What is First-Degree Murder?


What is First-Degree Murder?

Typically, murder by specified means, premeditated murder, and severe felony murders are considered – by both federal and state governments – as first-degree murders.

Of all crimes, first-degree murder attracts the gravest punishments, compare to other crimes.

However, based on available defenses and elements of crime, first-degree sentencing varies across states. The varying punishments are spelled out in individual state’s statutes.

The judge, even with the well-stated provisions, still has some power to influence a convict’s sentence on a case-by-case basis.

First-degree murder is widely thought the most severe form of homicide, which often attracts a life imprisonment sentence – worse still, a death penalty.

The different classes of homicide have caused severe confusion among many, particular within the initiated in the legal space.

What is the difference between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter?

What is the difference between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter?

While these terms have been widely used interchangeably, they have entirely different legal provisions.

That said, prosecutors of first-degree murder ought to meet some conditions. Where the stipulated conditions are not met, prosecutors are forced to settle for a lesser charge.

This article seeks to explore homicide, first-degree murder, its punishment, and related criminal murder concerns.

Read also: first degree vs second-degree murder

But first, what is homicide?

Homicide generally refers to a crime that involves the death of one person, caused by another’s action. Noteworthily, all homicides are not criminal, although all human killing falls under the definition of homicide.

Several homicides – such as manslaughter and murder – are against criminal laws.

However, killing done in self-defense, if justifiable, is not criminal.

Criminal homicide includes murder and manslaughter. They usually come with different degrees, each representing the severity of the crime.

 Types of Criminal Homicide

For a comprehensive view, let’s briefly examine the different categories of homicide:

What is First-Degree Murder?

what is First Degree Murder

Of all criminal homicides, first-degree murder is considered most severe.

Generally, first-degree murders are not just intentional, they are also considered premeditated and with malice. This may involve anything from a short-term to a long-term action plan to kill.

The murderer’s intention may not even target the actual victim.

For instance, Damian plans to kill Jayden. Damian mistakenly pulls the trigger on another and kills them. This is considered an intentional and premeditated murder, even if the victim was not the target. Here, a first-degree murder charge is applicable.

Second-Degree Murder

A situation where the action was not premeditated but intended – as in a “heat of passion” – may refer to second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. State differs in this legislation.

Manslaughter – third-degree murder

Any unlawful killing rated less than a murder is generally referred to as manslaughter.

Involuntary manslaughter is considered the least form of manslaughter. In this case, the offender had no intention to kill but killed due to criminally reckless or negligent behavior.

A drunk driver who knocks down another person is a typical example of manslaughter.  Drunk-driving is already a crime, even without an intention to commit murder.

Voluntary manslaughter, in contrast, means the offender had no premeditated intention to kill. This may include ‘in the heat of passion” homicide, and murder done with no forethought. Across states, this crime may be grouped under some different legal terms, not ‘manslaughter.’

Legal Homicides

As mentioned, some homicides are lawful. Criminal laws make exceptional provisions for certain killing, which should ordinarily pass as murder and manslaughter. Such special conditions are termed “justified homicide.”

Such legal homicides may happen in self-defense or defense of another, as long as it is justifiable.

Homicides are considered justifiable where the supposed offender was compelled to self-defend, and the concerned state law provides for lethal force in such a situation.

Some state laws allow people to defend themselves – or another – from genuine threats of severe crimes like armed robbery, rape, and murder.

Other Wrong Death Claims

Regardless of the homicide category, killings may lead to a lawsuit and charge for wrongful death.

For homicides, the victim’s family may sue the suspect to obtain compensation from the alleged killer.

Although wrongful death charges seek monetary compensations instead of criminal punishment, these situations also demand relatively low proof, compared to that of a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence.

While the definition may however vary across the states, most states describe first-degree murder as a willful and premeditated unlawful killing. This simply means a planned killing.

Statutory Sentencing Options

Possible sentencing for first-degree murder varies widely across states. In states like Florida, first-degree murder offenders are either sentenced to death or life imprisonment – with no possibility of parole.

