For most of us, there’s not much difference between the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd-degree murder, since murder is an unlawful killing. And many are happy knowing that a person is behind bars and will face the music.
However, not every murder is the same, and the most confusing part is really 3rd-degree murder since it only appears in three out of 50 states.
And in each of the degrees, we see varieties, which in some states determine whether it will be an electric chair or life in prison.
The most vital part of any murder trial is intent. But, the judge, jury, and the lawyers from both sides have to understand the emotional state of the potential murderer, reasoning, weapon, a whole bunch of circumstances, and you know this from true crime shows.
You may have a confession, but to get to the conviction, you need to follow the law and its procedures, often full of flaws.
Differences Between Murder Charges
To understand the differences, let’s create a story, which involves made-up characters.
So, we have Nick, who just saw that his ex is marrying a rich guy. He decided to kill the rich guy; we’ll call him Steve.
On the way to Steve’s home, Nick gets attacked and shoots his attacker. The attacker was armed and ready to shoot.
Frantic, Nick decides to take his car. And he’s driving like a maniac, causing some minor troubles for the other drivers. That is until he turns into a one-way street and tries to get back on the chores.
But, wait, there’s an older man, and Nick didn’t even get a chance to see him, because he wasn’t paying attention. And now, this is already the second time he killed someone.
It’s clear that killing your mugger and reckless driving isn’t premeditated, but in the case of a mugger, one might argue it was self-defense.
However, that older man was not doing anything wrong; his only mistake was that he was in Nick’s way. So, while this was not the original plan, the older man is a sad victim of unlawful killing.
Eventually, the bad boy Nick gets to Steve’s house. And he shoots him, and now Nick has the blood of the third person in one night.
Obviously, he had a motive, a desire not just to hurt, but to kill Steve, and he had a plan. Nick carried his gun because he intended to kill Steve. Why? He was jealous, and you cannot argue that this was a crime of passion.
Wait, what’s that now? How does the crime of passion fit into the first, second, or third-degree murder? We’ll get to that.
Was Nick mentally unstable? Let’s be fair for a moment: murdering a person is not what sane people do. Unless you’re the victim, which again, you have to be able to prove in court, murdering someone is not a sign of a clear mind.
Nick was defending himself, but only in his first murder. This simple story will define the differences between the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-degree murders, thanks to Nick and his victims.
The 3rd-degree murder or manslaughter
If you think having three different levels, sort of, for murders, let’s all remember that New Mexico had five. This law no longer exists, and surprisingly, the fifth degree was nothing more than paying a fine.
Luckily, getting away with murder for 1000 bucks is no longer possible, but Florida, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania still have three options for murderers.
Manslaughter is the unlawful killing under circumstances that lessen the moral culpability compared to first- or second-degree murder. Punishment for manslaughter is lesser than for murder.
It can be voluntary or involuntary, and distinguishing them is not easy because not even these three states have the same moral culpability levels.
Voluntary manslaughter embraces a killing where there is a deliberate disregard for others’ lives and a lack of malice aforethought. These types of killings require some provocative act that evokes an exaggerated emotional acknowledgment. In many states, these are known as crimes in the heat of passion crime or crime of passion.
Deaths in these cases, while intentional, do not rise to the level of murder because the heightened emotional circumstances prevent the killer from being in full charge of their behavior.
Under this definition, moral culpability is less. If, however, the killing occurs after enough time to cool off after the provocation, the killing arises to the level of murder.
Involuntary manslaughter covers unintentional homicide or reckless disregard for the lives of others, such as gross negligence. Classic examples of unintentional manslaughter tend to include death during reckless driving or misdemeanor that accidentally results in death.
Involuntary manslaughter is the less serious of all homicides. The death due to extreme recklessness is often a second-degree murder, not involuntary manslaughter.
For example, killing someone due to drunk driving might be involuntary manslaughter. Death due to drunk driving after drunk driving convictions is more extreme and likely to be second-degree murder.
Well, basically, when you know there was no intent or motive, and you’re unsure that you can prove that the murder won’t charm the jury, you go for the 3rd-degree murder.
As per definition, 3rd-degree murder includes crimes of passion, which are often pure gold for the beloved Lifetime movies. But, keep in mind that the lawyer has to prove that his client, a.k.a. the murderer, couldn’t think at the exact moment the crime happened. So, good luck with that, because despite the law’s flaws, each murder carries incredible weight.
