Degrees of Murder Explained

Not all murder charges are created equal. Depending on the degree of murder that a defendant is charged with, they will have different criteria for a guilty verdict, different defenses available to them, and different potential sentences to serve. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the different degrees of murder: first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree, as well as manslaughter. 

The Degrees of Murder System

In common law, there are no degrees of murder. Rather, this is a modern statutory rule dividing murder into degrees according to its mens rea, or criminal intent. This rule allows for the most serious sentences for first-degree murder and the lightest second for third-degree murder. 

The below chart explains sentences for each type of murder.

Crime Sentence Notes
First-degree murder Maximum charge of the death penalty or life imprisonment Defendants may be given lesser sentences if certain mitigating factors apply such as mental illness, duress, or being a minor, or greater sentences if they have committed murder in the past
Second-degree murder 15 years to life imprisonment Aggravating and mitigating factors such as genuine remorse, a clean criminal record, or high levels of brutality will affect the sentence
Third-degree murder Minnesota: 25 years imprisonment and $40,000 fines


40 years imprisonment

Florida: 15 years imprisonment and $10,000 fine

Voluntary manslaughter Maximum 10 years imprisonment, fines, or both
Involuntary manslaughter Minimum of 10 to 16 months imprisonment

What Is First-Degree Murder?

The exact definition of first-degree murder depends on each state and jurisdiction. However, most jurisdictions define first degree murder as the intentional killing of another person by someone acting willfully, deliberately, and with premeditation.

A premeditated murder means that the defendant had intent to kill and some willful deliberation, time spent reflecting, deliberating, reasoning, or otherwise weighing their decision rather than simply killing on sudden impulse. 

Courts generally look for evidence that the defendant deliberated and formed the intent to kill prior to the act of killing. This means that the defendant thought about the murder for a period of time and did not change their mind.

There are three elements to first-degree murder.

  • Malice aforethought - The crime was committed with a blatant disregard for human life and a clear intent to kill or otherwise commit evil acts
  • Intent - The defendant fully intended to carry out a criminal act. This intent can be murder itself or another type of serious felony such as robbery or kidnapping.
  • Premeditation - The crime was purposeful and planned out

There is no single clear way to define when premeditation begins and ends. However, factors indicating premeditation and deliberation include:

  • Lack of provocation from the victim
  • An additional lethal attack after the victim was already helpless
  • A poor history between the victim and the defendant
  • Actions and words of the defendant before and after the killing
  • The nature and number of wounds
  • Evidence of brutality
  • Any threats from the defendant before and/or during the killing

What Is Second-Degree Murder?

Like first-degree murder, the exact definition of second-degree murder varies by jurisdiction. Also like first-degree murder, second-degree murder is, too, an intentional homicide. It is typically defined as murder with malicious intent but lacking premeditation. 

The mens rea, or intent, of a second-degree murder defendant is intent to kill, to inflict serious bodily harm, or acting with an abandoned heart (reckless conduct, lacking concern for human life, or having a high risk of death.) A lack of mens rea can be used as a defense to reduce a murder charge to manslaughter. 

While first-degree murder is a specific intent crime, second-degree murder is a malice crime. This means that defenses intended to negate mens rea will not always work on both first- and second-degree murder. 

The punishment for second-degree murder is less severe than first-degree murder, Specifically, capital punishment is not available as a second-degree murder conviction. 

What Is Third-Degree Murder?

Only three states have third-degree murder laws: Minnesota, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Each of these states defines third-degree murder differently. However, it is typically understood as  unintentionally causing someone else's death while committing a dangerous act. 


    • Florida defines third-degree murder as “The unintentional, unlawful killing of a human being while committing a nonviolent felony (except for certain drug felonies).”
    • Minnesota defines third-degree murder as “The unintentional killing of another through an eminently dangerous act committed with a depraved mind and without regard for human life. Also includes causing another's drug-related death by selling, delivering, or administering a Schedule I or II controlled substance.”
  • Pennsylvania defines third-degree murder as “Any murder of a human being that is not first- or second-degree murder.”

What Is Manslaughter? 

There is also another crime similar to murder called manslaughter.  Manslaughter is defined as the act of killing another human being in a way that is less culpable than murder. 

Manslaughter is divided into two categories:

  • Voluntary manslaughter - intentionally killing another person in the heat of passion and in response to adequate provocation
  • Involuntary manslaughter - negligently causing the death of another person

Under the Model Penal Code, manslaughter also includes reckless homicide, which is defined as homicide that would be murder, but "is committed under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance for which there is reasonable explanation or excuse."

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