However, states like California adopts a double-tier sentencing formula:

  • First, the convict is sentenced to many years in prison – or even for life. Or,
  • Secondly, the convict is sentenced to death (for states where it is applicable) or life imprisonment without a parole option.

The court’s decision on which sentence to pass down is dependent on whether the murder involved one or more aggravating factors.

Aggravating Factors

Across the states, some factors tends to increase the severity of first-degree murders, and their sentences. These factors are referred to as aggravating factors.

These aggravators consider the parts of the crime of the victim or of the defendant that further implicates an individual for life imprisonment without the parole option or death sentence.

Among others, some popular aggravating factors include:

  • The accused has pending murder convictions
  • The murder involved the use of explosives or bombs
  • The victim was poisoned by the defendant
  • The murder involved torture or was a particularly heinous one
  • Law enforcement officer murdered on duty
  • The murder happened during a violent act – such as rape, arson or robbery
  • The killer waited and ambushed victim
  • The crime led to the death of a judge, witness, juror, or prosecutor to prevent them from performing their official duties.

This list contains, but a handful of factors that aggravates murder sentencing across states. See state-by-state laws for a comprehensive list of aggravating factors by state.

Death Penalty

Presently, many states maintain the death sentence as a major option for convicts of severe murder. There are varying provisions on how many times prosecution can request for the death penalty and whether such high-level murder crimes deserve a death sentence.

For example, Texas allows death as punishment for capital murder – its most severe murder conviction. Conversely, Washington imposes life imprisonment with no parole instead of death penalty.

Life Imprisonment Without Parole.

For States that do not recognize capital punishments, persons convicted of first-degree murder with aggravating factors bags a life imprisonment sentence without an option of parole.

In states with capital punishment option, aggravated first-degree murders may still attract a life sentence without parole, where the prosecution fails to push for or is unable to influence a death penalty.

Lesser Convictions

Where a first-degree murder is charged with no aggravating factors, a range of prison sentences are applicable.

Here, life imprisonment may be offered with the possibility of parole.

The prison term for such murder charges varies across states. In some states, such convicts may get up to 25 years – or life – In prison. New York, where capital punishment is illegal, may sentence the same conviction to, at most, 20 to 25 years in prison.

 Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Killing

Euthanasia simply refers to mercy killing. It is a legal painless killing, initiated by a physician, of an individual who suffers a persistent –perhaps incurable – ailment. The patient and their family must consent to this act to be legal. This practice is recognized across eight states in the US.

Across these jurisdictions, a physician will not be prosecuted for prescribing – or administering – medications to end a patient’s life. Euthanasia prescription must, however, be issued by a state-approved doctor from the patient’s state of residence.

Again, the patient must have been diagnosed with the terminal disease and must have been medically confirmed to have less than six years to live.

Physician-Assisted Death (PAD) is different from legal euthanasia. Although they share some similarities, in that a physcian supports a patient to commit suicide, PAD is criminal, except on court order.

Most state laws prohibit non-certified doctors from assisting or encouraging suicide. Otherwise, the act may be considered murder or manslaughter.

First Degree Murder Defenses

While first-degree murder attracts the most dreaded punishment, they are not without defenses. The alleged killer can claim innocence and argue that the cops went for the wrong person.  Or, they may agree to the crime but argue that certain circumstances compelled them to do so, as justified by the law.

Again, the accused may agree to committing the crime but pray the court to offer a lesser sentence, in the event the prosecution fails to provide enough evidence that supports the element of the crime.

Let’s take a detailed look at possible first-degree murder defenses. While some are a total defense, others may attract lesser charges, perhaps for second-degree murder or even manslaughter.

Mistaken Identity

Defendants of homicide charges – such as first-degree murder – mostly argue mistaken identity.

That is, they claim they were wrongly charged for the killing. Such defendants may project an alibi, providing evidence of being in a whole different scene during the said murder.

Mistaken identity defenses may also include argument against evidence that says the defendant was at the crime scene. Such may involve forensic evidence challenges or witness identification challenges.

