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When Is A Murder Charge First-Degree or Second-Degree?


As one of the most serious crimes in Canada’s Criminal Code, murder is an offence with far-reaching consequences for the accused. Yet a murder charge can be more complicated than it appears, particularly regarding the circumstances and intention behind the murder. In this article, What The Law provides an overview of murder offences, highlighting the differences between a first-degree or second-degree murder.

Is it Murder or Manslaughter?

A significant part of any murder trial is deciding whether the accused has committed a murder or a manslaughter offence.

Defining whether the accused carried out an act of manslaughter or murder can be a difficult decision given the absence of the victim to testify. Witnesses, physical evidence, and post-mortem examinations all contribute in trying to decide the intent of the accused. Scenarios that might be deemed as acts of manslaughter may include:

  • Accidentally hitting someone while driving irresponsibly 
  • Firing a weapon recklessly which leads to the victim’s death
  • Defending oneself against an attacker but applying much more force than necessary

In the cases above, the accused did not intend to cause the victim’s death on purpose. Instead, there may be factors for each scenario that were unknown to them or out of their control, such as their overly defensive strike gravely wounding the attacker or a victim running across the road before being hit. On the other hand, if the accused had demonstrated intent to kill the deceased, it would be then pressed as a murder offence.

The Difference Between A First Degree and Second-Degree Murder

While both considered homicide, there are several factors that separate first-degree and second-degree murders.

The primary factor is the intention. Similar to how someone may not have intended to kill another person, second-degree murder charges are applied to cases where the accused did deliberately kill one or more individuals, though the way it was carried out was not planned. In this case, trying to defend the accused’s intention can be significantly challenging and should only be done with the support of an experienced criminal defence lawyer. 

First-degree murder charges are more direct and straightforward under Canadian law. They are offences carried out by an individual who has planned, conspired, or shown obvious long-term intention to murder another person. Typical cases include contract murders or murders involving criminal organizations, kidnapping, or terrorism.

It should be noted that there are scenarios that automatically come under a first-degree murder charge, such as killing a police officer. These scenarios also extend to those already in prison, where killing a prison officer or employee is also automatically viewed as a first-degree offence.

Penalties for Murder Charges

Given the severity of the crime, murder offences can bring significant penalties if the accused is found guilty. Regardless of whether the murder is a first degree or second-degree crime, a minimum jail sentence of 10 years without parole is to be expected. 

If the accused is found guilty of first-degree murder, they should expect to receive a life sentence of 25 years. Parole is only then a viable option after this time has passed.

Manslaughter, however, carries no minimum sentence unless the offence involves the misuse of a firearm, to which a minimum sentence of four years is typically applied. 

Fight your Murder Charge with a Criminal Defence Lawyer in Toronto

If one of your loved ones has been involved or is currently facing a murder charge, they should not have to face it alone. Murder trials are extremely difficult to challenge due to the sensitivity of the case and limited evidence but having the best criminal defence lawyers by your side can make all the difference in successfully defending your loved one. At What The Law, our criminal lawyers have extensive experience with murder and manslaughter charges – we strive to fight for you by building the best defence. With 24/7 availability and flexible financing, we are here to support you. Tell us what happened today by calling us at 647-295-6499.