Criminal Law – Degrees of Murder
Chances are, if someone is suspected of killing someone else and there is enough evidence, that person is going to be charged with murder. But what exactly does that mean?
At common law, murder was defined as the unlawful killing of another human being with intent or malice aforethought. Malice aforethought can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, but generally falls within one of several categories (i.e. intent to kill, intent to inflict grievous bodily harm, reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high risk to human life or “abandoned and malignant heart,” or intent to commit a dangerous felony or “felony murder”).
But it is important to note that modern law defines murder in several different forms, or degrees. Additionally, different states define these degrees in different ways.
First degree murder is most akin to common law murder. Generally, it is also the most serious degree of murder. Usually, first degree murder is defined as the deliberate and premeditated killing of another human being with malice. Deliberate essentially means that the murderer deliberately intended to kill the other person. Premeditated refers to the murderer actually thinking about the killing prior to its occurrence. Malice is to commit the act without just cause or legal excuse. Acting in self defense, or in defense of another person, is an example of just cause or legal excuse. For example, two friends are playing basketball and one friend dunks on the other. After the game, the “dunkee” goes home, grabs his gun, and leaves his home searching for the “dunker.” Eventually, the “dunkee” finds the “dunker” and shoots him. This will most likely be considered first degree murder.
Second-degree murder is killing another with malice. Therefore, second degree murder usually refers to committing the act without just cause or legal excuse. It does not require deliberation or premeditation. That is to say this means intentionally killing someone without planning in advance. Continuing the example above, if the “dunkee” in a fit of rage immediately after being dunked on, pulls a gun from his shorts and shoots the “dunker,” this may be considered second degree murder.
Felony murder, while mentioned above, adds a whole new twist. Felony murder, as the name implies, occurs during the course of the commission of a felony. Often times, even a death that is an accident, will be considered felony murder if it happens while a felony is being committed. For example, if someone is robbing a bank and a customer of the bank has a heart attack and dies, that will usually be considered felony murder. Felony murder usually carries an enhanced sentence.
Manslaughter, while often mistaken as a form of murder, is a killing that carries a lesser degree of culpability than murder.
So there you have it – degrees of murder in a nutshell.