Third Degree Murder: Definition & Law

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  • 0:02 Reason for Different Levels
  • 0:23 Other Degrees
  • 1:32 Third Degree Murder
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

How does third degree murder differ from murder in the first or second degree? What does it take for a person to be found guilty of third degree murder? Find out the ins and outs of this crime in this lesson.

Reason for Different Levels

It might not seem clear at first why there are so many categories of killing when you might have a very generalized idea in your mind about what murder is. The law makes distinctions among types of murders in order to determine just punishments; the distinctions made typically revolve around the killer's mental state leading up to the murder.

Other Degrees of Murder

Murder is the unlawful killing of another person with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is the required mental state for murder. Malice includes any mental state involving the intent to kill another person as well as willful disregard for the likelihood that one's actions may seriously injure or kill another person. To understand third degree murder, it's helpful to examine murder in the first and second degrees to see how each type differs.

First degree murder involves calculation. Someone who commits murder in the first degree premeditates (plans) and deliberates (considers options and makes a definitive choice to kill) before committing the actual murder.

Second degree murder doesn't involve that sort of calculation. A person who commits second degree murder does not premeditate or deliberate before committing the act of murder. Nonetheless, the person intends to kill the victim, intends to seriously injure the victim, or willfully disregards the likelihood that his or her actions might cause serious injury or death to the victim.

Third Degree Murder

So how does third degree murder fit in? It's important to note that third degree murder may not be a classification in all states, and the definition of third degree murder differs from state to state. Some states, for example, may define third degree murder generally as a murder that does not meet the requirements of first or second degree murder and that does not occur during the commission of some other felony. Additionally, third degree murder may be classified differently than the other degrees of murder in that malice is not the required mental state. It's important to consult the homicide statutes of a particular state in order to know the exact specifications for each degree of murder.

Third degree murder in some states is the same as voluntary manslaughter, which is generally defined in three ways. Voluntary manslaughter can occur when a person kills another person in a heat of passion following a provocation; when a person who is involved in a fight with another person kills that person without intending to do so; or when a person kills another person while believing that it's necessary to do so in self-defense, but when that belief was actually unreasonable.

Let's take a closer look at each of these variations of third degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter. Let's say that Bill is at a bar and gets into an argument with Ralph. Things become heated, and Ralph begins screaming at Bill. Ralph is yelling very offensive insults and taunts directed at Bill and his wife, and he's saying that he will horribly violate Bill and his wife. Ralph then lunges at Bill to attack him. Bill responds quickly by breaking Ralph's neck and killing him. It's possible that Bill might be convicted of voluntary manslaughter, or third degree murder, if a jury were to find that he had been sufficiently provoked by Ralph and driven into a heat of passion from which a reasonable person would not be expected to control him or herself to cool off immediately.

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