Difference Between First and Second Degree Murders

Difference Between First and Second Degree Murders Featured Image

Do you know that there are different degrees of murder cases and charges in Canada? 

Curious about what sets them apart?

Hold your thoughts, because the following discussion will clear up your queries soon. 

In Canadian law, murder is one of the most severe crimes, and it is divided into two categories – first-degree murder and second-degree murder. Both offenses carry mandatory life sentences, yet they are different in terms of the level of intent and the severity..

Wondering what are even the differences between the punishments as well? 

This article will explain the differences between first and second-degree murder charges in Canada to enlighten you with the necessary information to keep you safe from these charges. .

What is First Degree Murder?

Let’s learn about first degree murders and legal details about it. 

Definition and Legal Criteria

In Canada, the first degree number is considered the most heinous criminal offense. It refers to the deliberate and planned murder of someone with premeditation and bad intention. The Criminal Code of Canada creates the legal criteria for first degree murder, which entails either deliberate murder, or murder that takes place while committing certain crimes such as kidnapping, sexual assault, or kidnapping.

However, any type of murder will not be instantly considered a first degree murder. It will need to meet two criterias for that.

1st, the killer needs to have a clear plan and intention for the murder. Also, the murder has been planning the murder for a long time. Buying a weapon or following the victim, and carrying out the killing with intention – these are some actions that are related to committing murder with intention.

2nd, commiting any specific offense that includes murder while the offender commits another serious crime, like a sexual assault or kidnapping. In such situations, the intention to carry out the mentioned crime is deemed enough to prove the intent to cause someone’s death.

Types of Situations that can Result in First Degree Murder Charges

Canada has various situation that can accuse you of first-degree murder charges, which includes:

  • Intentional and pre-planned murder with previous planning 
  • Murder during or attempted a severe offense, such as sexual assault or abduction.
  • Murder of a law enforcement or any other person who is employed to maintain the law, while on duty.
  • Murder for a criminal group or gang’s benefit
  • Killing in the course of a terrorist activity.
  • Murder while trying to flee from legal custody or confinement.
  • Killing a person under 18 years of age, when the accused was in authority or a trusted person.

Punishments and Sentences for First Degree Murder

If you are a first-degree murder accused in Canada, you will be punished with life imprisonment, with a minimum of 25 years before the offender can be eligible for parole. However, if it is necessary, the judge can impose a longer time of sentence, including life imprisonment without the possibility of any apology. . 

Along with imprisonment, an offender convicted of first degree murder can also face fines, forfeiture of assets, and other punishments. The judge considers the severity of the crime, the offender’s criminal record, and other considerations and uses them to determine the punishment and sentence.

What is 2nd Degree Murder?

Let’s learn about second degree murders and legal details about it. 

Definition and Legal Criteria

Second-degree murder is a grave criminal act which involves causing the death of someone intentionally. But in this case, there is no previous planning or premeditation, unlike first-degree murder. 

The definition of second-degree murder in Canada also contains some Criminal Code. According to section 231 of the Code, if you intentionally cause the death of a person or engage in actions that can cause death, without any legal justification or excuse, you will be accused of second-degree murder. 

Types of Situations That Can Result in 2nd Degree Murder Charges

There are several situations that can result in a charge of second-degree murder. These include

  • Intentionally killing someone without previous planning or premeditation
  • Actions leading to death without any legal justification or excuse
  • Killing someone while committing certain offenses
  • Intentionally killing a police officer or prison guard while on duty
  • Administering drugs or poison with the intention to murder, even if death is not immediate
  • Killing an unborn child while committing a criminal offense against the mother.

Punishments and Sentences for 2nd Degree Murder

The minimum punishment for 2nd degree murder is imprisonment for life, without the possibility of parole for 10 years. The maximum punishment is life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole for 25 years. The judge can decide to impose a sentence that is more severe than the minimum, considering the crime and any relevant mitigating or aggravating factors.

In addition to imprisonment, you may also face other penalties such as a ban on firearm possession or driving, and may be required to provide a DNA sample to the national DNA databank. You may also need to compensate the victim’s family or perform community service as part of your sentence.

What is the Difference Between First and Second Degree Murders?

From the previous discussion, you have learnt about legal descriptions of first and second degree murders. Yet you may find it tough to differentiate between these two. 

No worries, here are the shortlisted differences between these two offenses for your better understanding. 

First-Degree Murder

  • Requires a high level of premeditation and planning.
  • Involves intentional murder with a clear and deliberate intention.
  • Examples – carefully planning a murder in advance or hiring someone to kill another person.
  • Punished with a mandatory life sentence without any chance of parole for at least 25 years.
  • Considered the more severe type of murder in Canada.

Second-Degree Murder

  • Does Not require the same level of premeditation or planning as first-degree murder.
  • Refers to intentional killing of someone without previous planning or intention or through actions that could result in death.
  • May also happen when someone kills while committing another serious criminal offense, like kidnapping or sexual assault.
  • Punished with a mandatory life sentence without any chance of parole for at least 10 years.
  • Usually carries a less severe penalty than first-degree murder.

What are the Defenses Against 1st and 2nd Degree Murder Charges in Canada?

In Canada, facing charges of first or second-degree murder can lead to significant penalties that you would never want to face in your life. However, you can use some defenses if you are charged with these offenses. 

Here are some common defenses against first and second-degree murder charges in Canada:


One common defense against a murder charge is self-defense. If your lawyer can prove that you acted in self-defense, you will be able to argue that your actions were necessary to defend yourself from the instant danger. However, using force must be reasonable and proportional to the level of threat encountered.


In case you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol during the offense, you can argue that you lacked the mental capacity to form the intention of killing. But, this defense is usually effective only if you did not voluntarily consume the intoxicating substance.

Mental Disorder

If you can prove that you were experiencing a mental disorder during the offense, you can be able to argue that you did not possess the mental capacity required to have the intention of committing murder. It is commonly referred to as “not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder” or NCRMD.


When you can prove that you were forced to commit the offense or acted under the threat of harm, you will be able to use the defense of duress or coercion to argue that your actions were not voluntary.

To Conclude

Having a clear understanding of the distinctions between first-degree murder and second-degree murder is important for anyone involved in the Canadian criminal justice system. Although both charges come with mandatory life sentences, there are differences in terms of the level of intent needed and the punishment severity. 

In such a case, you must seek legal advice from a skilled criminal defense lawyer who can guide one through the legal process, create a strong defense, and potentially negotiate a request bargain to reduce the severity of the penalties. If you get an experienced lawyer, you will improve their chances of achieving a good outcome in your case.

© 2022 Merv Nidesh, KC & Linh Pham.