The worst-case scenario and the saddest for us, mere humans, is when the victim of sexual or other kinds of abuse kills their torturer. In the eyes of the law, the victim is a murderer, and you can’t say there was no intent. However, the victim was in a position to fight for their existence, so if you can’t trust the process, you have to put faith in people.
Another example is assisting suicide. Let’s say you’re a doctor, and you have a terminally ill patient, begging you for help. At first, you’ll tell them to seek help, but they aren’t crazy. They are in pain, can’t afford any effective treatments, or deserve that kind of suffering.
Most doctors will turn their heads, but some will help. Now, a person could jump from the bridge or choose any other type of violent death. But, their wish is to go in peace, and you feel as if you must help them. Yes, you will be charged for the murder. Yet, was it the same as Nick’s revenge on his ex? Or his reckless driving which killed an innocent older man?
We could argue that murder is a murder, but not every killer is a murderer. More often than not, people find themselves in life or death situations where they choose to save themselves or their loved ones. Perhaps they wanted to help another person.
Despite the law being black and white, there are mostly grey areas when one decides to commit such an act.
Second-degree murder explained
Homicide is merely killing one person by another, and it may or may not be illegal. Soldiers in battle commit this crime without breaking the law. Citizens kill intruders without perpetrating a crime. So, what separates a legal homicide from an illegal murder?
The second-degree murders are less dangerous, incredibly reckless, and lower on the moral culpability scale. Second-degree murders are not premeditated.
The intent occurs on the scene, like death, during an angry dispute. Premeditation does not exist. Usually, the difference between the degrees of murder tends to turn on acts that deserve harsher punishments.
Again, a crime of passion is often in this category, since most states don’t have third-degree murder charges. Our friend Nick’s killing of the older man could be classified as second-degree murder.
Getting convicted of second-degree murder implies that your punishment might go from a couple of years in jail with a tendency to be eligible for parole. The upper limit for second-degree is life in prison, but that’s rarely the case.
Since the vast majority of the States don’t have 3rd degree as an option for the killings, all that applies for the third degree goes for the second as well.
There’s a particularly intriguing part that isn’t among any of the degrees. That’s our next item while we’re trying to understand the law, ethics, and the anatomy of a murder. That’s felony murder doctrine.
Felony Murder Doctrine or something between the 1st and the 2nd degree
Two robbers go into a liquor store, the store worker pulls out a gun and kills one of the robbers. The surviving robber is charged with felony murder. Simply because his co-robber was killed during the time of a felony in which he participated.
It all comes down to this: if a person dies during a dangerous felony, such as a robbery, then malice aforethought has been met. The felon is guilty of murder, first or second degree, depending on the cruelty of the underlying offense.
That includes cases when a defendant has been convicted of felony murder for the death of his co-conspirator. Despite not being the actually pulling the trigger!
The rules differ per jurisdiction. However, a felon can be sentenced to a federal murder even if the death during the crime is accidental and unintended. And even carried out by someone other than the felon! If death occurs during the felon’s escape from crime, that death qualifies as first-degree murder under the felony murder rule.
The scary thing about felony murder is that it is punishable as if you were the actual murderer. In many states, the person charged with felony murder does not need to have any real knowledge that his co-conspirator was armed or planned to kill anyone else. Instead, the standard is whether it was foreseeable that someone might have been killed during the crime.
By now, you’re getting the picture of why the distinctions exist. The real issue is how the constant contrast between what the law says and what is morally acceptable. We’ll get to that after we dive into what makes first-degree murder so scary, and there’s a reason why it makes the best TV.
Though, all jokes aside, murder isn’t funny, in no way, shape, or form. But to understand it, we have to use all tools, so while not justifying the crime, we have to have conversations to know what’s going on.
First-degree murder or what makes a great TV
If you have the body, the murder weapon, and the intent, it’s pretty much inevitable that you have the first degree’s unlawful killing. First-degree murder punishes premeditated killings, the killing of especially vulnerable people (children, disabled), and unintended slaughter while intentionally committing another serious felony. This last kind of first-degree murder is called felony murder, and we talked about it just a paragraph above.
Now, let’s get back to Nick and his jealousy. Steve’s murder was planned and premeditated, and in several states, Nick would get a death penalty sentence. In real life, it means many years, even decades in prison, until he officially gets life in prison without parole conviction. The death penalty is not uncommon, but the actual execution is rare.
