The offense of first-degree murder, as a general rule, requires the government to prove the suspect had pre-planned and specifically intended to kill another human being without justification. This does not include instances where self-defense or self-preservation were the primary reason for taking lethal action.
Another example of first-degree murder exists when an individual, such as a store-clerk, is murdered as a result or consequence of the suspect’s commission of another felony offenses, such as a robbery. In such instances, the government does not need to prove that the defendant had specifically intended to kill. Rather, the law classifies the offense as so serious — and so dangerous — as to make the risk of death obvious and inherent.
Second-degree murder is the taking of a human life without justification (again, not in self-defense) but without previous intent or planning. For instance, where the government cannot prove the defendant had specifically planned or intended to fire the fatal shots, a jury will frequently find the defendant guilty of second-degree murder.
Another example of second-degree murder occurs when the defendant was engaged in conduct so reckless and dangerous that someone not intended as a victim is killed. For instance, when a bystander is killed by a stray bullet during a gun battle, all participants in the shoot out are often charged with second-degree murder, without regard to actually who fired the fatal shot.
Manslaughter is often charged when the suspect kills another individual, but did so in reaction to fear for their own safety or anothers.