Difference between First Degree and Second Degree Murder

Updated on February 20, 2018

With the same definition of killing a person with malice aforethought, there is still that defining reason where a person will be convicted of either first degree murder or second degree murder. It may just be a simple difference, but with that difference, it could mean long years of imprisonment or even death for the perpetrator.


First Degree Murder

First Degree
Nikko Jenkins is an American spree killer. He is known for committing four murders between August 11, 2013 and August 21 2013. He was convicted of first degree murder.

In general, a first degree murder is a serious act of crime where an intentional killing takes place that’s premeditated and with malice aforethought. It means that the murder was planned in advance and intentional. Take note however, that some first degree murders don’t need to be intended or deliberate; some special circumstances may be involved like an act of killing during the commission of another violent felony, or multiple killings. The penalties one might get with a first degree murder are usually life imprisonment, a term of years to life, and the death penalty.

Second Degree Murder

Phil Spector
Renowned American record producer Phillip Harvey Spector convicted with second-degree murder in Lana Clarkson Case.

Like a first degree murder, it is an intentional killing with malice aforethought. It is however not premeditated or planned in advance, which now makes this act a lesser charge than first degree murder. Basically, it would likely be an act of killing where the perpetrator has a sudden and intense passion to kill, also called “Heat of passion”. It may also be a killing that’s caused by dangerous conduct and with the perpetrator’s lack of concern for human life. The penalty for a second degree murder is usually imprisonment for a number of years, with or without parole. The number of years usually depends on the age and state of mind of the perpetrator and of course the circumstances that surrounded the crime.

Comparison Chart

First Degree MurderSecond Degree Murder
Life Imprisonment or death sentenceTerm of years to life
Intent to kill with premeditation and deliberationIntent to kill without premeditation and deliberation. Also, intentional killing by extremely reckless conduct.
Highest act of murderSlightly less grave act of murder

First Degree vs Second Degree Murder

What’s the difference between first degree murder and second degree murder? Well, these murders are basically the same with a few differences. One difference is that a first degree murder is premeditated or planned, while a second degree murder is not. There’s also something called special circumstances where a murder can have other reasons other than being premeditated to be first degree. A big difference is found in the penalty for each. For first degree murder, the convicted can be sentenced to life imprisonment or even death, while a convicted second degree murderer can only be imprisoned for a number of years. Examples of a first degree murder include killing a police officer in the course of his duty, killing a person during sexual assault, or killing of a child. An example of a second degree murder on the other hand, would be someone who finds his wife in bed with another person, and then later on kills the person that bedded his wife.

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