In common law jurisdictions murder is considered an act that is malum in se, which is Latin for “evil in itself.” Murders are considered malum in se because unlike other laws, such as drunk driving laws, murder is a violation of moral norms, not a violation of a particular law.
Murders are criminal because they violate basic human understandings of acceptable behavior. Just because murder is malum in se, however, does not mean there are no murder laws.
Murder is used as a synonym for homicide. The two are not inclusive terms. All murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murders. The only difference is which word the specific criminal law selects.
In the United States, murders can fall under both Federal and State jurisdictions. States have jurisdiction if the murder happens within its borders and the Federal Government has jurisdiction if the victim is a Federal official, a person under the protection of the Federal Government, took place on Federal property, had a serious impact on interstate commerce, or crossed State lines. The Federal Government often becomes involved when there is a serial killing or if the murder happens during a crime of terrorism or kidnapping.
Before 1972, there were generally only two sentences for murder. Any murder which contained a premeditated element or happened while committing another crime was considered first degree murder and subject to the death penalty. Second degree murder was any other kind of murder. Furman v. Georgia was the Supreme Court case which tightened the restrictions under which the death penalty could be applied. As a result, states had to redefine their penal codes. There are now two different systems for recognizing degrees of murder.
Pennsylvania came up with the first response to the changes required by Furman v. Georgia. First degree murder is is the intentional, premeditated killing of another individual. Second degree murder is a case not as severe as a first degree charge, but not as light a charge as third degree murder.
Second degree murder lacks the premeditation needed in a first degree murder charge and also covers murders not considered a crime of passion. Second degree murders include murders occurring during the commission of another crime.
Third degree murder covers any murder when the perpetrator did not mean to kill the victim, only to cause harm. The Pennsylvania rubric for establishing criminality of homicide is the most prevalent.
The second classification of crime was developed in New York. New York’s classification only recognizes two different types of murder. First degree murder is a murder which happens under special circumstances, such as the murder of a police officer, firefighter, judge, witness, serial or spree killings, deaths resulting from torture, or crimes that are considered especially heinous. A premeditated murder that does not meet these circumstances is not considered first degree murder.
Second degree murder in states following New York’s lead is any murder which has an element of premeditation, but lacks one of the special circumstances present in first degree murder.
Both rubrics for charging murders also distinguish a lesser charge of manslaughter.