First-degree murder is the most serious of all homicide offenses. It involves any intentional murder that is willful and premeditated with malice aforethought. Premeditation requires that the defendant planned the murder before it was committed or was “lying in wait” for the victim. For example, a wife who buys poison and puts it in her husband’s coffee commits a premeditated murder, as does a man who waits behind a fence to attack a neighbor coming home from work. In many states, felony murder is also charged as first-degree murder.
While most states separate murder into first degree and second degree, some states classify murder differently. For instance, in New York, first-degree murder requires that the murder involve “special circumstances,” such as the murder of a police officer. Similarly, the Model Penal Code does not classify murder by degree, but defines murder as “any killing committed purposefully and knowingly.” This means that it is important to check the penal code of your state or consult a criminal defense lawyer to determine whether and how first-degree murder is defined.
Requirements for First-degree Murder
Although the exact state laws defining first-degree murder vary by state, most state penal codes require that a prosecutor establish willfulness, deliberation, and premeditation in order to convict a defendant of first-degree murder. Willfulness requires that the defendant acted with the intent to kill another person. Thus, the death cannot have been accidental. However, the prosecutor does not have to show that the defendant intended to kill that particular victim. If the defendant shoots into a crowd with the intent to kill his friend, but hits and kills a bystander instead, these facts can still support a charge of first-degree murder.
Deliberation and premeditation mean that the prosecutor must show that the defendant developed the conscious intent to kill before committing the murder. This is a low threshold and does not require showing that the defendant created an extensive plan before he committed the act (although that might sometimes be the case). Rather, deliberation and premeditation require only that the defendant paused, for at least a few moments, to consider his actions, during which time a reasonable person would have had time to second guess such actions.
Punishment and Defenses
Because first-degree murder constitutes a very serious crime, a conviction results in very serious punishment. In many states, a conviction for first-degree murder can result in the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The actual sentencing options available for a first-degree murder conviction will vary greatly by state. Some states, for instance, have prohibited the death penalty. It is therefore helpful to check the laws of your particular state to best understand possible punishments.
A defendant facing a conviction for first-degree murder is also entitled to raise arguments in his defense. A defendant may seek to show that the prosecution has not established the elements necessary for a first-degree murder conviction. For instance, the defendant may argue that the killing was accidental, and thus could not have been premeditated. A defendant may also argue that the crime was a “justified homicide.” This means that the killing was not a crime at all. The most common justified homicide defenses are self-defense and defense of others. In order to succeed in arguing self-defense, the defendant must show not just that he was scared or intimidated, but that the threat he faced would put a reasonable person in fear of death or great bodily harm.
Additionally, the degree of force he used in defending himself (and causing the death of another) must have been proportional to the threat perceived. A defendant usually cannot claim self-defense for murder when his victim was only threatening to inflict minor harm, like a slap or a push. The same requirements apply to defense of others; the use of force must be in response to a perceived threat and must be proportional to the threat faced.