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First-Degree Murder: Sentencing and Penalties

Penalties for First-Degree and Aggravated Murder

First-degree murder, also referred to as capital murder in some states, is the most serious level of all homicide offenses. First-degree murder generally involves a willful killing that was premeditated or that the perpetrator committed after lying in wait. Penalties for first-degree murder are generally the harshest for any crime, though they vary greatly from state to state.

The potential sentences that can be imposed by judges for capital murder also vary by state. In some states, for example, a conviction for first-degree murder results automatically in a specific sentence. In Oregon, sentences are handed down based on whether or not the murder is aggravated. Some states may not recognize aggravated murder as a separate crime. In any case, judges may consider both aggravating and mitigating factors when determining what sentence to hand down.

Aggravating Factors

Many states have statutes that specifically define aggravating factors for first-degree murder. Some of the factors often considered include:

  • The nature of the murder
  • The commission of a murder when accompanied by other violent crimes
  • The use of explosives
  • Whether the victim was a police officer, judge, witness, prosecutor or juror
  • The commission of a murder as part of gang activity

In California, a murder can be considered aggravated if the purpose of the killing was financial gain. In Ohio, if the victim is under 13 years of age, then the killing qualifies as an aggravated murder. Vermont law provides that if a person commits two or more murders at the same time, they count as aggravated murders.

Life Sentences and the Death Penalty

In the U.S., 31 states still allow the death penalty, as do the federal government and the armed forces. This sentence is generally reserved for the highest murder offense levels. In some states, the death sentence can be handed down for first-degree murder, as is the case in Arizona. However, in California, Oregon and Nevada, certain aggravating factors are required in order to hand down the death sentence.

If a death sentence is not handed down or if the state in which the crime occurred does not use the death penalty, a life sentence is the likely alternative. In many states, the life sentence does not allow for the possibility of parole, meaning the inmate does not have the ability to petition for release.

In determining whether to hand down the death penalty, a life sentence, or a number of years in prison, a judge will generally look at mitigating factors that can result in the less harsh sentencing options. In North Carolina, for example, these mitigating factors may include:

  • The defendant’s age
  • The defendant’s mental capacity
  • Whether the defendant played a minor role in the crime
  • Whether another person was equally responsible
  • Whether the defendant acted under duress
  • Whether the defendant had any prior convictions

State Examples

The sentence handed down for first-degree murder will vary based on the specific circumstances of the case and the state in which the crime was committed. Here are examples of possible sentences for first-degree or aggravated murder:

  • California – 25 years to life in prison, life in prison without parole or death with aggravating factors
  • Texas – Life in prison without parole or death
  • Florida – Life in prison without parole or death
  • New York – 20 to 25 years in prison or life in prison without parole
  • Illinois – 20 to 60 years in prison without parole; 60 to 100 years in prison without parole or life without parole if aggravating factors are present
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