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

There are different classifications of murder in the law: first, second, and third-degree. What is the difference between first, second, and third-degree murders?

The very basic difference between first, second, and third-degree murders is the degrees of intent between the murder charges. Some people planned and intentionally killed other people. But some killed other people unintentionally or by accident.

The law has specifically defined these three degrees of murder because there are different reasons why people commit this act. The court carefully evaluates to determine the right penalty for the murderer.

Read on to learn more about first, second, and third-degree murders and how state laws define them.

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

difference between first and second degree murders

The primary difference between first, second, and third-degree murders is the intent by which the murderer commits the act. The degrees of intent determine if it is a first, second, or third-degree murder.

Setting aside felony murder, the basic difference between first and second-degree murder is the defendant’s mindset or intent. On the other hand, if the act is not planned, then it’s a third-degree murder. It also cannot be classified as a reckless disregard for human life.

Some people intentionally planned to kill other people. There are also some murderers who accidentally or in the spur of the moment have taken the lives of others.

Again, a defendant will receive a first-degree murder penalty if he/she planned or intentionally carried out the act. In second-degree murder, the defendant killed the other person either recklessly, on the spur of the moment, or even intentionally.

Some murderers took the time to plan their victim’s death. Other murderers took the lives of others because of the heat of the moment. Some accidentally killed other people.

Planning to kill somebody is obviously more heinous than killing another person by accident. The court and the judges carefully evaluate these different reasons to determine that the right penalty is imposed on the murderer.

First-Degree Murder Defined

First-degree murder is the most serious charge that a person can be accused of. The court would give this ruling if the defendant planned and committed the act with malice. In this case, the prosecutor will need to prove that the defendant planned to take the victim’s life beyond a reasonable doubt. 


There are two classifications of first-degree murder.

  1. Intentional and premeditated killing (example: stalking a person before murdering them.)
  2. Felony murder

Most states in the US define first-degree murder as the act of premeditated and willful killing. That means the murderer planned and ‘laid in wait’ and eventually killed the victim. This is intentional and premeditated murder. 

An example is when a husband finds his wife lying in bed with another man. Two days later, the husband hides behind a tree near the other man’s door. When the other man arrives home, the husband shoots and kills the other man. This act qualifies as first-degree murder.

Felony Murder Rule

The majority of US states also follow a legal concept called the “felony murder rule.” Murder is classified as such when the defendant causes the death, even accidental death, of another person/s after they committed some violent felonies like:

  • Robbery
  • Rape
  • Burglary
  • Arson
  • Kidnapping

An example would be two persons robbing a grocery. As they try to escape, the grocery owner shoots and kills one of the robbers. Under the rule of felony murder, the living robber will be charged with first-degree murder of the dead robber, even if it was actually the store owner who made the killing.

First-Degree Murder Elements

Since first-degree murders carry the heaviest and harshest penalties, state laws require that the prosecutor must be able to prove that the defendant has manifested three basic elements. These basic elements are:

  1. Premeditation
  2. Deliberation
  3. Willfulness

Some states even require an additional element. This is a “malice afterthought.” In this context, this behavior is defined as an evil purpose or disposition and indifference to human life. There are states which require separate proof of malice, in addition to premeditation, deliberation, and willfulness.

The majority of states also consider certain types of killings as murders of the first degree without the prosecution requiring proof of premeditation, deliberation, and willfulness. In some states, first-degree murders are called “capital murder.”

Many states also consider some methods of killing as first-degree murders. They include killings resulting from torture or imprisonment, killings due to intentional poisoning, and killings by ambush where the killer “laid in wait” for the victim.

Some states have specifically enumerated the types of murders that they consider as first-degree murders. These murders include the following:

  • Murder of a law enforcement officer
  • Killing of a child by using unreasonable force
  • Homicides happen in committing other crimes such as robbery, rape, arson, and other violent crimes.
  • Killings that are committed in a domestic abuse pattern

Second-Degree Murder Described

difference between first second and third degree murders

A murder can be considered the second degree if the defendant has killed another person without premeditation. It is obvious that the person really wanted to cause harm to the other person. However, there was really no intent to kill.

There are instances when a person gets instantly enraged. Their desire to harm the other person gets uncontrolled. They commit the act, and the other person is killed. When proven guilty, the murderer is given jail time. In some cases, the defendant may even get a life sentence.

Second-degree murder is committed by a person if their acts result in the following:

  • Death due to reckless disregard for another person’s life
  • Unplanned but intentional killing because of the spur of the moment when the murderer got angry.

