In most states, first-degree murder is defined as an unlawful killing that is both willful and premeditated, meaning that it was committed after planning or "lying in wait" for the victim.
For example, Dan comes home to find his wife in bed with Victor. Three days later, Dan waits behind a tree near Victor's front door. When Victor comes out of the house, Dan shoots and kills him.
Most states also adhere to a legal concept known as the "felony murder rule," under which a person commits first-degree murder if any death (even an accidental one) results from the commission of certain violent felonies -- usually arson, burglary, kidnapping, rape, and robbery.
For example, John and Karen rob Mark liquor store, but as they are fleeing, Mark shoots and kills John. Under the felony murder rule, Karen can be charged with first-degree murder for Dan's death.
Most states divide murders into degrees, with first degree murder representing the worst form of homicide crime (though some states use other names such as "capital murder"). State laws vary as to what exactly constitutes murder in the first degree, but it generally includes murders committed by people who willfully take a life after having a chance to think about what they are doing. States have also enumerated certain murders which qualify as first degree even when the normal elements aren't met - such as the killing of law enforcement officers and murders committed in the course of violent crimes. Defenses to the charge take many forms, from mistaken identity to self-defense to not guilty by reason of insanity. States reserve their most severe punishment for certain first degree murder, including the death penalty.
Use the resources below to learn more about which murders qualify as first degree murders, specific state murder statutes, defenses to the charge and what sentence awaits those convicted of the crime.
State laws categorizing murders into first, second and possibly third degrees generally require that first degree murders include three basic elements: willfulness, deliberation and premeditation. Some states also require "malice aforethought" as an element, though sates differ as to how malice must be shown and whether this is a separate requirement from willful, deliberate and premeditated taking of human life. Most states also enumerate certain kinds of killings as first degree murders without need to prove intent, deliberation and premeditation.
Not all states break murder into degrees. In some places, the top level murder crime is called by another name, such as "capital murder." Intent
In terms of willfulness, first degree murderers must have the specific intent to end a human life. This intent does not necessarily have to have been focused on the actual victim. A murder in which the killer intends to kill but kills the wrong person or a random person would still constitute first degree murder. Furthermore, under many state laws, killing through action showing a depraved indifference to human life can qualify as murder in the first degree.Deliberation and Premeditation
Whether a killer acted with the deliberation and premeditation required for first degree murder can only be determined on a case by case basis. The need for deliberation and premeditation does not mean that the perpetrator must contemplate at length or plan far ahead of the murder. Time enough to form the conscious intent to kill and then act on it after enough time for a reasonable person to second guess the decision typically suffices. While this can happen very quickly, deliberation and premeditation must occur before, and not at the same time as, the act of killing."Malice Aforethought"
Under many state laws, perpetrators of first degree murder must have acted with malice or "malice aforethought." Malice generally includes an evil disposition or purpose and an indifference to human life. States treat the concept of "malice" differently. Under some laws, malice aforethought essentially means the same thing as acting with a premeditated intent to kill or extreme indifference to human life. Other states require a showing of malice distinct from the willfulness, deliberation and premeditation generally required for first degree murder. Enumerated First Degree Murders
State laws often categorize specific types of killings as first degree. In these cases, the typical elements of specific intent to kill, deliberation and premeditation may not be required. These often include:the killing of a child by use of unreasonable force;certain killings committed in a pattern of domestic abuse;the murder of law a law enforcement officer, andhomicides occurring in the commission of other crimes such as arson, rape, robbery or other violent crimes.
This list merely illustrates some of the enumerated first degree murders. For a complete list, consult specific state laws.
Many states also categorize certain methods of killing as murder in the first degree. These include intentional poisonings, murders resulting from imprisonment or torture and murders in which the killer "laid in wait" for or ambushed the victim.
Defenses to first degree murder charges fall into two major categories: claims that the defendant did not commit the killing in question, and admission that the defendant committed the killing, but did not commit first degree murder.
Defendants admitting to having killed the victim can assert defenses that they were justified in doing so (in self defense, for example), or that they were somehow incapacitated and thus not legally liable. These defenses require the defendant to put forth proof to support his or her defense.
First degree murder defendants also may simply argue that the prosecution has not proved all elements of a first degree murder charge typically that the defendant killed willfully, deliberately and with premeditation. Though the defendant may support such an argument with evidence, he or she is not required to do so, as proof of all elements of the crime falls on the shoulders of the prosecution.
