What is Third Degree Murder?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 February 2020
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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.


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Post 5

So, what is the usual punishment for third degree murder?

Post 4

Unfortunately, I learned in the courtroom the simplest answer to distinguish the three degrees of murder as a widow of a murder victim.

First degree means the person had intent on murdering someone.

Second degree means the person committed a murder while committing a felony, i.e. rape or robbery.

Third degree means the person definitely meant to harm the person but may not intended to kill the person.

My husband was murdered by a complete stranger. The murderer got third degree murder because it was his intention to shoot my husband or anyone else who was in the way but it couldn't be proved he intended to kill him.

Post 3

Sneakers41-That is true, but if the drunk driver had multiple DUI’s and kills someone, the drunk driver is charged with felony manslaughter.

Three convictions within a ten year period can get a person five years in jail in Florida. For DUI manslaughter, the jail term could be from four years to fourteen years in prison.

For vehicular homicide is up to thirty years in prison because not only was the driver intoxicated, but they were driving recklessly on purpose and this action caused someone’s death.

Post 2

Icecream17- I wanted to add that second degree murder results when the intention to harm is there, but not the intention to murder.

For example, if a person goes to someone’s house with the intention of having a physical altercation with them and the person slips and hits their head and dies, or the person dies as a result of the physical injuries, then the crime is considered second degree murder.

The term third degree murder is not used often. Usually the term manslaughter is widely used instead.

Manslaughter indicates that the person was somehow involved with the murder but it was in an indirect way.

For example, drunken drives that receive a felony DUI fall into this category. If a person drives drunk and kills someone as a result of their reckless and negligent behavior they would be charged with involuntary manslaughter or vehicular homicide.

Post 1

The difference between first,second and third degree murder are quite different.First degree murder is the most serious and is considered a premeditated crime in which the perpetrator planned the murder.

A famous first degree murder case was the Scott Peterson case, in which the jury convicted him of first degree murder of his wife Lacy.

First degree murder cases are often called capital murder and usually result in life in prison or the death penalty if convicted.

However, in some states if crimes like robbery, rape, arson or kidnapping results in murder then the charges are automatically considered first degree murder even if the murder was not preplanned.

Killing a police officer also falls into this category. This is also considered felony murder.

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