Criminal Law

First-Degree Murder: An Overview

First-degree murder is the most serious charge for the killing of another person with malice aforethought, meaning with express or implied intent to kill. Each state has their own definition and penalties for murder, which are broken down into different types or degrees. Depending on the circumstances, a homicide may be considered first- or second-degree murder, voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, or another type of criminally negligent or reckless killing. But across the nation, first-degree murder is the highest level and comes with the most severe penalties.

Defining First-Degree Murder

Criminal law defines and breaks down offenses into required elements and in order to be convicted of a crime, the court must prove all of the required elements beyond a reasonable doubt. Courts examine the these elements to show the mental state of the actor and the act itself were the causes of the crime.

First-degree murder is typically defined as the unlawful killing of a human that is premeditated, deliberate, and willful. Although state laws differ on the exact terms used, the element that typically sets first-degree murder apart from the other murder charges is premeditation. Since this crime involves an intentional homicide act, meaning that person meant to killer another person, it generally has the most severe consequences.


“Premeditated" is what sets first-degree murder apart from all other homicide charges. Premeditation refers to the defendant taking the time to think ahead or plan out the crime beforehand. Although planning and plotting seems like a long, drawn-out process, premeditation has not fixed amount of time and can occur over a short period of time as well.

Instead, courts look to see if a reasonable person had time to second guess their initial thought to kill before carrying out the act. If there was time for second guessing or to think about their choice, then generally enough time has gone by to count as premeditation.


Deliberation is an essential part of a first-degree murder conviction, as it speaks to the mental state of the accused perpetrator. This occurs when an actor purposefully engages in a murderous act with the belief or hope their actions will result in the death of another person. This element requires more than just provocation or a heat of the moment decision. Instead, it requires the mind to be more calculated and purposeful when carrying out a murder.


The willfulness element of first-degree murder speaks to the intent of the actor. A defendant is willfully committing first-degree murder when they act intentionally of their own free will and not by accident. This means there can be no one forcing or coercing you into killing another and it has to be the sole choice of the actor. Sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish willfulness and negligence or recklessness, making it critical to work with a knowledgeable defense attorney who understands these nuances.

Malice Aforethought

Some states require “malice aforethought" as an additional element. This means the defendant who committed the murder did so with a disregard for human life or with the intent to do evil. Other states consider malice aforethought as the same element as premeditation. A criminal defense attorney local to your state can help you understand how your state interprets this element.

Enumerated First-Degree Murder

Many states have enumerated first-degree murder offenses, or automatically considers certain types of criminal acts as a first-degree murder charge. These offenses are enumerated, or listed, in each state's criminal code or statutes. For example, a number of states consider killing a judge or police officer a first-degree murder, so the state prosecutor files a first-degree murder charge automatically instead of considering filing a lesser charge. However, this does not mean you automatically are convicted and you still have the right to a fair trial.

The Felony Murder Rule

Some states apply the felony murder rule as well. In states that use this legal doctrine, it means that any death that is caused during the commission of certain felonies are automatically considered a first-degree murder. This even includes accidental deaths that occur while committing a felony. It applies to each and every person that participates in committing the felony even if they did not directly cause the death themselves. It even applies when the victim who dies is one of the people carrying out the felony.

Each state lists which crimes as subject to this rule in their criminal code or statutes. Typically, the felony offenses that trigger the use of this doctrine include rape, burglary, robbery, kidnapping, and other crimes. For example, if a group of robbers accidentally kill the owner of a jewelry store while committing a felony robbery, each robber can be charged with first-degree murder.

Penalty for First-Degree Murder

Most states consider first-degree murder the most serious homicide charge, so naturally someone facing this offense comes with significant consequences. Since each state defines first-degree murder individually, the penalties and sentencing minimums are set by each state as well. A conviction of first-degree murder almost always leads to a lengthy sentence in a county jail or state prison, typically from 25 years to a life sentence without parole. Other states with capital punishment may even impose the death penalties. A felony conviction comes with more consequences after sentencing and time served as well. Many states do not allow felons to vote, own a firearm, work in certain jobs, and more.

Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney

Given how serious a first-degree murder charge is, this makes hiring an experience criminal defense attorney even more important to your case as well as your freedom. Defense attorneys can help create a legal defense to demonstrate that you did not commit a crime or that you should not be held liable for the result of your actions. Your attorney can help you file the correct motions with the court, find evidence and witnesses to help your case, and advocate in your best interest. This charge may seem overwhelming, but you don't have to face it alone when you are working with a strong legal team.