Murder is one of several crimes which is prosecuted with respect to degrees of severity. There are two general schemes which are used to determine which of several degrees of murder for which a defendant will be charged. The first and most popular sentencing scheme was developed in Pennsylvania.
The second scheme was designed in New York. Both systems were developed in response to the 1972 Supreme Court case of Furman v. Georgia which sought to reduce the frequency with which the death penalty was applied.
Pennsylvania recognizes three degrees of criminal murder. Under the Pennsylvania definition of murders, first degree murder is an intentional killing where the killer either poisons the victim or waits to attack the victim. First degree murder under this sentencing scheme also includes murder that happens as the result of any other action which is willful, deliberate, and has an element of premeditation.
Second degree murder is considered to be the killing of one person by another person while the killer was either actively committing a crime or was an accomplice to a crime. This is also referred to as felony murder. Second degree murder in this case covers instances when a person is killed while the killer is committing another crime. Second degree murder in this classification can be charged whether the killer intended to cause the death or not.
The premeditated nature of the overarching crime leads the law to consider any homicide committed during the overarching crime as premeditated as well. A death from a fatal heart attack during a bank robbery may allow the prosecution to charge the bank robbers with second degree murder.
States adopting Pennsylvanian sentencing structure also recognize third degree murder. Third degree murder covers any situation when the killer did not intend to kill his or her victim, and instead only meant to cause him or her harm.
New York has a different method of scheduling its murder charges. New York defines first degree murder as the murder of a police officer, a judge, fireman, or a witness to a crime. First degree murder also includes cases when murderers have committed multiple murders, torture, or murders that are considered especially heinous.
First degree murder cases in a State employing a sentencing structure based on the one employed in New York would not cover premeditated murders that did not victimize one of the above types of people.
New York sentencing structure considers second degree murder to be any premeditated murder or felony murder that does not include one of the special circumstances listed under first degree murder.
The death penalty is also permitted under different circumstances depending on which sentencing rubric is employed in the State. Execution of a person convicted of second degree murder is never allowed under the death penalty. In New York-based systems, first degree murder is always subject to the death penalty.
In states which follow a Pennsylvanian sentencing structure and allow the death penalty to be implemented, first degree murder must involve an additional aggravating factor to be eligible for the death penalty.Each State uses these definitions of what constitutes first degree murder as opposed to second degree murder to determine how long an individual must spend in jail.