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What is First Degree Murder?

Under criminal homicide laws, murder is the unjustified, intentional killing of another person. While exact criteria for a first degree murder charge may vary from state to state, common components of this charge are:

  • Deliberate action. The perpetrator consciously completes an act that unlawfully kills another person. That is, there were no legally-recognized justifications, like killing in a necessary act of self defense.
  • Malice aforethought. The perpetrator intended to kill the victim or intended to cause critical bodily harm that consequently killed the victim. This includes both a purpose intent, where the victim’s death was the desired outcome, or knowing intent, where the perpetrator knew their actions could or would cause a death and still acted with extreme recklessness.
  • Prior planning or premeditation. First degree murder is often separated from second degree murder or manslaughter charges based on the level of planning that went into the killing. Someone who commits first degree murder typically thought about killing in advance and took active steps to make it happen, versus second degree murder, which may include a more impulsive killing done with less foresight.

In some locations, a person can be charged with a type of first degree murder known as felony murder. While first degree murder is a felony charge, “felony murder” as a named crime applies when a person engages in an unrelated felony crime that unintentionally ends in someone’s death. This charge typically only applies to certain dangerous felonies where it’s a realistic possibility that someone could die.

For example, two people commit a planned armed robbery at a bank together. One of them panics and fatally shoots a bank teller. Even though the goal of the operation was just to steal money and not to kill anyone, they could both be charged with felony murder. Only one of them pulled the trigger, but they were both in the middle of committing a dangerous felony where an intentional or unintentional death was plausible.

What are the Penalties for First Degree Murder?

First degree murder convictions carry severe sentences. Many jurisdictions punish first degree murder with a minimum of 20 years in prison up to a life sentence, either with or without the possibility of parole. Other states require life imprisonment for any first degree murder conviction with few, if any, exceptions. First degree murder is one of the few charges that qualifies for the death penalty in states that allow it.

How Does the Court Prove First Degree Murder?

In order to convict an alleged murderer on charges in the first degree, the court must prove each of the required criminal elements defined by that state’s laws.

First, they must demonstrate to the court that the defendant actually did the act they’re accused of doing. If a victim was shot, the prosecution needs to prove that the accused was the one who shot them. Possible evidence could include eye witness testimony or security camera footage that places the defendant at the scene of the crime or physical evidence like the defendant’s finger prints on the murder weapon.

The prosecution also needs to show the accused’s intent for a first degree murder charge. It’s tricky to prove what a person’s thoughts are, but certain circumstantial evidence could make it clearer.

If the defendant had recently purchased the gun used to commit the crime, arranged plans to be alone with the victim during the killing, had previously threatened to kill the victim, and had search history records on their computer showing they researched how to hide a murder weapon, the prosecution could argue intent and premeditation.

What are the Defenses for First Degree Murder?

In a first degree murder trial, the prosecution has the burden of proof and must convince the jury that the most likely, reasonable, and possible explanation for the victim’s murder is that the defendant carried out an intentional plan to kill them. If that explanation seems possible, but other explanations seem reasonably possible as well, the jury might acquit.

That means that the defendant doesn’t necessarily need prove they didn’t commit the crime, they just need to create enough reasonable doubt that a prosecutor can’t prove they did. For example, they might challenge the validity of an eye witness’s testimony, offer an alibi for the time of the murder, or cast suspicion on another possible culprit.

If evidence of the defendant’s actions is too strong to refute, the defense may challenge the evidence’s admissibility. Criminal investigators have laws and regulations to follow when building their case. For example, it’s typically unconstitutional to search a suspect’s home for evidence without a search warrant. Any evidence gathered during an illegal search can’t be presented at trial, which weakens the prosecution’s case.

When it seems unlikely a defendant can create sufficient reasonable doubt about their actions, they may choose to challenge the intent or premeditation elements to reduce the charges. They might argue they only meant to scare the victim or that the murder happened spontaneously without premeditation. If successful, the defendant could end up charged with second degree murder or manslaughter and get a lighter sentence.

Do I Need a Defense Attorney?

In one way or another, first degree murder defendants can literally have their lives on the line during their trials. Working with an experienced criminal defense attorney could help improve the outcome. A homicide lawyer well-versed in the law can help defendants navigate the legal system, build their defenses, challenge prosecutorial evidence, and negotiate for lesser sentences if necessary.

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