First Degree Murder: An Overview

While the specific statutes that define first-degree murder vary from state to state, first-degree murder is usually defined as an unlawful killing that is deliberate, premeditated and willful. First-degree murder differs from second-degree murder in that premeditation is generally a required element.

In many states, some enumerated types of murders are automatically considered first-degree murders. Murders that are committed by lying in wait for the victim or involving torture, for example, are automatically considered first-degree murder in California. In New York, the intentional killing of a law enforcement officer or judge is considered first-degree murder. Other examples might include killings committed during a pattern of domestic abuse, killings committed using poison, or the killing of a child using unreasonable force.

Deliberation

Deliberation is a key element of many murder classifications, and it is essential for a first-degree murder conviction. An intentional or deliberate act is one where individuals are aware of the consequences of their actions. A deliberate act is also generally not provoked by outside forces and is not committed in the heat of passion.

Premeditation

Some might assume that premeditation involves a long and drawn-out plan that is developed over time, but this is not necessarily the case. Premeditation can occur a short time before a murder is committed. If a reasonable person would have had time to second-guess an initial thought to kill before acting, then enough time has elapsed for premeditation to exist. It should be noted, however, that premeditation must happen before the act and not during it.

One example showing premeditation might involve someone taking a life insurance policy out on the victim before committing a murder. An even simpler example might involve someone deciding to use a certain weapon to commit the act.

Willfulness

Generally, willfulness in a murder case means that the perpetrator had the intent to end a human life. This means that the act was committed intentionally and not by accident. Because willfulness can be difficult to identify, it is examined and decided on a case-by-case basis.

In one example, if a distracted motorist accidentally strikes a pedestrian while backing out of a parking space, the crime would typically not be seen as willful in nature. However, if the same driver were to repeatedly run over that pedestrian following a dispute, this would likely be perceived as willful conduct.

Malice Aforethought

In some cases, the element of malice is also required for a first-degree murder conviction. Malice is characterized by an intent to do evil or a disregard for human life. Some states require that malice be shown separately from the other three elements. Other states, however, consider malice to be the same as premeditation.

The Felony Murder Rule

While it varies by state, most states follow the felony murder rule. This doctrine holds that any deaths, even accidental ones, that are caused during the commission of certain felonies are considered first-degree murders. These felonies can include robbery, rape, burglary and kidnapping, among others. If it applies, then each person who participates in committing the felony can be charged with first-degree murder. It should be noted that the doctrine is applicable even if the person who dies is one of the perpetrators.

An example of the felony murder rule in practice might involve the robbery of a home. If there are multiple perpetrators of the robbery and only one of them kills the homeowner, all of the people robbing the house can be charged with first-degree murder.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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