What Is the Difference Between First and Second Degree Murder?

 Posted on February 08, 2014 in Criminal Defense

You’re sitting at home watching the news, and you see a story covering an individual who has been convicted of first degree murder. Later, while watching Law & Order, you see another individual charged with second degree murder. What’s the difference? Although the two legal terms seem remarkably similar, the differences between first and second degree murder are critical in the legal world.

Let’s start with the more serious of the two offenses: first degree murder. Typically, first degree murders are planned and committed in a cruel way against one or more persons, under special circumstances. These circumstances may be accompanied by other offenses, such as kidnapping, hijacking, robbery, assault, or torture. If these types of crimes have been committed before, the charge will be much more serious.

To prove that a defendant committed first-degree murder, the prosecutor must show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the individual killed another person without lawful justification, and either:

  • Intended to do kill or do great bodily harm to that individual;
  • Knows the acts have a high probability of causing death or great bodily harm; or
  • Was attempting or committed a forcible felony other than second-degree murder (i.e. rape).

Second-degree murder, on the other hand, is typically considered a premeditated murder against spouse or relatives, or due to personal gain and interest, without the presence of special circumstances. This crime is considered less serious than first-degree murder, but only slightly. To prove second degree murder, the prosecutor must prove the same elements as first-degree. However, some mitigating circumstances may be brought up that differentiate first from second degree murder. These circumstances may include:

  • At the time of the killing, the defendant was acting under the “heat of passion” and did not have the premeditation to commit the murder;
  • At the time of the killing, the defendant believed it would have been lawfully justified, but the belief was unreasonable.

If you or somebody you know has any question about the differences between first and second degree murder, or their consequences, feel free to contact an Illinois criminal attorney to assist you.

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