Murder and other types of homicide are among the most serious criminal charges one can face.

Minnesota distinguishes three degrees of murder. This page will also cover forms of unlawful killing that do not rise to the level of murder.

Murder Degrees in Minnesota

Two significant factors that influence how a murder is charged out are premeditation and intent. Premeditation is when a person plans a crime, as opposed to acting spontaneously.

Whether or not a reasonable person is able to expect that their actions will result in the loss of someone’s life can determine whether intent exists for a homicide charge. The actual instruction on intent (for use in trial) can include “acted with the purpose” or “believed that the act” would cause a given result.

What’s the difference between 1st Degree vs 2nd Degree Murder in Minnesota?

The degree of a charge relies on two things:

  1. Intent: If you meant to kill the other person.
  2. Premeditation: If you planned to kill the other person beforehand.

First-degree requires intent and sometimes premeditation.

Second-degree does require premeditation. The law divides 2nd degree murder into has two sections, only one of which requires intent.

Third-degree does not require premeditation or intent.

Murder vs. Homicide

Homicide is the term used for killing another individual. Murders, accidental killings, and manslaughter are all types of homicides.

Murder is a homicide that occurs with “malice aforethought.” This the legal way of saying that someone was unjustifiably killed. The person who committed the crime intended to do so. But third-degree murder in Minnesota complicates this distinction. Some recent high-profile cases may affect how the courts treat third-degree murder.

What is First-Degree Murder?

First-degree murder (Minn. Stat. 609.185) is generally regarded as the most heinous and severe crime. Prosecutors sometimes charge this level based on the identity or role of the victim. Some examples of this type of first-degree murder are:

  • Killing someone during an act of domestic abuse, if the perpetrator has a historic pattern of domestic abuse.
  • Murdering a child under certain circumstances of repeated child abuse.
  • Killing any of the following individuals while on duty: police officers, judges, prosecutors, or prison guards.
  • Murdering a witness to prevent him or her from testifying against you.

A first-degree murder charge can also result from the defendant’s conduct, not the victim’s identity. Minnesota law outlines the following ways to commit this crime:

  • Premeditated murder, i.e. preparing in advance to kill someone.
  • Killing a person during a sexual assault.
  • Intentionally killing a person during a burglary.
  • Killing someone during an aggravated robbery (that is, robbery with a dangerous weapon).
  • Murdering a person during a kidnapping (again the intent to kill must occur).
  • Intentionally killing someone while committing or trying to commit arson.
  • Killing someone by engaging in terrorism.
  • Intentionally killing someone during a drive-by shooting.
  • Murdering a person during certain types of drug sales, or attempted sales.

1st-Degree Murder Penalties in Minnesota

Since 1911, there has been no death penalty in the state of Minnesota. Therefore, the maximum sentence one can receive for first-degree murder is life in prison.

Elements of a 1st-Degree Murder

In order to convict a defendant of this highest level of murder, the state must prove both intent and premeditation.

Depending on the circumstances of the case, this can be easy or a more difficult task for the prosecutor. If there is no direct evidence of intent, the prosecutor must show intent through circumstantial evidence. It can also be challenging to distinguish between the intent to kill and the intent to injure.

Not only must the state prove intent, but it may have to prove premeditation as well. To do this, prosecutors must prove that the killing did not occur as a spontaneous reaction or in an outburst of sudden emotion.

The government has a high bar to meet to convict someone of first-degree murder. Still, the stakes are high for this crime so it is important to hire the best criminal defense attorney you can.

Why Hire Ringstrom Law?

We understand the kind and amount of preparation required to defend this type of case. We’ve defended many murder cases including, those in the first-degree. Most importantly, we don’t shy away from murder trials and everything they entail: intense preparation, careful strategy, and zealous advocacy.

What is Second-Degree Murder?

Second-degree murder (Minn. Stat. 609.19) may or may not require intent. These are the ways to commit second-degree murder in Minnesota:

  • Intentionally killing someone but without planning the murder (no premeditation).
  • Killing someone unintentionally while committing or trying to commit a drive-by shooting.
  • Unintentionally killing someone while using violence or force to commit a felony (other than first or second-degree criminal sexual conduct).
  • Killing someone unintentionally while trying to injure that person when an order for protection is in place.

2nd-Degree Murder Penalties in Minnesota

A second-degree murder conviction can result in a prison sentence of up to 40 years.

What is Third-Degree Murder?

A third-degree murder charge (Minn. Stat. 609.195) does not require an intent to kill. However, the Minnesota statute contains outdated language regarding a “depraved mind”.

A “depraved mind” murder assumes that acting reckless or without regard to human life which caused a death, should result in a murder charge.

Classic examples of this level of murder include driving a vehicle or firing a gun into a group of people. This charge can also occur when a person dies through any dangerous act showing indifference to human life. Another example of a third-degree murder is selling tainted Schedule I or II drugs which caused death.

3rd-Degree Murder Penalties

If convicted of third-degree murder, you face a sentence of up to 25 years in prison. If death is the result of Schedule I or II drugs, there might also be a fine of up to $40,000, in addition to prison.

