Difference Between First-Degree and Second-Degree Murders (With Table)

Murder is one of the most heinous crimes on the face of Earth. The legislatures and judiciary of various countries have brainstormed to formulate a legal framework that not only punishes the perpetrator of this brutal crime but also deters others from committing it. To analyze the nature of murder and punish the criminal befittingly, various degrees of murder have been expounded. First-degree and second-degree murders are two such degrees of murder. 

First-Degree Murder vs Second-Degree Murder

The difference between first-degree murder and second-degree murder is that while the former requires the accused to have the intent to commit the crime by putting a considerable amount of thought into it, the latter does not require the accused to put a considerable amount of thought and meditation into it before committing the murder.

First-degree murder is murder, the nature of which is considered to be grievous. This is because it requires some thought and planning on the part of the accused before committing the crime. As a result of this, the punishment that is awarded to the accused is also harsher. The quantum of the sentence can, however, be reduced if there are any “mitigating factors.”

Second-degree murder is the act of murdering without planning it in advance. The nature of the murder is still gruesome, but it is not pre-meditated. The accused commits the act in fits of anger or due to some external factor. The punishment is given based on the circumstances that led to the commission of the murder.

Comparison Table Between First-Degree and Second-Degree Murders

Parameters of ComparisonFirst-Degree MurderSecond-Degree Murder
NatureThis is considered to be the most heinous in nature as it requires planning on the part of the accused.This does not require planning on the part of the accused
Quantum of the PunishmentThe punishment awarded is either the death penalty or life imprisonmentThe punishment awarded is either life imprisonment or a minimum of ten years
Pre-meditationPre-meditation is the most important elementIt is not pre-meditated
Mens ReaThe element of men’s rea is evident as the accused plans the commission of the crime.The element of men’s rea is not very evident and has to be proven by taking other factors into consideration.
WilfulnessThe accused’s will to commit the murder is evidently demonstrated by his planning.The accused’s will to commit the murder might not be very evident, and the murder could be an instantaneous action.

What is First-Degree Murder?

First-degree murder is the most heinous type of murder. It involves careful planning on the part of the accused. This degree of murder is different from the other degrees of murder as this requires the accused to have planned the commission of the crime.

For instance, Jacob is jealous of Sean’s success and decides to put an end to his life. To further his intention, he purchases a bottle of rat poison and mixes it in Sean’s food. This emphatically shows that Jacob had put some considerable amount of thought into it before killing Sean. He, in fact, planned and purchased rat poison and then mixed it in Sean’s food to kill him. This qualifies as first-degree murder.

Given the gruesome nature of the murder, the accused is punished with either the death penalty or life imprisonment. All the circumstances that led to the murder are taken into consideration before the judge passes the judgment. In case there are any mitigating factors, the judge may not award capital punishment.

For instance, Solita was repeatedly raped by Jason, and one fine day she decides to murder him. She buys rat poison and mixes it in his food. This is a first-degree murder as there was careful planning on Solita’s end. However, the fact that she was repeatedly raped by Jason is a mitigating factor.

What is Second-Degree Murder?

Second-degree murder is different from the above-mentioned degree as it does not involve planning on the part of the accused. In this nature of murder, the crime is generally committed by the accused without putting much thought into it, as in, it is not a well thought or pre-planned crime.

For instance, Ronita is married to Alex. One fine day Alex returns home after work and finds Ronita having an extra-marital affair with another man. In a fit of rage, he punches the man so hard that he falls and hits his head on the bedpost. In the process, the man bleeds to death and dies instantaneously. Even though Alex has murdered the man, he has committed second-degree murder. This is because he did not plan to commit the murder but did it anyway in fits of rage.

The punishment of this degree of murder is a lifetime of imprisonment or a minimum of ten years of imprisonment. The punishment that is awarded by the judge is based on all the circumstances surrounding the murder. The judge takes into account both the factors that may play a role in lessening the punishment and the factors that play an aggravating role.

Main Differences Between First-Degree and Second-Degree Murders

  1. The accused has carefully planned the commission of the murder in case of first-degree murder. In contrast, second-degree murder is when the accused has not planned the murder but does it anyway due to certain external factors.
  2. While the convict can be awarded capital punishment for committing first-degree murder, the convict can be awarded a life imprisonment sentence at the most in case of second-degree murder. 
  3. The Court checks whether there was pre-meditation before committing the crime in case of first-degree murder. However, in the case of second-degree murder, there is no premeditation on the part of the convict.
  4. The element of men’s rea becomes exceedingly evident in first-degree murder. Whereas, in a second-degree murder, the element of men’s rea might not be as evident but has to be proven before the Court.
  5. Where the element of ‘will’ plays a crucial role in first-degree murder as that exhibits the accused’s intention to commit the murder, the element of ‘will’ might not be present in a second-degree murder.

Conclusion

Murder of any kind is a monstrous act and is condemned in every society. The main aim of the laws is to ensure that people who commit the heinous crime of murder are punished and also to ensure that it deters people in the future from committing it. It is due to this principle that the laws dealing with murder are stringent. First-degree and second-degree murders are two degrees of murder. They are differentiated based on the nature of the murder.

If the accused has planned the act of committing the murder and made arrangements to fulfill his plan, then it qualifies as a first-degree murder as the men’s intention to commit the crime becomes abundantly clear on the part of the accused. However, when it comes to second-degree murder, it does not require the accused to have pre-planned the murder. It only requires him to commit the heinous crime at the spur of the moment without deliberating over it.

References

  1. https://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/jclc40&div=92&id=&page=
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1174693/
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