The Degrees of Murder in Minnesota

Minnesota Statutes classify murder into three degrees: First degree, second degree, and third degree. Premeditation and intent are the two main factors that determine the classification of murder. Premeditation refers to when a person considers and carefully plans a crime like murder before committing it. The existence of intent for a murder charge depends on whether a sound person can anticipate that his or her actions will cause the loss of another person’s life.

An Overview of the Three Degrees of Murder in Minnesota

First-Degree Murder

Is first degree or third degree worse in murder cases? Minnesota deems first-degree murder as the most heinous and severest crime. The same applies in many other states. Because of this classification, only a few murder charges qualify as first-degree murder. In Minnesota, first-degree murder charges include aggravating circumstances.

Prosecutors may sometimes charge a first-degree murder based on the victim’s role and identity. Killing a spouse following prolonged domestic abuse, killing a law enforcement officer, killing a judge, killing a minor, or killing a witness to stop him or her from testifying in another case are usually filed as first-degree murder charges.

Prosecutors may, in other cases, file a first-degree murder charge based on the conduct of the defendant. For instance, a premeditated murder whereby the defendant contemplates or plans for the killing in advance may be filed as a first-degree murder charge. Ending another person’s life during an aggravated robbery, sexual assault, kidnapping, arson, or acts of terrorism may also qualify as a first-degree murder charge.

Minnesota hasn’t issued a death penalty since 1911. A first-degree murder conviction is, therefore, likely to result in life imprisonment as the severest penalty. The state must demonstrate an intent to kill beyond a reasonable doubt to convict a defendant of first-degree murder.

The prosecutor can have an easy or a hard time proving intent to kill based on the facts of the case. In the absence of direct proof of intent, like the defendant’s confession, the prosecutor must prove intent using circumstantial evidence.

A criminal defense attorney in MN can help with defending the highest level of a murder charge. The attorney can assemble evidence and develop a defense strategy that would increase the chances of a favorable outcome.

Second-Degree Murder

While the intent to kill can exist in this second level of murder, Minnesota doesn’t regard it as heinous as first-degree murder. Prosecutors often file a second-degree murder when a defendant intentionally ends another person’s life, though unpremeditatedly.

This second level of murder may arise when a person kills another person due to an impulse or an explosion of anger. It may arise when the defendant kills a person in a drive-by shooting or kills a person while committing a felony that isn’t a first-degree sexual assault.

It may also arise when the defendant kills a person while attempting to cause that person great bodily injuries, especially if there is an active order for protection barring contact. A conviction of this second level of murder can lead to forty-year imprisonment.

Third-Degree Murder             

This level of murder doesn’t involve the intent to kill. It’s usually filed as a depraved heart or mind offense. A third-degree murder charge can, for instance, occur when the defendant fires a gun and accidentally shoots someone or drives a vehicle into a crowd with no intent to kill anyone.

This murder charge may arise when the defendant’s disregard for the sanctity of life leads to the death of a person. It may also occur when someone sells defective Schedule I or II drugs to someone else, which leads to that person’s death.

A third-degree murder conviction can result in a 25-year jail sentence. If the death was caused by Schedule I or II drugs, the convicted person may face a fine of up to $40,000 on top of the jail sentence.

Possible Defenses to Murder Charges

Mistaken Identity

Mistaken identity is a defense the defendant can use to get the murder charges dropped if he or she didn’t commit the crime. In such a case, a criminal defense attorney in MN can gather evidence, including an alibi and forensic evidence like security footage, to convince the judge to dismiss the charges.

Justified Homicide

The justifiable homicide defense applies in cases where the defendant acted in self-defense or defense of others. An attorney can argue the defendant acted with justifiable use of force against a justifiable threat of physical harm or death.


A person with mental illness may lack the mental capacity to understand the implications of his or her actions. An MN criminal defense attorney may use an insanity defense on behalf of such a person.

Misfortune or Accident

This defense applies if a person kills another person while carrying out legal activities. The defendant must prove that he or she didn’t act with criminal negligence or carelessness for this defense to hold.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

What to Do If You Have Been Charged with a Criminal Offense

Any mistake during the early stages of your interaction with the legal system can result in serious, lifelong consequences. Immediate access to a 24-hour lawyer for criminal defense in Minneapolis, MN, can help calm the situation and improve the likelihood of a desirable outcome.
The criminal defense process in Minnesota constitutes several steps, starting with investigations and culminating with appeals. This process can be long and exhausting. An arrest alone can leave you scared, confused, and overwhelmed with emotions. Making logical decisions in this state can be difficult, especially if it is your first time interacting with the criminal justice system.