Aiding and Abetting a Murder

Performing actions that assisted a murder or made the murder possible is aiding and abetting. In a sense, it is encouraging another to commit a crime, even if you were not present when the crime happened. Helping to cover up a murder after the fact is also its own crime.

The terms “aiding and abetting,” “accessory to murder,” and “accomplice to murder” have the same meaning. Your actions may result in severe criminal charges.

There are numerous ways to aid and abet murder, such as

  • Concealing or destroying a murder weapon.
  • Wiping or destroying a cell phone or computer to get rid of evidence.
  • Providing a false alibi for the one who performed the killing.
  • Luring the victim to the murderer’s location.
  • Other acts done to help someone avoid arrest or punishment for murder.
  • Profiting from the victim’s death by taking his or her property.

Terminology with Murder and Homicide Charges

Many legal words and phrases used in murder or homicide cases have popular meanings. These don’t always correspond well to the reality of the criminal justice system and what Minnesota law actually states. TV shows, movies, and other media and entertainment sources have contributed to these mismatches. Here we discuss some of the more common ones.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

This is a phrase frequently uttered in the context of criminal cases. It does not mean others actually believe you are innocent of your charges.

A jury or judge should presume every defendant is innocent. Meaning, state must prove the defendant committed the crime he or she faces. If proof is insufficient, the presumption of innocence should stand.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a phrase often used in jury trial. It means the jury may only convict on the evidence presented by the prosecution. If a juror has remaining questions or holds any doubt about your guilt, they should find you innocent.

Reasonable doubt is the standard of proof used in criminal trials, both jury trials and court trials. (A court trial is a trial by a judge instead of a jury.)

Statute of Limitations

There is no statute of limitations for murder or manslaughter charges in Minnesota. It doesn’t matter how long ago the murder happened. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been attempting to avoid the charges. No matter how many years have passed, you will still receive as harsh a sentence as the day the crime occurred.

Wrongful Death

Individuals can file a wrongful death lawsuit against someone who has caused a death through an act of negligence. Typically, it is the family of the victim who will file the lawsuit.

When lawyers file a a civil case for wrongful death, the burden of proof required is less than in a criminal case. Criminal cases have the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” burden.

Criminal cases have much stricter standards of proving guilt since the penalty is a loss of liberty. In civil cases, the family of the victim might receive an amount of money as a form of compensation for the loss of a loved one.

Defending Murder/Homicide Charges

Building a defense strategy against a murder or homicide charge often includes making a case that you did not commit the crime.

If you’ve admitted to the murder and there isn’t a good reason to doubt your admission, then a defense strategy could revolve around the killing being justified, or that it lacked premeditation or intent.

Here is a more in-depth look at some of the possible defenses to murder or homicide:

Justified Homicide

Sometimes a homicide is not the crime it may seem to be, but rather the killing was legally justified. Common justifications are self-defense and defense of others.

Mistaken Identity

If there has been a case of mistaken identity and you did not commit the murder, you need a skilled criminal defense attorney to help clear your name.

Once law enforcement charges someone with murder, or even becomes the lead suspect, they often develop tunnel vision. In case case, they no longer pay attention to any evidence that could exonerate you.

You should contact Ringstrom Law immediately to help you find evidence and build your case for a dismissal of your charges. A strong alibi proving your innocence can be effective, as well as various kinds of forensic evidence (DNA, GPS data, cell phone tower data, etc.). The sooner someone looks for evidence, the more likely they are to find it and preserve it.

Without a strong alibi or evidence pointing to someone else, the mistaken identity defense can be a reasonable doubt defense. Essentially the argument is that the state failed to prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt. It has left open the possibility that someone besides the defendant committed the murder.

While it is not preferred to use this defense, sometimes it is the only one available. Innocent people sometimes don’t have good alibi evidence. The criminal justice system must accommodate this situation by requiring the state to prove its case to a very high level.

Attorneys at Ringstrom Law have successfully gotten acquittals by using reasonable doubt defenses.


Someone with mental illness may be unable to realize the consequences of their actions.

The threshold is high for this type of defense. In other words, it often fails because the court doesn’t regard a defendant as sufficiently mentally ill. Individuals are often committed to a state or federal hospital until they can stand trial.

Still, there are two ways to mount this defense in Minnesota. You can show that the defendant didn’t understand the killing was wrong. Alternatively, you can show that the defendant isn’t able to participate in the defense of the case.

Misfortune or Accident

If you have killed someone as a result of an accident while performing lawful activities, it is not considered a crime. Assuming you weren’t acting with criminal negligence or recklessness. Even if the state can prove that there was negligence involved, the accident defense might reduce the charge to manslaughter.

Leading Murder/Homicide Defense Attorneys in North Dakota and Minnesota

A charge of murder or homicide is one of the most severe criminal charges—and one of the most life-changing events—a person can face. No matter which degree of murder or homicide you are being charged with, you need a strong criminal defense team working with you. Ringstrom Law represents all its clients with diligence and integrity.

Contact us at 218-284-0484 as soon as you or your loved one has been charged. If the circumstances allow it, call even before charges are brought. We are ready to get behind you, defend you against these charges, and find the best solution possible.

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