First-degree murder convictions draw the harshest sentences of any criminal case. The specific elements of the crime and legal defenses available can vary based on jurisdiction. State and federal laws will provide the possible sentences. For first-degree murder, there may be strict statutory guidelines. Courts may have less leeway to determine the sentence after conviction.
First-degree murder cases stand out from other homicide cases, such as other forms of murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. First-degree murder will often involve assaults that show planning and premeditation and result in the death of another person.
This article explains first-degree murder sentencing and penalties.
State vs. Federal Crime
The majority of first-degree murder cases proceed under state law in state courts. Yet, first-degree murder charges can proceed under federal law under certain circumstances. These include cases when the murder happens during a bank robbery, or on federal property, or at sea. If the victim of the murder has a federal position or office, the case may also go forward under federal law.
The federal murder statute (18 U.S.C. Section 1111) defines murder as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. It provides a set of factors that elevate a case to first-degree murder. Those include:
- Lying in wait
- A willful, deliberate, malicious act committed with premeditation
- Committed during an attempt or commission of arson, escape, murder, kidnapping, treason, espionage, sabotage, aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse, child abuse, burglary, or robbery
- Committed as part of a pattern of assault or torture against a child or children
Under federal law, a child is anyone under 18 years of age. Child abuse happens in cases where a child dies or suffers serious bodily injury. In federal murder prosecutions, the U.S. attorney general must approve whether or not to seek the death penalty.
Federal law allows only two sentences for first-degree murder: life imprisonment or the death penalty. Upon a conviction for first-degree murder, the jury that heard the case will proceed to a sentencing hearing. If no jury hears the case, then the court will impanel a sentencing jury. In rare cases, the defendant may move for the judge to determine the sentence if the government's attorney also agrees.
At a sentencing hearing, the government (via a prosecutor) presents aggravating factors that support a death sentence. The defense will present mitigating factors that weigh against a death sentence. When the government seeks the death penalty, a jury finding for death must be unanimous.
Statutory Sentencing Options
The elements of first-degree murder vary somewhat by state. They often mirror the federal statutory elements above. In some states, like Ohio, the highest-level criminal offense is called aggravated murder. Murder in the first degree under California Penal Code section 189 includes acts perpetrated by:
- Destructive device or explosive
- A weapon of mass destruction
- Ammunition designed to penetrate metal or armor
- Lying in wait
- Any other willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing
- A killing committed during a qualifying felony or attempt to commit a qualifying felony (such as arson, rape and other sex crimes, carjacking, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, train wrecking, discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle)
State first-degree murder sentences are predictably harsh. They do not vary as much between the states. 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, provide for three possible sentences:
- A range of years to life imprisonment, with parole eligibility
- Life imprisonment, without parole eligibility
In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom suspended the use of the death penalty in the state. So, California does not now schedule executions.
Most states follow procedures like federal cases for juries to determine a sentence in a first-degree murder case.
State laws spell out specific factors that render those guilty of first-degree murder subject to the state's harshest sentence. Aggravating factors include aspects related to the crime, the defendant, or the victim(s). A finding of an aggravating factor can make the defendant eligible for either the death penalty or life in state prison without the possibility of parole.
Common aggravating factors include:
- The defendant had one or more previous murder convictions
- The killing occurred during the commission of any of a list of violent crimes such as arson, rape, or robbery (felony murder rule)
- The victim was a federal law enforcement officer or state or local police officer performing their 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
- The defendant was an active gang member, and the killing was part of gang activity
This list illustrates several aggravating factors used for first-degree murder sentencing in the states. California calls these factors special circumstances. There must be a finding that one of the factors is true for the defendant to receive a death sentence or a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Consult the particular state law for the complete list of each state's aggravating factors.
The Death Penalty
Most states have the death penalty as an option for those convicted of the highest-level murder offense. Some states with the death penalty have placed a moratorium on its use. Reasons for suspending the death penalty include the availability of the drugs necessary for lethal injection. They also include the disproportionate imposition of a death sentence on offenders who belong to minority groups.
Prosecutors in each state have authority over pursuing a capital case. States vary in whether their top-level murder convictions require the death penalty. In many states, like Texas and Pennsylvania, the jury can issue a death sentence for those convicted of first-degree or capital murder. These offenders can face a life sentence in prison without parole.
There are limitations on states' use of the death penalty as well. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Roper v. Simmons, concluded that the death penalty violates the Constitution if the government seeks to impose it on a defendant who was under 18 years of age at the time of the crime. The Court has also invalidated the use of the death penalty on defendants who suffered from an intellectual or developmental disability at the time of the crime in Atkins v. Virginia.
Life Without the Possibility of Parole
In states that do not impose the death penalty, conviction on a first-degree murder charge with aggravating factors generally results in a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. In many states with 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.
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 sentences for this type of murder conviction varies by state. In California, the prison term may be 25 years to life. While in New York, it may be 20 to 25 years to life.
State statutory schemes often allow a range of homicide offenses based on the offender's level of intent. For example, in Florida, first-degree murder involves either:
- A premeditated killing of another
- An intentional killing of another during a qualifying violent felony event (which may include drug trafficking)
- An unlawful killing that results from the distribution of a qualifying dangerous drug (such as fentanyl) to another
First-degree murder becomes a capital case when the state gives notice of its intent to seek a death sentence. Upon conviction, the offender will face either a death sentence or life without parole based on the jury's findings.
Second-degree murder in Florida happens when the offender commits an imminently dangerous act. The offender's conduct shows a depraved mind but does not involve premeditation. The state also allows second-degree murder in cases where a defendant engaged in a qualifying violent felony without intent to kill. Yet, another co-defendant does cause a death. Upon conviction, the offender will face a sentence of years to life imprisonment.
Florida is also one of three states that have third-degree murder. This crime involves an unlawful killing of another without premeditation when the death occurs during a non-violent felony act by the defendant. Upon conviction, the offender can face up to 15 years in state prison.
Questions About First-Degree Murder Sentencing and Penalties? Get Legal Help Today
Although first-degree murder laws vary from state to state, it's a severe crime in every state. Conviction of first-degree murder can result in a long prison sentence or the death penalty in certain states. Those charged with first-degree murder have the right to court-appointed counsel if they cannot afford to hire a criminal defense lawyer. Getting the best legal advice is vital for anyone accused of a serious crime. If you need more information on first-degree murder charges in your state, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to get more information.