What is the Difference Between First and Second-Degree Murder?

You may be under the impression that all murder is equal and the person who committed the act should face equally harsh penalties. However, according to law, different types of murder have different levels of penalties depending on the facts of the case. The severity of the crime is determined by “degrees.” A murder charge may fall under the first, second, or even sometimes third degree depending on the circumstances surrounding the case. So, what is the difference between first and second-degree murder?

Aside from the sole circumstances of the case, there is a lot that separates first and second-degree murder charges, including the penalties for each. In this post, criminal defense attorney Jeff Weeden will answer your questions like “What is the difference between first and second-degree murder?” and more. If you still have questions after reading this blog, feel free to reach out to us directly by calling us at 720-307-4330. Through a free consultation, we can help you better understand your situation by assessing your individual case. 

What is First Degree Murder?

In the state of Colorado, first-degree murder refers to the act of deliberately killing another person with premeditation and malice aforethought. Premeditation, of course, means that the act was thought of or planned beforehand. Malice aforethought is essentially the same thing, meaning the person knowingly and willfully intended to carry out the murder.

According to the Colorado Revised Statutes (§ 18-3-102), murder in the first degree also occurs if:

  • An individual other than a co-conspirator dies during the criminal execution of arson, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, or sexual assault. 
  • An innocent person is convicted and executed as a result of your perjury or subornation of perjury in court. 
  • The unlawful distribution or selling of a controlled substance to a child under the age of 18 on school grounds wherein the child dies from use of the substance.
  • Knowingly causing the death of a child under the age of 12 while occupying a position of trust or authority.
  • Causing the death of another by knowingly engaging in conduct that shows indifference toward the value of human life and creates a grave risk of danger.

What is Second Degree Murder?

In Colorado, second-degree murder refers the act of knowingly causing the death of another person. A person may act knowingly when they are aware that the nature of their conduct could bring about such circumstances. It may also be when an individual is aware that their conduct is nearly certain to cause death. Second-degree murder is a “general intent” crime, meaning a jury may find you guilty even if you didn’t have the specific intent to cause murder. As long as you knew that your actions were practically certain to cause death, you may receive second-degree murder charges. 

Second-degree murder does sound pretty similar to first-degree murder. So what is the difference between first and second-degree murder then? The difference lies in the aforethought. While both first and second-degree murder require intent and indifference to human life, first-degree murder also requires there to be premeditation and deliberation.

What is Third Degree Murder?

Third-degree murder is only legally defined in three states in the U.S. These are Florida, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Thus, the state of Colorado does not impose third-degree murder charges in court.

Essentially, third-degree murder is when someone unintentionally causes another individual’s death while committing a dangerous act. It is similar to the charge of manslaughter in that it was unintentional, yet they are not one in the same. Involuntary manslaughter charges are generally less harsh than third-degree murder charges. 

What’s the Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter?

Oftentimes, the line between murder and manslaughter is very thin and the distinction is not always clear. This is especially so if you’re comparing charges of third-degree murder to manslaughter. The main difference between the two often depends on the offender’s state of mind at the time of the killing. 

Manslaughter is a crime that can be applied to cases in which there was no intent for the victim or act of killing them. It is less morally wrong than first degree or second degree murder because it does not have malice aforethought, which means that the killer did not intend to harm or kill the victim. A manslaughter charge is, in fact, a serious crime, but it is not as severe as that of murder. 

Much like murder can be divided into degrees, manslaughter breaks down into two categories: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is often referred to as a “heat of passion” crime. It occurs when some is strongly and understandably provoked and kills in the heat of the passion aroused by that provocation. 

Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, refers to unintentional, accidental homicide. It is when a person acts in a criminally negligent or reckless manner and ends up killing another individual. This can often be confusing because an accidental killing through extreme recklessness can indeed be second degree murder, as is the case when someone kills another person while showing extremely poor judgment. The distinction between an accident and reckless behavior has always been difficult to draw, but legal definitions help clarify the issue for both the courts and the public.

How Many Years Do You Get for First Degree Murder?

First-degree murder is the most serious crime an individual may receive charges for in the state of Colorado. It is a Class 1 felony, which can bring about a minimum penalty of life in prison and a maximum penalty of the death sentence. If the victim was a police officer, firefighter, or EMT, the offender may receive a punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. 

Within a capital murder case, the trial will separate into two parts. The first part will be to determine innocence or guilt. The second part will be a sentencing hearing to determine whether a death sentence or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is more appropriate for the specific case. During this sentencing hearing, the prosecutor will provide evidence surrounding the circumstances of the case to the court. The defendant’s background will also likely be a strong focus, as the prosecutor will attempt to paint them in the worst possible light. 

The prosecutor will also present any potential aggravating factors to the judge and jury. This refers to factors about the case that show maliciousness and/or a lack of remorse. Meanwhile, the defendant’s attorney will work to prove mitigating factors that aim to lessen the severity of the sentence. 

What’s the Sentence for 2nd Degree Murder?

Second-degree murder is still an extremely serious violent crime in Colorado, but less so than that of first-degree murder. This charge is generally a Class 2 felony. In Colorado, the sentence for a Class 2 felony is anywhere from 4 to 48 years imprisonment with at least 5 years parole. In addition, the defendant may need to pay between $3,000 to $1,000,000 in fines. 

There is a possibility that the charge can reduce to a Class 3 felony and carry a lesser sentence. This typically occurs when the defendant can prove that the act occurred in the heat of passion. For example, say the defendant killed a man in a fit of rage because he had just found his wife cheating on him with this man. A court might consider this to be a heat of passion crime and reduce the sentence to 4-16 years in prison with 5 years parole. For a Class 3 felony, the maximum penalty in fines would also decrease to between $3,000 and $75,000. 

Contact our Denver, CO Criminal Defense Attorneys at WeedenLaw

We cannot understate the severity of a charge like first or second-degree murder. These convictions can and likely will affect the rest of your life dramatically. If you’re facing these charges and don’t know where to turn to next, you may want to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Jeff Weeden has the experience you need to fight against Colorado violent crime charges. At WeedenLaw, we offer the best possible defense and representation to help you to move forward with your life. You owe it to yourself and your family to fight for your future. Contact a Denver homicide lawyer at WeedenLaw today for a free case review by calling 720-893-3831 or reaching out to us online at weedenlaw.com.

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