated in a jail or prison while serving a term of 15 years or more or committed the crime after escaping prison while serving the aforementioned sentence.
  • The victim was a witness to a crime, the purpose was to prevent them from testifying.
  • If defendant was hired to murder victim.
  • Victim died from torture.
  • Victim was murdered during a robbery, burglary operation or in the commission of other crimes.
  • Murder as part of terrorism act.
  • defendant has committed two murders within a 24-month period.
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Elements of a first degree murder

What is 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murders?

For a first degree murder charge to apply, it must be determined that the three qualifying elements exist in the peculiar case. The elements of a first degree murder are:

1. Intent

Defendant must have had the intention to kill the victim.

2. Premeditation

A first degree murder charge requires that the defendant planned to murder the victim before carrying through with the plan.

3. Malice Aforethought

It refers to the intention by defendant, prior to the murder to kill the person with utter disregard for human life.

First degree murder penalties and sentencing

A conviction of murder of the first degree in New York carries a minimum sentence of 15-40 years and up to life in prison. New York abolished the death penalty in 2007, therefore there’s no possibility of that.

However, in California, a person convicted of first degree murder can face the death penalty. Other sentences include a minimum of 25 years and up to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

2nd degree murders

A second degree murder involves the unlawful killing of another which occurs as a result of inflicting serious bodily harm with or without the intention to kill but without premeditation.

On the scale of severity, while a second degree murder is still a serious charge, it is however, a lesser one compared to first degree murder.

Murders that do not qualify as first degree are prosecuted as second degree. In some instances, a second degree murder may be prosecuted as a manslaughter of the second degree. In New York, murder under the following circumstances is classified as second degree murder:

  1.  Commission of murder with intent but without premeditation except defendant acted in the heat of passion.
  2.  Death resulting from reckless indifference to human life.
  3. Causing, aiding or abetting the killing of another during the commission of a crime such as robbery, sexual battery, burglary, carjacking, arson, aggravated child abuse, aircraft piracy, aggravated stalking, escaping among other crimes.
  4. An adult whose reckless conduct causes the death of a child below 11 years of age.
  5. An adult (18+ years) who intentionally causes the death of a person less that 14 years old while committing a sexual crime against the victim.
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Second Degree Murder penalties and sentencing

No contest plea

A second degree murder conviction in New York carries a sentence of 15 to 25 years prison term. However, a person convicted of second degree murder for the intentional killing of a minor below 14 while committing a sexual crime on the victim will face life in prison without parole.

Certain mitigating and aggravating factors determines what sentence is handed out.

Aggravating factors include:

  1. History of murder or other serious crimes
  2. Cruel and gruesome nature of murder

Mitigating factors include:

  1. Heat of passion
  2. Mental health issues
  3. Troubled childhood
  4. Remorse, co-operation with authorities (Especially in organized crime)

Second degree murder defense

It is a plausible defense when one faces second degree murder charges if one can prove that:

  1. They acted in the heat of the moment,
  2. That if the murder occurred during the commission of another crime such as robbery the defendant, as part of a group: did not commit, aid or request the commission of the murder, was not armed with a deadly weapon, did not reasonably know that the other(s) were armed, did not reasonably believe that the other(s) intended to act in a manner that could lead to the commission of the murder,
  3. Mental illness, and
  4. Self defense or defense of another.

3rd degree murders

Involuntary manslaughter

A third-degree murder is defined as murder without intent or premeditation. There are only three states in the United States with a third-degree murder charge, they include:

  • Florida
  • Minnesota, and
  • Pennsylvania

Most of the other states rather prosecute such qualifying cases as first degree manslaughter.

Third Degree Murder penalties and sentencing

In Florida, conviction of a third degree murder charge results in a minimum of 10 years and up to a statutory maximum of 15 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.

What Is the difference between Third-Degree Murder and Manslaughter?

Third degree-murder and manslaughter are effectively the same but in states like Florida where Third degree is differentiated from manslaughter, the former involves the “killing of a human being by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another, without lawful justification“.

What is the difference between 1st, 2nd and 3rd-degree murders?

The difference between 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murders can be deducted from the extensive guide above. The main points that set the three apart has to do with severity, elements of the charge and the sentence. The differences can be found in the table below.

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1st Degree Murder 2nd Degree Murder 3rd Degree Murder
Severity Highest high moderate
Elements of charge Intent, premeditation, malice aforethought Intent, reckless indifference to human life Accidental deaths resulting from unlawful conduct
Sentence Life in prison without parole, death penalty in some states 15 years to life in prison without parole. Up to 15 years in prison, fines up to $10,000

What is capital Murder?

capital murder

A capital murder may be defined as premeditated murder or aggravated murder committed concurrently with other felony crimes.

The context greatly determines whether a murder charge is escalated to capital murder or not. The murder of state officials such as police and firefighters while carrying out their lawful duty is considered a capital crime.

Examples of capital murder

Felonies amid an intentional killing that would rise to a capital murder indictment include kidnapping, robbery, aggravated sexual abuse , arson, obstruction of justice, or terroristic threats.

Even with zero intent, if bank robbers during a heist kill someone, that might qualify as capital murder. Also, if during the robbery, a policeman is killed while on their lawful duty to prevent the robbery, that might constitute capital murder.

Capital crimes can apply to non-killers also . Let’s check out a white-collar crime to contrast with our blue-collar bank robbery. An executive has been embezzling money from his company. An employee finds out and the chief hires an assassin to kill the employee. Paying for murder, or accepting payment to commit a murder, may be a capital crime. This implicates both the chief and therefore the assassin.

Another instance of a capital crime is when the victim is under the age of 10. Jails also are protected by capital murder charges. Anyone killing or conspiring to kill someone while in jail, or killing someone while trying to flee from jail, is subject to a capital murder indictment . Lastly serial murders also qualify as capital murders.


Murder charges can be classified 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree murders or Manslaughter depending on the state. The minimum penalty for a murder charge is 10 years while one can even face the death penalty in some states under certain circumstances. Aggravating factors can quickly escalate a murder charge to a capital crime which carries the death penalty.

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