Pennsylvania was the first to categorize murder into differing degrees. While murder is always certainly a serious offense—being the killing of another human being with malice—some murder is more serious than others, and that’s reflected by the differing definitions and penalties Pennsylvania gives to first-, second-, and third-degree murder.

First-degree murder is the “intentional killing” of another by means of poison, lying in wait, or some other kind of “willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.” It is a crime that is punishable either by death or a mandatory term of life in prison.

Second-degree murder is the killing of another human being “in the perpetration of a felony.” Even if one lacks the “intent to kill,” they may be responsible for the death of another if that person died while the actor was engaged in a felony (personally or as an accomplice). In this regard, second-degree murder is often thought of as a harsh crime because one doesn’t need to have the intent to kill (like first-degree murder), still they’re subject to a mandatory term of life in prison if convicted.

Third-degree murder is “all other kinds of murder.” Defined as such, it generally involves the killing of another under circumstances that demonstrate extreme recklessness or a disregard for the risk of death. Because the intention to kill is absent, as is the engagement in the “perpetration of a felony,” the penalty for third-degree murder is a maximum possible sentence of 40 years in prison.

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