Murder is a grave offense and the law is designed to provide justice to the victim’s family, keeping in mind the circumstances, and state of mind of the murderer. There are different degrees of murder, depending on the intention behind the killing, and the way the murder is committed.

Thus, this heinous offense is classified into first, second and third degrees of murder, the third type also referred to as manslaughter and homicide in some regions. The definition depends on the state and country in which the crime is committed. Usually first degree murder is an offense with intent, homicides that are planned, or that occur during the commission of another felony.

Comparison chart

First Degree Murder versus Second Degree Murder comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartFirst Degree MurderSecond Degree Murder
Definition intent to kill + premeditation and deliberation intentional killing; by extremely reckless conduct, intent to cause serious bodily harm, Deadly weapon doctrine
Mode Poisoning, bombing, assault with a weapon, torture, murder committed during a felony. Any weapon
Penalty Life imprisonment or death penalty 10 years to life in prison
Special Circumstances In some jurisdictions such as New York, murder is classified 1st degree if accompanied by special circumstances like multiple murders, torture, or the felony-murder rule. No special circumstances are necessary to classify a murder as 2nd degree murder. However, it is usually required to prove intent.
The scales of justice

Legal Definition

While manslaughter, or third degree murder, is a catch-all category for murders, there are more serious kinds of murder that are distinguished based upon factors such as intent, premeditation, whether the murder was committed as part of another crime like burglary or kidnapping, or whether there were any special circumstances such as murder of a law enforcement officer or multiple murders.

In general, 1st degree murder is grave murder planned and committed in a cruel way against one or more persons, under special circumstances. The special circumstances include accompaniment of other offenses such as, kidnapping, hijacking, robbery, with an intention of financial gain, assault on pregnant women or government officials on public duty, or involving extreme torture. This is considered more serious if the person committing the offence has committed such a crime before.

2nd degree murder, in general, is premeditated murder against spouse or relatives, or due to personal gain and interest, without the presence of special circumstances. It is considered slightly less grave than first degree murder. In some countries second degree murder is also defined as unplanned killing due to an accident.

Legal Definition of Murder in Pennsylvania and most states in the U.S.

Legal Definition of Murder in New York and several other states

Note that under this legal system, a "regular" premeditated murder, without such special circumstances, is not a first-degree murder; nor are murders by poison or "lying in wait" per se first-degree murders.

Penalty for 1st vs. 2nd degree murder

A person committing first degree murder is usually put in prison for at least 25 years or more without parole, depending on the laws of the state whereas someone committing second degree murder might be imprisoned for 10-25 years with or without parole. There may be exceptions to this depending on age and state of mind of the murderer and the circumstances surrounding the crime. Some of these are described below.


There are certain circumstances that might reduce the sentencing from first or second degree murder to manslaughter or homicide. Depression, post-traumatic stress, mental disorders and self defence are some of the pleas that can be used to reduce the penalty.


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