25 Sep 23

What is the difference between first-degree and second-degree murder?

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Last Updated on: 26th September 2023, 10:43 pm

First vs Second Degree Murder

If you’re facing murder charges, one of the biggest things is figuring out whether it’s first or second degree. The difference totally changes how much time you could be facing. First degree murder is way more serious with harsher punishment. So what exactly makes a murder first vs second degree? I wanted to break it down in a straightforward way so you understand what you could be up against.

What is First Degree Murder?

First degree murder has a couple requirements [1]:

  • It was premeditated – this means planning out the murder before doing it
  • It happened when committing certain felony crimes like robbery, arson, rape, etc.

Premeditation is a big one. Planning to kill someone ahead of time rather than in the heat of the moment shows more intent. That makes it more serious in the eyes of the law.

How is Second Degree Murder Different?

Second degree murder doesn’t require premeditation – it can be more spontaneous [2]. But it still requires intentionally killing someone. Second degree murder can happen when:

  • You get into an argument and intentionally kill the person
  • You intentionally kill someone through extremely reckless actions
  • You intended to just harm someone, but they end up dying

So the main difference is first degree requires premeditation, while second degree can be more in the heat of the moment.

How Does Felony Murder Work?

Felony murder is when someone dies while you’re committing a dangerous felony crime like robbery, even if you didn’t intend to kill. This automatically makes it first degree [1].

What About Third Degree Murder?

Some states also have third degree murder charges for killings that lack intent to kill or cause harm. It’s more similar to manslaughter than murder [3].

How Do Prosecutors Prove First Degree Murder?

To make a first degree murder charge stick, prosecutors need to show [4]:

  • You killed the victim
  • It was premeditated and with intent
  • Or it happened during a dangerous felony you committed

Things like planning, bringing weapons, or lying in wait help show premeditation.

What Factors Make Murder First Degree?

Factors that point to first degree include [5]:

  • Meticulous planning and preparation
  • Bringing deadly weapons
  • Killing for financial gain
  • Lying in ambush or wait
  • Killing a witness to prevent testimony

These require more forethought and intent than a spontaneous killing.

What Are the Penalties for First Degree Murder?

First degree murder brings some of the harshest penalties [6]:

  • Life in prison without parole
  • Death penalty in some states

Second degree murder has penalties around 10 to 30 years in prison. So first degree murder can mean many more decades behind bars.

Are There Defenses Against First Degree Murder?

Defenses lawyers may use against first degree murder include:

  • You acted in self-defense against a threat
  • It was an accident rather than intentional
  • You were legally insane and unable to understand actions
  • You were wrongfully accused and evidence is flawed

But these defenses don’t always work, especially if evidence of planning and intent is strong.

Can Charges Be Reduced from First to Second Degree?

In some cases, charges can be reduced to second degree murder if your lawyer argues:

  • There’s no solid evidence of premeditation
  • It wasn’t related to committing a felony
  • It was a spontaneous crime of passion

But this depends heavily on the circumstances and strength of the prosecution’s case.

Other Differences Between First and Second Degree Murder

Some other key differences include:

  • First degree requires more concrete evidence of premeditation
  • Second degree has a wider range of actions qualifying
  • First degree requires felonies for felony murder
  • Second degree includes reckless killings
  • First degree is more clearly deliberate and planned

So in summary, first degree murder requires premeditation or a felony, while second degree can be a reckless or spontaneous intentional killing.

The Bottom Line

The main takeaways on first vs second degree murder:

  • First degree requires premeditation or felony murder
  • Second degree can be reckless or spontaneous
  • First degree penalties are much more severe
  • Proving premeditation is key to first degree charges
  • Defenses focus on lack of intent and planning
  • Reducing charges to second degree is difficult but possible sometimes

I hope this breakdown helps you understand the difference and how to approach your defense if facing murder charges.