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Tennessee First-Degree Murder

The most serious form of homicide in Tennessee is first-degree murder. It's punished most severely of all the homicides, including with the death penalty in certain cases. Tennessee law considers two main types of killings to be first-degree murder: intentional, planned ahead killings as well as felony murders, or murders committed during a violent felony. The prosecutor needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt both the murder and the lack of lawful justification.

Even if a person isn't found to have committed first degree murder, the defendant may be found guilty of a lesser murder charge, including second degree murder (intentionally killing without thinking about it beforehand), voluntary manslaughter (murder under the influence of a sudden passion), or reckless or criminally negligent homicide (an accidental killing caused by the defendant's recklessness or gross negligence).

Penalties and Sentences

Tennessee has capital punishment, or the death penalty. In a capital murder case, the trial is divided into two parts: a determination of guilt or innocence and, if found guilty, then a sentencing part where evidence about the circumstances of the murder are presented to the judge or jury.

In Tennessee, the death penalty or life in prison without parole can only be imposed where an aggravating factor (showing maliciousness or a lack of remorse sufficient to justify increased penalties) has been proven by the state beyond a reasonable doubt. Those aggravating factors are:

  • The murder was committed:
    • Heinously, cruelly, or involving torture or mutilating the dead body
    • For money or involved hiring an assassin
    • To prevent or interfere with lawful arrest or prosecution
    • During a violent felony or act of terrorism
  • The victim was:
    • Under 12 or over 70 years old or was vulnerable due to a significant disability
    • Was a police officer, probation or corrections officer, emergency medical worker, or firefighter on the job
    • A present or former judge, prosecutor, attorney general, or elected official because of their official duties
  • The defendant:
    • Was convicted of one or more prior violent felonies
    • Knowingly created a great risk of death to two or more people other than the victim
    • Was in lawful custody or attempting to escape at the time of the murder
    • Committed "mass murder" by killing three or more people at once or over a 48 month period

The defense can also present evidence of mitigating circumstances that decrease the defendant's criminal responsibility (i.e., years of abuse by the murder victim), making a less harsh sentence more appropriate. Mitigating factors that can be considered in Tennessee are any factor raised by the evidence, including:

  • That the defendant:
    • Had no significant prior criminal history
    • Reasonably believed he or she had a moral justification for the murder
    • Was an accomplice in a murder committed by another and his or her participation was minor
    • Acted under duress or the substantial control of another person
    • Was young or old at the time of the crime
    • Committed the murder under extreme mental or emotional disturbance
    • Lacked capacity to appreciate that his or her conduct was wrong or comply with the law due to mental conditions or intoxication (but not enough for an insanity defense)
  • That the victim:
    • Participated or consented to defendant's conduct that killed him or her

Tennessee First Degree Murder Laws: Statute

The main provisions of Tennessee's first-degree murder law are outlined in the table below.

Code Sections

Tennessee Code Section 39-13-202: First Degree Murder

What is Prohibited?

Tennessee law defines first-degree murder as one of three types of killings:

  • The premeditated (intent to kill formed before the killing - even if briefly) and intentional killing of another person
  • A killing while committing or attempting any first-degree murder, terrorism, arson, rape of an adult or child, robbery, burglary, theft, kidnapping, aggravated child abuse or neglect, or airplane piracy (felony murder)
  • A killing committed by use of a bomb (only the intent to explode the bomb, not an intent to kill is required for conviction)


Tennessee punishes murder in the first degree by either the death penalty, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, or life imprisonment with possible parole.

Note: Defendants who are found mentally retarded (a person with intellectual disabilities) or committed murder before they turned 18 years old can't be sentenced to death.


The best defense for a particular case is fact specific. Some defenses to a first-degree murder charge are complete, meaning the person will be acquitted (such as innocence, lack of intent to kill - except with felony murder, or possibly insanity). Other defenses are partial, meaning they may only reduce the crime to a lower murder charge, such as self-defense or intoxication.

Note: State laws change all the time -- it's important to verify the laws you are researching.

Research the Law

Tennessee First Degree Murder Laws: Related Resources

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