First degree murderers are also the ones who use explosives, or the ones who killed police officers or elected official, or judges.
Of course, as you must have guessed by now, even first-degree murders have their subcategories. To summarize: the first degree is the most brutal crime among a variety of murders, and it involves planning, as well as targets such as vulnerable children or government officials. The third category is the murders where the perpetrator caused the victim’s death during rape, robbery, or any other serious felony.
Now, the whole planning thing doesn’t have to last for months. It’s one of the trickiest pieces of the puzzle for both sides. Proving that it wasn’t a crime of passion, but a premeditated murder can mean the death penalty. That’s why most cases end up with the conviction of second degree – it’s less messy, and you have a killer behind bars. That is enough for any justice system.
Going after the first-degree conviction means going for the kill, sort of speak. The prosecutors have to have the strongest case. Otherwise, the killer might walk away on a technicality.
What you see in the courtroom is a small portion of what’s behind each trial. Though the rise of technology brought many killers to their knees, even the slightest mistake, one lost paper, or the tiniest contamination of evidence will destroy the case.
The law vs. ethics and everything in between
There are many classifications for the murders because the law protects the innocent and the guilty parties. Well, you know that everyone’s entitled to a fair trial. Innocent until proven guilty and all that.
The law enforces the behaviors we should follow. The ethics suggest what we should follow, and help us explore options to improve our decision-making. The ethics provide moral insight into a person’s mind, making murder trials so intriguing.
Additionally, it makes us understand someone’s urges and allows us to make a distinction between what Nick did to his mugger and what he did to that poor senior.
While the law and ethics seem as they are on the opposite sides, they coexist. Ethical rules can criticize the legal system and the government and, therefore, to legitimate protest, dissent, civil disobedience, and revolution. Ethics challenges the legal system for the sole purpose of its improvement.
If you feel like you’re in some pre-law class, you’re right. But, we’re not going to continue down this path. Our goal is to inform, not to make you a Harvard educated lawyer. Instead, let’s see where psychology fits in and which common professions can determine a killer’s destiny.
It’s confusing and tiresome to think about all the factors which may allow a cold-blooded killer to walk away. That’s why the law is imperfect, and ethics is a helping hand in most cases. However, it can do just the opposite and play for the murderer’s team.
As you probably know, catching a killer requires teamwork, lots of sleepless nights, but it doesn’t end there. Justice is rarely satisfied, but at least the involvement of various professions can give us closure. In most cases, not in all.
Forensic Psychologists are our heroes
Forensic psychology is one of the fascinating pieces of a murder trial. And according to every crime show, Lifetime movie, or a good thriller book, it’s the Forensic psychologists who catch the bad guy.
In reality, most of the time, these people work in their labs, trying to figure out human behavior patterns. But not all forensic psychologists will assist the law in a way we think.
The majority of people choose the path to advocate for under served populations. Some include African-Americans, Latina/Latinos, those from lower-economic areas, children, or those with mental illness.
It doesn’t sound as glamorous, but this kind of work helps us understand the world better. By working with people who weren’t as lucky as the rest, forensic psychologists are actively working on lowering crime rates. Therefore, murder rates as well.
Which raises the question: we’re all equal in front of the law. But is it the same to accidentally kill because you were trying to steal some food or rob a jewelry store, despite the simple fact that you wanted more?
You have to give answers to who, why, when, how. Then, give the jury and people an insight into the killer’s state of mind and emotional health.
As they often assist the judges, forensic psychologists have a difficult task. They’re explaining the underlying issues, despite knowing that murder is an unlawful killing.
Some work for the victims and their families, while others help the wrongfully convicted. Though forensic psychologists are rarely as cool as seen on TV, their jobs are quite complex. They are heroes, by standing between the morals and the law and their responsibility to represent science in a trial case.
Why do murder distinctions exist
By now, you probably understand that many unlawful killings are not material for a prime time Emmy award-winning show. People, like you and me, can commit the worst crimes if they have to protect their loved ones and themselves.
That’s what makes the investigation about variety in murders so much appreciated. And equally, that’s what makes living hell for the lawyers and judges all across the States. And other countries as well.
Again, putting on a trial someone who only wanted to help and someone who raped and dumped a person, it’s not the same. Yes, the law says it is, but common sense disagrees.
That’s why the law goes hand in hand with ethics, and we see an expansion of trial by media. It’s not ideal, but the more we understand other people’s urges, the better chances we have of saving lives and even preventing killings.
