In New York, the crime of murder is the most serious sub-crime of homicide. All murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murders. Furthermore, murders are generally charged as either first or second-degree murders – the difference between the two depends on the circumstances of the murder.
Murder in the second degree
Every murder requires the unlawful killing of another person. This is the foundation for homicide. What often changes the killing from homicide to murder is the intent of the person. A person who kills another, and intended to kill them, may be charged with second-degree murder. A homicide, by contrast, can occur when someone kills another person but never meant to. They may commit an act which is negligent and results in another person’s death.
Specific intent is not always required to warrant a charge of second-degree murder, however. It can also arise if the homicide occurs during the commission of certain felonies, even if there was no intent that someone die in the process.
Furthermore, second-degree murder can be charged when someone causes the death of another with ‘depraved indifference to human life’. This is something less than the intent that a person be killed and more like an extreme form of recklessness resulting in death.
Murder in the first degree
Like second-degree murder, first-degree murder generally requires an intent to kill not present in lesser homicides. It can also be charged without the intent but when the killing occurs during the commission of certain felonies. Unlike second-degree murder, however, first-degree murder does not include the possibility of death resulting from extreme recklessness. That is limited to murder in the second degree.
What usually separates first and second-degree murder is the existence of special circumstances relating to the identity of the deceased. When the person killed is a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical responder, and they are engaged in the performance of their duties, first-degree murder can be charged.
Other circumstances leading to a first-degree murder charge include contract killings and the killing of a witness to prevent their testimony.