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First-Degree Murder: An Overview

Key Takeaways:

  • First-degree murder is an intentional, unlawful killing with malice aforethought, which essentially means premeditated.
  • If someone dies in the commission of certain felony crimes, the criminal can be charged with felony murder. 
  • The penalties for first-degree murder can include up to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

First-degree murder is the act of killing another person with “malice aforethought.” Malice aforethought means with the intent to kill. Each state has its own definition and penalties for murder. There can also be different degrees of murder charges.

Depending on the circumstances, homicide can be murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter. First-degree murder is the highest level homicide crime and comes with the most severe penalties for a conviction.

For more information about first-degree murder charges, penalties, and defenses, talk to a local criminal defense lawyer for legal advice about your murder case. The quality of legal representation in a murder defense could make the difference in whether you spend decades behind bars.

What Is First-Degree Murder?

First-degree murder is typically defined as the unlawful killing of a human being that is premeditated, deliberate, and willful. State laws differ on the exact terms used but first-degree murder usually requires premeditation.


“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. Planning and plotting seems like a long, drawn-out process, but premeditated murder does not have a fixed amount of time. Premeditation can occur over a short period of time, even minutes.

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 to think about their choices, then generally enough time has gone by to count as premeditation.


Deliberation is an essential part of a first-degree murder conviction. This has to do with the mental state of the accused perpetrator. This occurs when someone purposefully engages in a murderous act with the belief or hope their actions will result in the death of another person. This 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 this type of murder.


The willfulness element of first-degree murder speaks to someone’s intent. A defendant willfully commits first-degree murder when they act intentionally of their own free will. Killing someone in an accident generally isn’t willful. Intentional killing means there is no one forcing to kill another.

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 in your jurisdiction can help you understand how your state interprets this element.

What Are First-Degree Murder Crimes?

Many states have specific first-degree murder offenses. For example, several states consider killing a judge or law enforcement officer to be first-degree murder. In these cases, the prosecutor can seek first-degree murder charges without considering lesser charges.

What Is the Felony Murder Rule?

Many states have a felony murder rule. This means that when someone dies during the commission of certain felonies, it can automatically be first-degree murder. Felony murder violent crimes can include armed robbery, arson, and burglary.

For example, if someone is robbing a jewelry store and accidentally shoots the clerk, the robber can be charged with murder even if it wasn’t intentional. This is because criminal law generally considers certain crimes to be dangerous enough that there is a serious risk of bodily harm or death.

Felony murder can include 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.

For example, if two people are robbing a bank and a police officer shoots and kills one of the robbers, the other robber can be charged with felony murder.

What Are the Penalties for First-Degree Murder?

Most states consider first-degree murder to be among the most serious crimes. The penalties and sentencing minimums are set by each state. A conviction of first-degree murder almost always leads to serious jail time, from 20 years to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In states that still have capital punishment, the maximum sentence can include the death penalty.

Criminal Defense Help From an Attorney

For anyone facing potential first-degree murder charges, contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney can be the first step. Defense attorneys can help create a legal defense to challenge the prosecutor’s case. Your attorney can advocate in your best interests and negotiate to reduce the criminal charges.

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