The big difference between first-degree murder and second-degree murder was the mindset or intention of the defendant when they committed the act of murder.

Third-Degree Murder Defined

Most often, third-degree murder or manslaughter is a killing without any intention to harm. In short, this means voluntary or involuntary killing. 

Voluntary Murder vs Involuntary Murder

An example of voluntary murder is if another person provoked the murderer. They vented their anger at the other person and did something that killed that person.

It’s different from involuntary murder. In this case, a person kills another person because of recklessness. Perhaps the person is driving his car recklessly and hits the other person. The accident resulted in the death of the other person. The killer did not do it intentionally but accidentally.

The major difference between third-degree murder and the first two types of murder is that there is no planning involved. Moreover, this type of killing is not a result of a disregard for human life. However, in the eyes of the law, the killer still demonstrated ill towards the other person because of the death they caused.

Even if a person only intends to harm but not kill, if the other person they harmed dies, they are guilty of manslaughter.

There are only three states that charge accused persons with third-degree murder. These states are Minnesota, Florida, and Pennsylvania. All the other states in the union charge accused individuals of manslaughter.

Again, what is the difference between first, second, and third-degree murders? The difference between these types of murder is the degree of intent between the murder charges. Some people planned and intentionally killed other people. But some murdered someone unintentionally.

A murder is a first-degree murder if the defendant planned and intentionally carried out the killing. In second and third-degree murder, the defendant killed the other person either recklessly, on the spur of the moment, or even intentionally.

In the Real World…

It is rather easy to enumerate the differences between these three degrees of murder. However, in the real world, it isn’t easy to filter out the motives or intents of people and wade through volumes of different types of evidence. Determining the correct designation of a particular type of killing can be very difficult.

Jail Sentences for Different Types of Murders

what is the difference between first second and third degree murders

These types of murders also require different levels of penalties or punishments as mandated by state laws for those who are proven guilty of the act:

First-Degree Murder

First-degree murders usually get the harshest of all jail sentences. But sentences can vary from state to state. While statutory guidelines are stringent, federal courts can still exercise certain leeway in determining the sentence of a convicted murderer.

In some states like Florida, first-degree murder convictions can either bring life imprisonment or the death penalty without any possibility of parole. Some states that do not impose the death penalty will give the convicted murderer a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Other states such as California follow a two-tier sentencing structure. The first tier involves spending several years in prison. Sometimes the sentence could go up to life imprisonment. The second tier is either life imprisonment without parole or, worse, the death penalty.

Second-Degree Murder

The statutes that define second-degree murders also specify the appropriate punishments of the convicted murderer. Typically, the jail sentence will be in general time duration, such as 15 years up to life imprisonment. The specific jail sentence is often up to the court’s appreciation of the evidence of the particular case.

For instance, the federal statute that criminalizes murders of the second degree says that a person guilty should spend any number of years to life in prison. This unspecific declaration of jail sentence induces federal judges to invoke the Federal Sentencing Guidelines so that they can determine the correct punishment of a convicted murderer.

Other states have statutes that provide certain punishments for specific situations in which the defendant committed a murder. For example, the Penal Code of California provides specific minimum punishments for the gun shooting murder of the second degree. This is different from murder when a defendant uses a motorized vehicle or if the act is against law enforcement or a peacekeeping officer.

Third-Degree Murder or Manslaughter

There are also different punishments meted out to convicted third-degree murderers in different states. As mentioned before, there are only three states that convict people with third-degree murders. They are Minnesota, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Other states like California consider this type of murder manslaughter.

In California, manslaughter is a felony that imposes a convicted murderer with up to one year in county jail. It could also be three, or six, or eleven years in state prison. Sentencing of manslaughter can also vary by case as well as jurisdiction. However, most convictions result in prison time.


Based on federal sentencing guidelines, penalties of voluntary manslaughter may include the following:

  • Fines
  • Prison time for 10 years or less
  • Both fines and prison time

At the federal level and under the federal sentencing guidelines, the elementary sentence for involuntary manslaughter is a prison term of 10 to 16 months. If the defendant committed the act through reckless conduct, then the prison term can increase.

Conclusion: What Is the Difference Between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Degree Murders?

The primary difference between first, second, and third-degree murders is the degrees of intent between the murder charges. Some people kill others intentionally, while some have ended the lives of others unintentionally or by accident.

In the case of murder, the law gives weight to the intent. The court will evaluate said intent. First-degree murder usually carries the harshest penalty, while third-degree murder carries the lightest penalty.