I often read the terms "first degree murder", "second degree murder" and "third degree murder" in US newspapers. I'm not from the USA, and these terms are quite confusing to me. I've tried reading the Wikipedia article on it, and while it does give a small amount of explanation, it essentially is 2 double-stub length paragraphs based around various jurisdictions, with a bunch of links to specific types of murder and methods of murder.

What's the difference between first degree, second degree and third degree murder?

  • This Wikipedia article explains it better.
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 14:04
  • 1
    Also remember that homicide is primarily a state-level crime do there are 50+ versions. Washing has murder vs. homicide and both have two degrees, plus a non-degree version homicide by abuse. Ohio uses adjectives rather than degrees and has 7 distinctions.
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 14:25
  • Depending on the state, there can also be other forms of homicide, such as manslaughter. And to make things more confusing, the same crime could be called manslaughter in one state and murder (of whatever degree) in another. Commented Aug 20, 2021 at 3:50

1 Answer 1


The definition of different degrees of murder and how severely they are punished varies from state to state, so an exact answer would require to list the definitions of all 50 states. So this answer is just a generalization.

The main difference between first degree and second degree murder is typically that first degree murder requires that the perpetrator planned the murder in advance while a second degree murder was committed spontaneously. But the exact definition varies from state to state. In some states, certain ways of killing people are always first degree murder, no matter if they were planned or not. Some states do not even have different "degrees" of murder but use other classifications for different kinds of homicide.

Third degree murder only exists in 3 states (Florida, Minesota and Pensylvania) and means something very different in each of them.

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