As with statutes defining crimes, the defenses recognized for a specific crime can vary by state. Furthermore, which defenses a criminal defendant may have depends on the particular facts of the case in question. For guidance, defendants should consult an attorney well versed in his or her state's criminal laws.Mistaken Identity
In first degree murder cases, as well as other homicide crimes, defendants often argue mistaken identity i.e., that the prosecution has charged the wrong person with the killing. A defendant arguing mistaken identity often asserts an alibi if possible, which he or she tries to support with evidence of being somewhere else at the time of the killing. Other arguments in a mistaken identity defense include challenges to evidence placing the defendant at the scene of the crime. This can include challenges to witness identification as well as challenges to forensic evidence. A mistaken identity defense may also point to evidence implicating another possible suspect, but courts do not require defendants to do so.Justified Homicide
Not all homicides are crimes, let alone first degree murders. The most common legal justification for a killing is self-defense or the defense of others.Self-Defense
To succeed, a defendant arguing self defense must show that the killing resulted from a reasonable use of force to resist a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm. The defendant cannot have instigated the threatening situation. The degree of force used in self-defense must be proportional to the threat perceived, and the threat perceived must be something that would place a reasonable person in fear of death or great bodily harm. Mere words or insults do not suffice.
The defendant's reaction to the threat cannot take place after the threat of death or bodily harm has passed. Many states require that the defendant attempt to retreat or avoid danger if possible before resorting to the use of deadly force.
For example, if someone incapacitates a mugger with pepper spray, he or she may need to attempt to flee to safety instead of taking out a pistol and shooting the mugger. States differ in the degree to which they require an attempt to retreat if the threat they face occurs in the defender's home.Defense of Others
The reasonable and proportional defense of others also justifies some killings. The same requirements as self-defense typically apply: the use of force must be timely and proportional to the threat faced, and the perceived threat of death or bodily harm must be reasonable.Exercise of Duty
Certain killings by law enforcement and other public officers qualify as justified homicides. If an officer kills someone in the exercise of duty and without an unlawful intent, recklessness or negligence, that killing generally does not constitute murder, let alone first degree murder.Accident or Misfortune
Killings committed by accident in the course of lawful activities do not constitute murder. Some such killings may result in liability for manslaughter, but unless an accidental homicide takes place during the commission of a crime or as a result of other criminal intentions, they would not be covered by first degree or second degree murder statutes. In certain cases, such as parental discipline of children which results in even accidental death, the use of physical force beyond excepted norms can push the killing into murder and possibly, depending on state law, first degree murder.Insanity Defense
Most states recognize an insanity defense to charges of first degree murder. Even states which allow the defense, however, treat it differently and often apply different tests. Most states define insanity, for purposes of determining criminal liability, as cognitively being unable to appreciate the quality of the act being committed, or unable to realize that the act is wrong. Some states also recognize a volitional aspect to "insanity" giving some defendants with disorders affecting impulse control access to the insanity defense.
For more complete information on how the insanity defense works and its different variants,
First degree murder convictions typically draw the harshest sentences of any crime. As with the elements of the crime and defenses available, sentencing can vary from state to state. Possible sentences are outlined in state statutes, with courts deciding, sometimes within strict statutory guidelines, which sentence a convicted murderer will receive based on the facts determined in the case.Statutory Sentencing Options
The possible sentences for first degree murder (or a state's highest murder charge if called something else) vary widely by state. In some states, such as Florida, all first degree murder convictions bring either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Other states, such as California, use a two tiered sentencing structure: the first being a range of years (often up to life) in prison, and the second either life without the possibility of parole or the death penalty (in states that allow it). Which tier of sentence the court hands down typically depends on whether the prosecution can prove any of a host of aggravating factors.Aggravating Factors
State laws spell out specific factors which render those found guilty of first degree murder subject to the state's harshest sentence. Aggravating factors include aspects of the crime, of the defendant, or of the victim(s) which render the defendant eligible for either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Common aggravating factors include:The defendant had one or more previous murder convictions;The killing occurred during commission of any of a list of violent crimes (such as arson, rape or robbery);The victim was a law enforcement officer performing his or her duties;The victim was a judge, prosecutor, witness or juror killed to prevent the performance of their duties;The killing was particularly heinous or involved torture;The defendant laid in wait (waited and ambushed) the victim;The defendant poisoned the victim;The killing involved bombs or explosive materials; andThe defendant was an active gang member and victim was killed as part of gang activity.
This list merely illustrates several of the factors aggravating factors used in some states consult state law for the complete list of a specific state's aggravating factors. The Death Penalty
Currently, most states retain the death penalty as an option for those convicted of their highest level murder offense. State vary in terms of how often prosecution seeks the death penalty, and also in whether their top level murder convictions require the death penalty. Texas, for example, imposes death sentences on all those convicted of capital murder, its highest level murder charge. In California, on the other hand, aggravated first degree murder can draw either the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
In states which do not impose the death penalty, conviction on a first degree murder charge with aggravating factors generally results in a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. In many states which do have the death penalty, an aggravated first degree murder conviction draws life in prison without parole if the prosecution does not seek, or fails to convince the court, to impose the death penalty.Lesser Sentences
First degree murder convictions without aggravating factors draw a range of prison sentences. This can include life in prison, usually with an eventual possibility of parole. The range of prison sentence for this type of murder conviction varies by state 25 years to life in California and 20 to 25 years New York, to name only two. Consult state laws for specific ranges where you live.
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