What’s the Difference between First and Second Degree Murder?

There is a difference between first and second degree murder; however, it is important to note that these terms are certainly related. They are both punishable crimes in the court of law, and both involve killing an individual.    

Murder is, without a doubt, a grave offense, and that’s why we have laws governing this dreadful act. However, these laws don’t apply the same way to every murder case committed. Instead, the law aims to deliver justice to the victim’s family, considering the murderer’s intention or state of mind. This is simply because how the murder was committed and the intention behind each murder differ, and that’s why we have different degrees of murder.

So, let’s start by highlighting the key difference between first degree murder vs second degree murder, before we dive into penalties subjected to each degree of murder.

Whats the Difference between First and Second Degree Murder?

Both first degree murder and second-degree murder revolve around the action’ murder’. And so, what exactly is their difference?

Well, putting aside murder, the real and the only key difference between these two terms is the defendant’s ‘MINDSET or INTENTION‘ when they took that action.

Now that you know what’s the difference between first degree murder and second degree murder let’s now compare these crimes so as to have a clear picture of each crime.



The types



First Degree Murder
Premeditated killing 
(Usually planned)
Felony murderPremeditated murderKilling a Law Enforcement Officer.
25 years in jail and after that released on bail in order to become free.

It is taken with more seriousness 

Second Degree Murder
Unintentional yet deliberate killing 
Felony murder sometimesIntending only to cause serious bodily harmExtreme indifference to the value of human life
15 years in jail

Less serious

Understanding of First Degree Murder

According to US CODE, first-degree murder is “any murder committed by lying in wait, poison. It also includes premeditated killing perpetrated deliberately, willfully, or maliciously. 

To help enhance the understanding of First Degree Murder, we will take a look at four parts that comprise this type of murder.  

Main Elements

There are various aspects and elements that criminal law highlights to help classify murder into different degrees. And so, here are three elements of first degree murder:

  • The intent: Attacked a victim with the purpose of ending their life.
  • Deliberation and Premeditation: A murder that involved planning and was purposeful, but not a murder that occurred within the heat of the moment. 
  • Malice Aforethought: This is a legal term and an element of first-degree murder that refers to murder that involves overall disregard for human life and with intent to kill.

Enumerated Murders

Many states, including California, have opted for the enumeration of murders. This process aims to help simplify the always complex conviction process.

For example, taking California charges, gang-related murders, and drive-by shootings have now been included in the enumerated charges or section. 

Enumerated Murders

Possible Penalties

Compared to second degree murders, the first-degree murders often feature the strongest punishments. So, some of the potential sentencing and penalties of committing first degree murder include:

  1. Death Penalty: For example, in California, the death penalty is likely to happen mostly for defendants who have committed multiple murders in the past.
  2. Life in prison without the option of Parole
  3. 25 years in prison: This type of sentencing usually depends on the surrounding factors and precise nature of the crime. 


A first or even second degree murder might be reduced to homicide or manslaughter due to the following reasons or exceptions:  

  • Mental disorders, 
  • Post-traumatic stress,
  • Depression, or 
  • Self-defense

What Does a Second-Degree Murder Charge Mean?

Second-Degree Murder Charge is unintentional killing or killing of an individual that is not premeditated. A murder that happened as a result of only wanting to cause serious bodily harm is also considered a second degree murder. 

Degrees of Intent Between Murder Charges

The degrees of intent between murder charges are the key factors that determine how a murder case is charged. 

So, for murder to fall under the first degree murder category, the killing has to have been planned or premediated and deliberately carried out. Meanwhile, a second degree murder has to have occurred in the spur of the moment but be either reckless or intentional.

What’s the Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter?

Manslaughter refers to either non-premediated or unintentional killing of an individual, while murder is the malicious killing of a person. Manslaughter may involve things like causing serious physically injures and several other violent offenses with no intention to kill.

Yes, the difference between these two acts is quite small. However, where the real variances come in is how offenders are charged. Manslaughter offenders will receive less severe sentences and penalties, unlike murders.  

How Many Years Will You Get?

The number of years you will get for any of these degrees of murder will depend on surrounding factors and the precise nature of the crime.

For 1st Degree Murder

From at least 25 years to serving life in person. 

For 2nd Degree Murder

At least 15 years to life, but this may vary depending on your state. For Californians, it will be 15 years to life.

The Bottom Line

That would be all about first vs second degree murder. However, you should know that laws that determine how any of this murder may vary from one state to another. So, be sure to check out with your state’s attorneys. 

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