Third degree murder is a legal concept that helps distinguish crimes involving the death of a victim by the intent or circumstances of the suspect. Depending on the court, this charge may be synonymous with second degree murder or with the charge of manslaughter. In regions that have third degree laws, the definition typically includes murder that occurred while the perpetrator had the intention of harming, though not killing, the victim, or when the perpetrator was intentionally acting with willful disregard for the victim's life.
Many courts determine sentencing guidelines for crimes based on the severity of the damage caused and the intent of the perpetrator. By dividing a crime by degrees of severity, a court can narrow sentencing guidelines for judges and juries. First degree crimes are typically those that result in the stiffest punishments if proved; in some countries with the death penalty, first degree murder can result in execution.
First degree murder usually constitutes a premeditated murder, or one that involved particular brutality. Other degrees of murder as well as manslaughter cover gray areas of intent and action, leading to considerable confusion over definition. Many courts do not feature a third degree murder statute, preferring to divide homicidal crimes between second degree actions and manslaughter. The United States is one of the few countries that has a third degree murder statute, and even then only in a few states such as Pennsylvania and California.
In Pennsylvania, third degree murder is defined as any murder not covered by the limits of first and second degree crimes. This category often serves as a catch-all for murder crimes that do not adhere specifically to the guidelines for higher crimes, but do contain elements of malice or recklessness. In most regions that feature third degree laws, the definition includes either crimes that were intended to cause harm but not death, or crimes where willful recklessness resulted in death.
California's laws typically use third degree murder to distinguish a crime from manslaughter. Whereas manslaughter perpetrators brought about a death through recklessness but did not intend to harm or kill the victim, third degree suspects are charged with killing someone when their intent was to harm the victim. In many other courts, this type of murder is considered second degree, rather than third.