Degrees of Murder

Murder is considered the most heinous of crimes, the violent ending of one life at the hands of another. From ancient assassinations to modern-day mass shootings, these crimes continue to wrench at people’s hearts, and as such hold some of the most severe punishments within law codes. While different laws exist from country to country, and even state to state within the United States, many recognize three distinct levels of murder depending on the amount of pre-planning or level of malice during the act. These levels are used to separate out the severity of each crime, with convictions of higher degrees resulting in longer prison sentences or even the death penalty. Yet, what separates the different degrees of murder can be extremely confusing. What makes something first-degree rather than second-degree? Why are some murders considered manslaughter instead? With this article, I’m going to do my best to break down the various degrees of murder to make them easier to understand. Hopefully that will make it easier the next time these terms come up, whether in a news report or a crime show.


As the most severe type of murder, first-degree murder is the only type with the possibility of being punished by the death penalty unless there are aggravating circumstances. Also known as premeditated murder, the law must be able to prove that the person planned out the murder and it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. Otherwise, it’s not first-degree murder. The level of planning can range from simply purchasing a weapon and materials for the murder, to detailed searches for what specific poisons or drug mixtures would result in someone’s death. Ted Bundy, for example, planned all his murders to the point of having his car specially rigged to make transporting victims easier.


Unlike first-degree murder, second-degree murder is not preplanned. The killer does not go into the room with the intent to murder someone, but in the heat of the moment they do intend to inflict death or grievous bodily harm on the victim. A perfect example of this is when a suspect shoots a victim in the middle of an argument. While the suspect didn’t seek out the victim to specifically murder them, they were aware in that moment that their actions could lead to grievous injury or death. What separates second-degree murder from third-degree or manslaughter is in the moment of the act, the suspect did have malicious intent towards the victim.


More commonly known as manslaughter, third-degree murder is broken up into voluntary, involuntary, and vehicular. The main difference between manslaughter and the other degrees of murder is intent. Manslaughter is the killing of another person without malicious intent. The charge for voluntary manslaughter is usually brought about by a reduced murder charge, usually occurring if the suspect takes a plea for a murder in the heat of the moment or if the suspect has diminished capacity. Involuntary manslaughter is usually due to either reckless conduct or criminal negligence. For example, if someone were to start shooting into a room without the intent of killing anyone but still strike a person resulting in their death, that would be involuntary manslaughter due to reckless behavior. While the suspect didn’t intend to kill anyone, their reckless firing of the gun directly resulted in the death. Criminal negligence usually occurs when a caretaker or someone responsible for another person does not take certain actions, resulting in the person’s death. An example of this would be a parent leaving their child in the hot car while they’re in the grocery store. Just as it sounds, vehicular manslaughter occurs when someone is killed in a car accident. An extremely common cause of this charge is drunk driving. While the suspect did not intend to kill anyone, they still put themself behind the wheel impaired, and these actions resulted in another person’s death.




With a Master’s in Forensic Psychology, Elyce (They/them) has always been fascinated with the human mind and the stories it creates.

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With a Master’s in Forensic Psychology, Elyce (They/them) has always been fascinated with the human mind and the stories it creates.

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