Failure to satisfy the Elements of a crime

First-degree murders are special crimes with stipulated elements. The court expects a ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ proof for each of the specified elements. While the regulations differ across state jurisdictions, first-degree murder largely entails:

  • An action that caused the death of another person
  • Intent to commit the crime
  • Deliberation
  • Premeditation

These elements MUST be complete for the crime to qualify as a first-degree murder. In such cases, defendants may settle for a second-degree or a third-degree murder – alias manslaughter.

That said, the prosecution is responsible to convince the jury that the murder captures all these elements. Also, the defense attorney may argue that the elements were not completely met.

Accidental Killing

Killing is not considered murder if it occurred by accident. Instead, they might be charged for either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

If accidental homicide happens while committing a crime or caused by a criminal intention, such cases may be charged for first or second-degree murder.

For instance,  parental discipline could cause the accidental death of a child. Wrongful application of physical force can aggravate the killing into murder – and even one of first degree, depending on the state.


A defendant can argue the justification of the killing they committed, and why they do not deserve a first-degree sentence.


Remember – all homicides are not criminal. Some homicides can be justified, particularly if done in self-defense.

To win a self-defense argument, the defendant must prove to the jury that the death was caused by an attempt to resist the fear of bodily harm or death. Besides, such a threatening situation must not have been instigated by the defendant.

Also, the ratio of the degree of resistance to the perceived threat must be proportional. The perceived threat must be one considered widely capable to cause fear of bodily harm or even death. Insults or mere words are not justifiable for murder.

Again, the defendant’s response must take place in the course of the death threat or bodily harm and not after.

Across many states, the law requires defendants to tender evidence of an attempt to retreat or avert danger before the use of deadly defense.

For instance, if someone defends him/herself from muggers with pepper spray, the defender may, first, attempt to run to safety, and not shooting the attacker.

Defense of others

Defending others may be justifiable – so far it is not just logical but proportional. You may apply force to successfully defend another from pending harm, provided your action is aimed at intervening and that the threatened party would’ve been expected to self-defend.  Here, similar requirements apply – application of force must be well-timed and reasonably proportional to the threat.

Exercise of Duty

Homicides done by certain public officers – like law enforcement – are justifiable. If a cop on duty kills a person, and without any perceived illegal intent, negligence or recklessness, such homicide is not considered murder – let alone in the first degree.

In some states – like California, public officers are highly protected. If an officer kills an individual while about his legal duty, the law seeks their covering, as long as there was no use of excessive force.


In many states, insanity is allowed for first-degree murder defense. The application, however, varies even among these states.

As a measurement of criminal liability, many states define insanity as a state of cognitive inability to acknowledge the wrongness of an act.


  • Across many states laws – and the federal law – murder by a certain means, premeditated murder, felony murder all fall under the first-degree-murder category.
  • Premedidated murder refers to the purposeful killing of another, after due reflections and planning. The timeframe between formulating the criminal intent and the execution of the act does not count.
  • The nature of the act may prove whether or not the killing was premeditated. If indications clearly point to a calculated desire to end a victim’s life, the court may pass sentence typical of premeditated murder.
  • Murder by a specific means refers to murder committed with a specific heinous method.
  • First-degree murder conditions may include murder executed via either of these specified means: bombs and other explosives, poison, torture, ammunition capable of puncturing bulletproof vest, lying in wait, drive-by shooting, and mass destruction weapons.
  • First-degree murder ranks top among other classes of murder and comes with the gravest sentencing. For states that provide for capital punishments, first-degree murder is the sole crime that deserves a death sentence punishment. For states where capital punishment is abolished, first-degree criminals may be sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • Criminal homicide is the sole crime against a human that warrants death penalty. In some state laws, death penalties are only granted if the defendant commits a first-degree murder supported by, at least, an aggravating factor – not canceled out by mitigating factors.

Seek Legal Aid

First-degree murder is one of the most severe crimes there is. The chances are that, if convicted, defendants may face life imprisonment – or even bag a death sentence.

You may need a seasoned legal defense counsel to increase your chances of a successful argument against first-degree murder sentence. Your attoney may help you get a lesser sentence – like second-degree murder or, better still, manslaughter. Although rare, your murder case might even be dismissed.