We should all be grateful that there’s a difference between the first and the second-degree murderers, and everything in between. No man should be on the chair for protecting his family.
Speaking of the chair, some people, and I use this term loosely, did more than enough to deserve to go down in history as monsters. Can we really put Ted Bundy with a robber who needed food for his baby in the same sentence?
Since the law’s imperfect, you have to consider every detail, from what the forensic team says to psychology, circumstances, history of the defendant, and so on.
Now, since the most notorious serial killers and their acts are beyond reason, you might find that the best way to inform yourself is to activate your coping mechanism. Let me show some real-life examples.
Inside the minds of the infamous murderers
While you’re trying to Netflix and chill, you’ll come across dozens of documentaries about the creepiest murderers and their infamous crimes.
The USA is a country with the highest number of serial killers, and it’s safe to say that each state has its prime candidate for the monster of the century.
Speaking of Netflix, Mindhunter gives a great insight into some of the most famous murderers. No, you won’t understand the killer’s mind, nor should you try. But you will see some well written and fact-based crimes and the chaos they left behind.
The most disgusting murders include torturing, raping children, or teens who had to run away from their homes. Most serial killers, over 90 percent, are white males who were either invisible or incredibly charming.
And two states make the best serial killers: Alaska and Washington. Not something to be proud of.
Some murderers are worse than anything you ever imagined, so might rinse your eyes with some slasher after watching particular episodes of Mindhunter or Making a Murderer. Perhaps Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer or Killer Inside will be more enjoyable.
Innocent kids and adults had to die because there’s still no proper way to understand how the human mind works. There’s no Loch Ness monster. The real monsters are among us, and not even the best teams of psychologists can fully understand their need for evil.
Famous murderers in modern history
One man inspired both Psycho, Silence of The Lambs, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Yup, the movies are fiction, but Ed Gain was very real.
A notorious murderer and grave robber didn’t just kill, but he kept pieces of his victims. As souvenirs. He tried to plead insanity, which worked at first, but let’s face it: if you are capable of keeping someone’s brain for fun, it’s more than insanity. It’s freaking hell!
He only has two confirmed murders, but nine corpses mutilated from dug up graves.
You know that many are afraid of clowns? Well, you will be too.
John Wayne Gacy was an American serial killer and sex offender known as the Killer Clown. He raped and murdered at least 33 young male victims.
His coverup was brilliant: he would dress up as a clown and sadly, kids and their parents did not see the monster behind the mask. He was executed.
Jeffrey Dahmer was the Milwaukee Cannibal or the Milwaukee Monster. Sex offender and a serial killer.
He was a cannibal, and the number of victims that we know of is 17. His targets were younger black males, whom he would offer money for sex.
You don’t want to know the details, but he was killed in jail, which is, face it, the only thing that makes sense about this case.
Lady Bluebeard or Belle Gunness or Black Widow killed between 14 and 33 people back in the late 1800s.
At least the motive was clear: insurance. She officially died in the fire, but many still believe that she faked it and lived a long and wealthy life, somewhere in sunny California.
She is America’s first female serial killer, and the method she devised to dispatch her victims inspired many novels, myths, movies.
Finally, there was Ted Bundy. Of course, you know the story, but what’s so fascinating was that his was the first televised murder trial.
He faced the death penalty, but not before giving interviews, and making himself immortal, similar to Charles Manson. Both men had tons of female admirers, and that makes their “legacy” even worse.
It’s unfair to know the names of the killers, but not the names of the victims. On the other hand, their families deserve peace. But you have to wonder: are we glorifying serial killers by trying to understand them?
We do need the separation between 1st and 2nd-degree murders
Being fascinated with murderers won’t likely make you become one. Additionally, it’s a way of coping with the unknown, and taking someone’s life is a mystery to the majority. Thankfully!
Since not all killers are the same, not all murders are the same, as well. They do share one thing: someone lost their life. Yet, we simply do need to have various categories simply because nothing is entirely black and white. Well, at least not in 99.9 percent.
But, if we can learn one thing while making sense of the differences between the 1st and the 2nd-degree murders, no man should be left to rob a store to survive.
And if you think “he would never do that because he’s so charming,” think again. Trust your gut, but try to remember that there’s a truly small amount of people born to kill.
The others were products of abuse. And those killers are still the most dangerous ones. And it’s our duty, as a society, to come up with ways to protect kids before they turn on us!