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The Difference Between First Degree Murder and Second Degree Murder

Photo: LawThe distinction between different degrees of murder is one that exists in many systems of law throughout the world as a way to distinguish between particularly heinous forms of murder and more typical cases.

In the United States, the first attempt at making such a distinction was passed in the state of Pennsylvania in 1794, and most states have subsequently followed in the same footsteps.

The Pennsylvania law states that any murder perpetrated by means of poison, lying in wait, or any other kind of deliberate, premeditated killing, or any murder committed in the course of the commission of a felony such as arson, rape, robbery or burglary, is to be considered first degree murder, while all others are to be considered second degree murder.

The key factors which separate first-degree murder from all others are premeditation, and commission of murder in the course of committing a violent felony. The examples mentioned in the original Pennsylvania law – use of poison and lying in wait – clearly require premeditation, because one cannot intentionally poison someone without having put thought and planning into it beforehand.  Lying in wait, or hiding in a secluded place in order to take a victim by surprise, similarly also indicates forethought and intentionality.

In some jurisdictions, such as the state of New York, first-degree murder involves special circumstances, such as the murder of a government official or witness, multiple murders, torture, or excessive brutality.   Mere premeditation is not enough to classify a murder as first-degree, or “murder one,” as it is commonly called in courtroom dramas.

Murder Under California Law

In the state of California, for a murder to be considered a first-degree murder, the case must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Use of a destructive device, explosive, armor piercing ammunition, or poison
  • Lying in wait or inflicting torture
  • Killing in a way that is deliberate and premeditated
  • Committing a murder while simultaneously carrying out a violent felony like arson, robbery, burglary, carjacking, kidnapping, mayhem and/or rape 

Punishments for First Degree and Second Degree Murder

In California, the punishment for murder in the first degree is 25 years to life in prison. If such a murder was based on a hate crime, however, the punishment is an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole.

The punishment for second-degree murder in California is 15 years to life in prison.  Certain circumstances may increase the sentence, including:

  • Having a previous murder conviction
  • A drive-by shooting
  • Murder of a police officer

While the distinction between first and second-degree murder is fairly well delineated in the law books, there are many factors that blur the lines when it comes to defending an actual case of murder.

If you have been charged with a serious crime, please do not hesitate to contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.  At Premier Federal Criminal Defenders, we have the experience and resources necessary to give you the best possible defense.

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