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First Degree Murder Overview

First-degree murder (or aggravated murder) is often defined as an unlawful killing that is both willful and premeditated. Think of a murder committed after planning or "lying in wait" for the victim. It represents the highest criminal offense. Convictions result in the harshest sentence. In some states, that means that the offender may face the death penalty. The federal government and many states have expanded their definitions of first-degree murder in recent years.

For example, Dan's employer fires Dan from his job. Dan believes that the firing was unfair. Three days after security escorted him out of the workplace, Dan enters the office and shoots and kills his boss. The police may file a first-degree murder charge against Dan. Dan acted in a willful and premeditated manner.

Most states and the federal government also adhere to a legal concept known as the felony murder rule. Under this rule, a person commits first-degree murder if any death (even an accidental one) results from the commission of certain violent felonies, such as:

For example, Dan and Connie rob Victor's liquor store. To commit the robbery, both Dan and Connie armed themselves with firearms. Yet, they did not plan to kill anyone. As they're fleeing with the money, Victor hits an alarm and attempts to block the door. Dan shoots and kills Victor. Under the felony murder rule, both Dan and Connie can be charged with first-degree murder for Victor's death even though neither planned for Victor's death.

The Elements of First-Degree Murder

State laws categorize homicide offenses based on degree and penalty. Many states' laws include first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. These criminal offenses all involve homicide or the death of a person at the hand of another person. The intent and manner of killing may place a homicide in the most serious category of first-degree murder or in the less serious category of involuntary manslaughter. It depends on the facts and the law.

Federal and state homicide crimes may use different terminology. Generally, most first-degree murder laws include that the defendant purposefully or willfully, with deliberation and premeditation, caused the death of another person.

Federal law and some states also require malice aforethought as an element. States, however, differ as to how malice must be shown. They also differ on whether this is a separate requirement from the willful, deliberate, and premeditated taking of human life. Most states also enumerate certain kinds of killings as first-degree murders without the need to show deliberation and premeditation.

Not all states divide murder into degrees. In some places, the top-level murder crime is called by another name, such as "capital murder" or "aggravated 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 correspond to 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 conduct that shows 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 is usually 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. How much time is necessary? Time enough to form the conscious intent to kill, reflect on it, and act. Reflection time does not need to be more than what a reasonable person would do when second-guessing the original intent. 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 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 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 and penal codes often categorize specific types of killings as first-degree murder. There is a clear trend to spell out the various aggravating factors within the statute itself. In these cases, proof of the typical elements of specific intent to kill, deliberation, and premeditation may not be necessary. These laws may enumerate killing under special circumstances, such as:

  • The intentional killing of a child under a certain age
  • Certain killings committed in a pattern of domestic violence
  • The murder of a law enforcement officer
  • "Felony murder" homicides occurring in the commission of other crimes (such as arson, rape, robbery, or other violent crimes)

First-degree murder in New York is a class A-I felony. New York penal law provides the following elements for first-degree murder:

  1. Intent to cause the death of another person
  2. The offender causes the death of the other person or a third party
  3. The offender was 18 years of age or older
  4. The intended victim killed was any of the following: 
  • A police officer engaged in their official duties
  • A peace officer engaged in their official duties
  • A first responder engaged in their official duties
  • An employee of a state or local correctional facility engaged in their official duties

Or if any of the following applies:

  • The offender committed the killing while they were an escapee from prison for a major felony crime
  • The intended victim killed was a witness against the offender and was killed to prevent the witness' testimony; or the intended victim was a witness previously against the offender and was killed in retribution for their prior testimony
  • The killing was part of an agreement for hire (paid killing)
  • The victim was killed as part of an ongoing felony crime under the felony murder rule; and the victim was not a participant in the felony
  • The offender, as part of an ongoing felony crime under the felony murder rule, and with intent to cause serious bodily harm or death to additional person(s), caused death to additional person(s), and the victim was not a participant in the felony
  • The offender has a prior murder conviction
  • The offender acted in a cruel and wanton manner to inflict torture on the victim prior to the victim's death
  • The offender committed two or more killings within the state within 24 months as part of a common scheme or plan
  • The intended victim was a judge and the offender killed the victim for being a judge
  • The victim was killed in furtherance of an act of terrorism

In New York, the death penalty remains on the books. Yet, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 2004 that the law's instruction about a deadlock in the jurors' vote violated due process under the New York Constitution. The State has not amended the statute. A 2007 court ruling reached a similar conclusion. In practical terms, an offender with a first-degree murder conviction is not sentenced to death. The maximum sentence for first-degree murder is a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The federal murder statute covers similar grounds. It is located at 18 U.S.C. 1111 and provides that murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. Examples provided in the statute include:

  • Poison,
  • Lying in wait, or
  • Any other kind of willful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated killing, or
  • Killing committed in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate arson, escape, murder, kidnapping, treason, espionage, sabotage, aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse, child abuse, burglary, robbery
  • Killing perpetrated as part of a pattern of assault or torture against a child
  • Killing perpetrated from a premeditated design... to effect the death of any other human being other than the person is killed

Punishment for first-degree murder can be death or life imprisonment. Any other murder under federal law is second-degree murder. Punishment for second-degree murder can be imprisonment for any term of years to life.

Federal jurisdiction for murder runs concurrently with state jurisdiction. Thus, both the state and the federal government can pursue criminal cases involving murder. Generally, the state may act first or engage in dialogue with the federal authorities prior to filing charges. The federal prosecution may take priority in cases involving large drug-related crimes or the death of a federal official.

State laws may be similar to New York's state law or the federal statute. Yet, they may also differ in degree and the elements related to methods of killing. For a complete list, consult specific state laws.

Sentencing and Defense Considerations

The harshest penalties in state criminal sentencing occur for first-degree murder convictions. For lesser homicide convictions, the penalties will decrease (although they may still be severe). In cases of second-degree murder, an offender may receive a life sentence or a term such as 15 or 20 years to life. In cases of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, the offender will more likely face a definite prison term. In rare cases, suspended prison time and probation may occur.

State laws often signal out crimes like aggravated vehicular homicide to account for deaths caused from a DUI. Under Ohio's law, if an offender is convicted of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs and causing the death of another person, the court can impose a mandatory prison sentence.

Common defenses employed in first-degree murder cases include self-defense or defense of others. These kinds of defenses provide justification for the otherwise purposeful killing by the offender. A criminal defense lawyer may also work with their client to develop an alibi defense. This defense claims the state has mistakenly identified the defendant, who can prove they were not able to commit the crime. For example, the defendant was inflight to a business meeting in Houston when the crime occurred in Atlanta.

The defendant may also admit to the killing but seek to raise mitigating factors related to intent. They could focus on a limited or diminished capacity to respond or control their behavior. They may claim provocation by the victim, a defense often found in cases of voluntary manslaughter. The defense may also seek a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Getting Legal Help in a First-Degree Murder Case

In the criminal justice system, holding violent offenders accountable for their crimes is the priority. The loss of life in a homicide case elevates the scrutiny and concern for justice. The family of the victim needs resources to address their grief. They may also contact an attorney to represent them. An attorney can help them understand the complexities of the criminal case.

If you or someone you know faces first-degree murder charges, legal advice is needed as well. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one. You may consider hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney to gain insight into their rights and to develop an appropriate legal strategy going forward.

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