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What Is Third Degree Murder?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

What Is the Difference Between Second and Third Degree Murders?

The distance between second and third degree murder varies by state. In Florida, neither second nor third degree murder includes premeditation, but third degree murder is only committed during the execution of another nonviolent crime. In Minnesota, the perpetrator must have disregard for human life and a depraved mind while executing the eminently dangerous act that led to another's death.

The Definition of Second Degree Murder

The key difference between first and second degree murder is premeditation. When people commit first degree murder, they intend to kill their target and plan how to do so. Second degree murder may occur as a split-second decision where the perpetrator kills another without forethought. Second degree murder also applies to situations where perpetrators accidentally kill victims while acting in a way that shows extreme indifference for their victims' lives or while intentionally causing them serious bodily harm.

Sentencing for Second Degree Murder

Second degree murder sentences vary depending on the state. Judges also consider various factors of the case:

  • The nature of the crime
  • The location
  • The perpetrator having a troubled childhood
  • The presence of mental illness
  • Whether the perpetrator has previous convictions and what they are
  • Whether cruel or brutal acts took place during the crime
  • Whether the victim was especially vulnerable, i.e., was a child, was elderly or had developmental disabilities

Judges typically have a lot of leeway when it comes to sentencing. For second-degree murder, sentencing ranges from 15 years to life in prison. How long defendants serve depends on how dangerous the judge deems them to be and how likely they are to commit another violent act.

Sentencing for Third Degree Murder

Among the three states that have third degree murder on the books, the sentencing varies widely. In Pennsylvania, the maximum sentence is 40 years in prison, while in Florida, the maximum sentence is 15 years. Minnesota splits the difference with 25 years in prison as the maximum penalty. While Pennsylvania doesn't have a minimum sentence, Florida requires at least 10 and one-third years for a third degree murder conviction, and 12 and one-half years are recommended by Minnesota's sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders. In Minnesota and Florida, defendants may also be subjected to a fine of up to $40,000 and $10,000, respectively.

Third Degree Murders vs Manslaughter

In Florida and Minnesota, third degree murder and manslaughter are incredibly similar. However, Florida and Minnesota have statutes that specify instances where a crime considered manslaughter in other states is upgraded to third degree murder in these jurisdictions.

As far as manslaughter goes, there are two different types: voluntary and involuntary. Which the state presses depends on whether or not the defendant intentionally killed the victim.

Voluntary Manslaughter

On the surface, voluntary manslaughter sounds a lot like second-degree murder. Perpetrators who commit voluntary manslaughter intentionally kill their victims without premeditation. What makes an act of killing manslaughter and not second-degree murder is the circumstances.

Voluntary manslaughter is often called a "crime of passion." Perpetrators may be highly emotional when committing their crimes, such as in the moments after catching a partner cheating. A charge of voluntary manslaughter acknowledges the seriousness of the crime while also giving weight to human weakness.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Defendants charged with involuntary manslaughter didn't intend to kill their victims, but their reckless actions directly led to the victims' deaths. For example, drunk drivers who strike and kill pedestrians with their cars may be charged with involuntary manslaughter because even though they didn't intend to kill or even hit the pedestrians, their reckless decision to get behind the wheel while intoxicated caused their victims' death.

Sentencing for Manslaughter

Manslaughter sentences tend to be shorter than murder because this charge is considered less morally reprehensible. Penalties vary by state, and the federal court system has its own rules. A manslaughter sentence can last as little as 10 months or as long as life in prison.

Why Are Charges Sometimes Reduced?

At times, a district attorney may reduce charges to a lower-degree murder or even manslaughter. Sometimes, this happens even when the case seems clear-cut to the public. However, reducing charges may be in the best interest of justice and the public if there are mitigating circumstances or the defendant is willing to take a plea bargain.

Mitigating Circumstances

Minors may get a lesser charge if the DA feels their inexperience, neurological development or childhood has impacted their ability to make sound judgments. Mental illness is also considered a mitigating circumstance.

Plea Bargains

In some cases, the DA may offer a plea bargain of a lesser charge as an alternative to a trial. This scenario is often a win-win for the public and the defendant, as the defendant gets a reduced sentence, and the state doesn't have to pay for a trial.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for MyLawQuestions. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon296561 — On Oct 11, 2012

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

By anon122135 — On Oct 26, 2010

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.

By oasis11 — On Aug 25, 2010

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.

By sneakers41 — On Aug 25, 2010

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.

By icecream17 — On Aug 25, 2010

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.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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