Death by Degree: A Lesson on First and Second Degree Murder in Canada

When it comes to criminal justice, it’s safe to say that pop culture has ruined its meaning in the minds of all but a certain few. Shows like Law and Order and CSI champion police and prosecutors, ignore or sugar coat endemic problems of racism, sexism, and LGBTQIphobia in law enforcement, and equally problematic, skew people’s understanding of how certain crimes are defined by the law.

The most obvious example is with regards to how the law defines first and second degree murder.

Though everyone is dreading the next 2018 celebrity death, we need to remember that ordinary people are dying too, and often in horrible circumstances. Nothing shows this more clearly than Montreal’s first murder of 2018.

This article will tell a little about the people involved and give a crash course on how first and second degree murder are defined in Canadian Criminal Law.

On January 28, 2018 at 11:15 pm someone called 911. A woman had been stabbed in the back at her home in the LaSalle borough of Montreal. Before she died from her wound, the 61 year old victim told police her daughter had stabbed her.

The daughter, 34 year old Meng Ye, was not unknown to the police as they’d been called to the home before when she’d been in psychological crisis. The mother of a one and a half year old has since been charged with first degree murder.

According to a former neighbor, the victim had a poor grasp of Canada’s official languages and though she seemed a rude person, there was nothing about her that would provoke someone to violence.

People’s general understanding of first degree murder is a murder that is planned and deliberate. A second degree murder is thought to be more spontaneous. There is truth to both definitions, but they are incomplete.

In Canada, first degree murder is where a person causes the death of another, having meant to kill them or cause them bodily harm that is likely to cause their death. It is also considered first degree murder if you do something that you know is likely to cause death and it does, notwithstanding the fact that you didn’t want anyone to die. The rules for first degree murder however do not end there.

You are guilty of first degree murder if you cause the death of someone while you are committing treason, sabotage, piracy, hijacking, and escaping or rescuing someone from prison or another form of lawful custody. It is first degree murder if you cause someone’s death during a sexual assault, while assaulting a peace officer, breaking and entering, robbery, arson, hostage taking, and kidnapping.

The death is considered first degree murder regardless of whether or not you intended to cause the death and whether or not you knew someone would likely die IF:

  • You meant to cause bodily harm in order to commit the crime or
  • You meant to cause bodily harm in order to facilitate fleeing the scene right after you committed or attempted to commit the crime

And the death ensued from the bodily harm.

The definition of first degree murder also includes causing the death of a person if the death resulted from you administering a stupefying or overpowering thing, i.e. you poisoned or sedated the person, for the purpose of causing bodily harm to commit the crime. It is also considered as such if the death is caused by bodily harm you inflicted on a person to facilitate you fleeing the scene or you intentionally made a person stop breathing so you could commit a crime and they died as a result.

Killing a peace officer of any kind or a warden or other prison employee is all considered first degree murder regardless of whether the murder was planned and deliberate. It is also considered first degree murder if you killed someone while uttering threats intended to make them fear for their safety or the safety of anyone they knew.

If you kill someone while committing an act of terrorism, the murder is considered murder in the first degree regardless of whether it was planned and deliberate.

Last but not least, if you had a contract in which you were compensated to kill someone, “assisted” in causing the death of that person, or were paid to counsel someone to kill the person, you are guilty of first degree murder. Same goes if you killed someone for the benefit of or on orders from a criminal organization or if you killed someone while committing another crime on their behalf.

Anything that is not considered first degree murder is second degree murder. As Canada has long since abolished the death penalty, those guilty of either degree of murder are facing a minimum sentence of life in prison.

What will happen to Meng Ye and her child remains to be seen.

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