People usually think that murder is a murder, regardless of who committed it and why. However, things are not that simple. Even though murder is usually a punishable act, it may not be in certain cases. Because there is a clear distinction between types of murder, it is important to know what main types there are and how is murder actually based on degrees?

For those who are not familiar, in the US jurisdictions, murder can be described as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree murder; each degree carries different circumstances, background, reasons, weapons and even the emotional state of the person who committed it. The factors determining which degree of murder is are numerous, and they can affect a murder charge and the penalty. Therefore, in the following paragraphs, we are going to take a brief insight into the main differences between different murder degrees, and the factors that characterize them as such.

The First-Degree Murder

The first-degree murder is characterized by the US law and jurisdiction as a criminal act, where the criminal intent, cause of the murder and harm elements of the murder are all being taken into consideration. The first-degree murder is the most serious charge for murder, as it is believed that the defendant has planned and carried out a murder with the intent of harm and malice. Now, when it comes to the first-degree murder, it is important to point out that there are three types;

  • Premeditated murder – this means that the murder was willful, deliberate and premeditated. To say that murder is ‘willful’ means that a person had a specific intent to kill, so whenever a first-degree murder happens, the prosecution has to prove that there is, in fact, a specific intent. Moreover, to say that a murder was ‘deliberate’ can mean that it was methodically and calmly planned out, committed without passion or anger. If murder is described as ‘premeditated’ it means that the defendant has carried out the murder out of strong and calculated desire to cause death to the victim.
  • Felony murder – this means that someone committed a certain kind of felony where the act resulted in someone’s death. It is not important whether the death was accidental or intentional; so long the felony can be described as rape, robbery, burglary or arson, the defendant is liable for it since the felony is inherently and foreseeably dangerous to human life. In felony murder, the murder does not require the intent to kill, only the fact that someone died as a result of the felony, and that there was an intent to commit the felony in the first place.
  • Murder by specified means – this means that the murder has been committed by means like a drive-by, shooting, via destructive devices like a bomb, weapons of mass destruction, poison, torture or ambush-style killing (lying in wait). All of these methods of killing can be premeditated, so these types of murder can be qualified as first-degree premeditated murder.

The crime scene, murder, investigation, police find rejected the gun used by the murderer, taken as evidence of the murder

The Second-Degree Murder

The second-degree murder is characterized by US law and jurisdiction as not being the first-degree murder. This means that the murder was not premeditated, deliberate or committed through specified means. Sometimes, it can even be considered as the defendant wanting to cause harm but having no intention of causing death. According to the jurisdiction, second-degree murder cases usually involve;

  • Intentional murder without premeditation – the murder was not planned out, however, the defendant definitely wanted to commit the murder in one particular moment. Therefore, we can also mention the concept of ‘voluntary manslaughter’ where the murder happened without a plan, but out of provocation, passion or other emotional states. Here, we can mention adequate and inadequate provocation, which can make a distinction between murder and voluntary manslaughter.
  • Unintentional murder or involuntary manslaughter – this means that the defendant only wanted to cause serious bodily harm without knowing that this act can result in death. The defendant didn’t specifically intend to kill the victim; however, the victim did die due to the injuries, Involuntary manslaughter may be distinguished from accidental death if the accidental death was not caused by unreasonable behavior.
  • Depraved heart murder – this means that the defendant who committed the murder manifests extreme indifference to the value of human life. The defendant also manifests a degree of recklessness, rather than purposeful intent to express malice. Now, whether the killing is characterized as second-degree murder or manslaughter often depends on the degree of the recklessness of the defendant. If the defendant is reckless, the killing is manslaughter; if the defendant manifests extreme indifference to human life, then it is depraved heart murder.

The Third-Degree Murder

Third-degree murder is only defined in the laws of three US states; Florida, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Depending on the state, third-degree murder can be characterized as non-violent felony murder, or depraved heart murder, as the second-degree murder is characterized in other states. In Pennsylvania, in particular, third-degree murder is characterized by the principle of an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony. Moreover, the Pennsylvania law includes drug delivery resulting in death as a form of third-degree murder. Third-degree murder can also be defined as a negligent homicide and usually includes less serious sentencing options for the defendant.


The jurisdiction regarding a murder can vary from state to state, and the laws can be applied differently. However, the degrees of murder are clearly defined throughout the country. In some states, however, forms of manslaughter and killing of a fetus are also criminalized as some degrees of murder. In every state, first-degree murder is the most serious one and carries the harshest penalties. Second-degree murder is still more serious than manslaughter but considered less serious than the first-degree murder. Third-degree murder charges are only applicable in certain states, as mentioned before, so the seriousness of the penalty varies between these three states and the way they handle the law.