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Difference Between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Degree Murders (With Examples)

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When someone commits a murder, they are typically charged with various degrees. What is the difference between 1st and 2nd degree murders?

1st-degree murder involves killing another person with "malice aforethought." This means that the defendant had an intent to kill and premeditated the act. 2nd- degree murder does not require malice aforethought but rather a reckless disregard for human life, something that happened unplanned. In this blog post, we will go over what constitutes each type of homicide and give examples to help you understand their differences better.

What is a 1st Degree Murder?

First degree means premeditated or planned. This definition refers to an intentional killing committed after planning, such as buying a weapon and hiding it until the person has decided when they will kill their victim. An example of this would be a person who decides beforehand to kill someone by making a sound plan & goes on to execute it.

What is a 2nd Degree Murder?

A second degree means an intentional killing that does not happen after planning such as during the heat of a moment. Or when someone acts on impulse but instead happens spontaneously without any element of premeditation or deliberation beforehand.

An example would be a scuffle that happens between two drivers in the middle of a road. And in the heat of the moment, things escalate & one of them pulls out his gun and shoots another. Note that the murder happened without any planning beforehand and was simply the result of things getting out of hand.

What is a 3rd-Degree Murder?

A third-degree means an unintentional killing, similar to manslaughter. This is when someone acts without thinking about the consequences of their actions and ends up causing another person's death by accident or through carelessness. An example would be a case where two friends are having fun at one of them's places & they both decide to play Russian roulette with guns found in the house on their own accord. Even though neither has experience playing this game before. And during the process, one accidentally shoots the other leading to his death due to injury.

Differences between 1st, 2nd & 3rd-degree murders

Difference in planning

The main difference between these three is in the planning that was involved in their commission. First-degree murder requires some sort of premeditation or planning, while a second-degree is usually committed on impulse. A third or second-degree murder does not involve any type of prior plan to commit the crime at all.

The difference in the intent behind each killing

The difference between these three degrees also changes depending upon whether there is evidence of "malice" or intent behind each killing--which means different things legally speaking. To convict someone on a charge of first-degree murder, it has to be proved that malice aforethought existed when committing the act (i.e., an intention to kill).

There are also two types of manslaughter recognized by most states: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is when a person kills another in the heat of passion, while involuntary manslaughter involves unintentional killings that occur during non-felonious activities.

Difference in punishment

The main difference between first and second-degree murder is the penalties for each conviction. A defendant may be sentenced to death or life imprisonment if convicted of first-degree murder. If it's only second degree then there are lesser sentences served compared to someone being found guilty of first-degree murders which can carry heavy fines or jail time depending on how severe their crime was deemed by law. For third-degree, the sentence is lesser than both first & second-degree murders. Convictions do not result in automatic prison terms though, as judges have some leeway with sentencing decisions. Meaning they could give people lighter punishments even after finding them guilty.

Comparison Chart: 1st Vs 2nd Vs 3rd-Degree Murders

Parameters1st Degree2nd Degree3rd Degree
Level of OffenseHighestModerateLowest
Sentence givenHighestModerateLowest
Heat of the moment actNoYesNo

Similarities between 1st, 2nd & 3rd-degree murders

The biggest similarity is the fact that they all count as criminal offenses. All three types carry a minimum sentence in prison if convicted, however, the sentences are usually very different depending on which degree they were charged with.


Which one of the three is the most serious & punishable?

The most serious type of crime someone can be accused of committing in America is first-degree murder due to its life sentencing penalty that goes into effect immediately when convicted. This means that no matter how many years you serve after being found guilty, you will continue to serve for life.

What is the lightest degree between these three?

The lightest degree between these three is third-degree murder. Third-degree takes the least severe of all charges and will only get someone up to 40 years at max in prison if convicted.

How is the severity of these charges decided?

The decision on how severe it was comes down to whether or not premeditation was involved. If there was no prior planning (and intent) then it's likely that they would get charged with second-degree murder whereas if there WAS planning/intent, this means first-degree murder charges are likely to be brought against that accused.

Can someone be convicted of all three degrees at once?

In rare cases, someone can be convicted of both first and second-degree murders, but not third. Third-degree would only apply to those cases where no premeditation was involved in the act. However these cases are very rare and may involve separate killings.


The difference between 1st, 2nd & 3rd-degree murder is the intent of the murderer. If you are ever faced with a situation where someone has committed an act of violence against another person, it’s important to understand what kind of charge they could face so that you know how to proceed if needed. For help understanding more about your rights as a victim or witness to a crime, contact a legal team.


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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
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