Written by Canterbury Law Group

First Degree Murder Sentencing and Penalties

First Degree Murder Sentencing and Penalties

First-degree murder is typically described as a willful and premeditated killing that was carried out after careful preparation or “lying in wait” for the victim. As an illustration, Dan returns home to see his wife sleeping with Victor. Dan stands behind a tree close to Victor’s front door three days later. Dan shoots and murders Victor as soon as he leaves his home.

Elements Of First Degree Murder

These elements are willfulness, deliberation and premeditation. However federal law and some states also include malice afterthought as an element. The amount of malice differs from state to state. Most states decide based on certain kinds of killings. However, not all states divide murders into degrees. For example, in some states the top level of murder is known as “capital murder.”


There must be a specified intent to kill with a first degree murder. Even if the eventual victim was not the original intention. Many state laws sat killing with a depraved indifference to human life qualifies as first degree murder.

Deliberation And Premeditation

This can only be decided on an individual case basis. Having time enough to make the decision to kill and then act on it following enough time for a reasonable person to think of the consequences usually is enough. Deliberation and preparation must always happen prior to the killing.

Malice Aforethought

Certain killings are categorized as first degree murder, for example:

  • The killing of a child by means of unreasonable force
  • Certain killings when in a pattern of domestic abuse
  • The murder of a member of law enforcement
  • Homicides as part of another crime such as robbery, arson or rape
  • Intentional Poisonings
  • Murders as a result of being imprisoned
  • Murders where the killer waited for and/or ambushed the victim

Most states also follow a legal principle known as the “felony murder rule,” which stipulates that anyone who kills anyone (even unintentionally) as a result of committing certain violent felonies, like:

  • Arson;
  • Burglary;
  • Kidnapping;
  • abuse; and
  • Robbery.

For instance, when Dan and Connie rob Victor’s liquor shop, Victor shoots Dan as he runs away, killing him. Even if neither of the thieves actually killed Dan, Connie can be prosecuted with first-degree murder under the felony murder rule.

The Components of First-Class Murder

In general, state laws that divide homicides into first, second, and possibly third degrees demand that first degree murders contain three essential characteristics.

  • Willfulness;
  • decision-making; and
  • Premeditation.

In addition, “malice aforethought” is a requirement under federal law and in several states. States, however, have different standards for what constitutes malice and whether it is a prerequisite for the intentional, premeditated, and willful murder of human life. The majority of states additionally list specific types of murder as first degree murders without requiring proof of intention, deliberate action, or premeditation.

Not all states categorize different types of murder. The most serious murder offense is sometimes referred to by a different word, such as “capital murder.”


First degree murderers must have the precise purpose to kill a human life in order to be considered willfully guilty. This intention need not be related to the victim in question. First-degree murder is still committed if the victim was the intended victim but the murderer ended up killing a random person or the wrong person. Furthermore, murder in the first degree can be charged under the laws of several states when the act of killing demonstrates a callous disregard for human life.

Premeditation and Deliberation

Only a case-by-case analysis can determine whether a murderer behaved with the forethought and premeditation necessary for first degree murder. The need for deliberate action and premeditation does not imply that the murderer had to think about the crime deeply or make extensive preparations before committing it. Usually enough time is allowed to acquire the conscious intent to kill, and then enough time to act on it after a reasonable individual has had a chance to reconsider their choice. Even though it might happen very rapidly, planning and preparation must come before, not during, the act of killing.

“Malice Ahead of Time”

First-degree murderers are required by several state statutes to have acted with malice or “malice aforethought.” Malice is typically characterized by a wicked nature or goal as well as a disregard for human life. States have varied laws on how to define “malice.” Malice aforethought is defined in certain legal systems as behaving with a planned intent to kill or severe disregard for human life. Other states demand proof of malice in addition to the usual elements of first degree murder, such as willfulness, deliberation, and premeditation.

First-degree Murders Listed

State laws frequently designate certain sorts of homicides as first degree. In some situations, it may not be necessary to prove the traditional requirements of explicit intent to murder, deliberate action, and premeditation. These often include:

  • the use of excessive force to murder a kid;
  • certain murders carried out amid a pattern of domestic violence;
  • a law enforcement officer was killed, and
  • murders committed while other crimes, such arson, rape, robbery, or other violent crimes, are being committed.

This list just serves to highlight a few of the first-degree murders mentioned. Consult the relevant state legislation for an exhaustive list.

Additionally, many states define particular killing techniques as first-degree murder. These include homicides committed with the purpose to poison, those brought on by torture or incarceration, and those committed while the victim was being “lay in wait” for or ambushed.

Generally, convictions for first-degree murder carry the highest penalties of any crime. Similar to the elements of the crime and potential defenses, sentence varies from state to state. Even if there are rigorous statutory rules, courts have discretion in determining the sentence a convicted murderer would get based on the circumstances of the case.

Learn more about first-degree murder penalties by continuing to read.

Statutory Sentence Alternatives

The possible punishments for first-degree murder vary greatly by state. In many places, such as Florida, all first-degree murder convictions result in either the death penalty or life without parole.

Other states, such as California, employ a two-tiered sentencing structure: the first tier consists of a range of years (typically up to life) in prison, and the second tier consists of life without parole or the death penalty (in states that allow it). Which level of punishment a court normally imposes depends on whether the prosecution can prove any of a variety of aggravating circumstances.

Contributing Factors

State statutes specify the circumstances under which people convicted of first-degree murder are subject to the state’s harshest punishment. Aspects of the crime, the defendant, or the victim(s) that make the defendant eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole are aggravating circumstances.

Typical irritating elements include:

The defendant has one or more prior convictions for murder;

The homicide occurred during any of a list of violent crimes (such as arson, rape, or robbery);

  • The victim was an officer of the law doing official duties;
  • The victim was a judge, prosecutor, witness, or juror who was murdered to prevent them from carrying out their responsibilities.
  • The murder was extremely cruel or torture was involved;
  • The defendant ambushed the victim after lying in wait for him;
  • The defendant administered a toxin to the victim;
  • The killings involved explosives or bombs; and
  • The defendant was an active member of a gang, and the victim was murdered in the course of gang operations.
  • This list just demonstrates a few of the aggravating elements utilized in some states for first-degree murder punishment. Consult the applicable state statute for a comprehensive list of aggravating factors in a particular state.

The Death Sentence

Currently, the death sentence remains a possibility for persons convicted of the most severe murder conviction in the majority of states. States vary with respect to the frequency with which they seek the death penalty, as well as whether their highest-level murder convictions demand the death sentence. Texas, for instance, sentences to death all those convicted of capital murder, the highest level of murder accusation. In contrast, aggravated first-degree murder in California carries either the death penalty or life without parole.

Life without the Chance of Release

In states lacking the death penalty, a conviction for first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances typically results in a life sentence without the possibility of release. In many states with the death penalty, a conviction for aggravated first-degree murder results in life without parole if the prosecution does not seek the death sentence or fails to convince the court to impose it.

Lesser Sentences

Sentences for first-degree murder convictions without aggravating circumstances vary. This can entail life in prison with the prospect of parole in the future. This type of murder conviction carries a jail sentence ranging from 25 years to life in California to 20 to 25 years in New York, to name just two examples.

Questions Regarding First-Degree Murder Penalties and Sentences? Obtain Legal Aid Today

Although state laws regarding first-degree murder differ, it is a serious offense in every state. A conviction for first-degree murder may result in a lengthy jail term or the death penalty. If you are facing allegations of first-degree murder, it is in your best advantage to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney who can answer your questions, negotiate with the prosecution, and build the strongest possible defense case.

Obtaining Legal Assistance in a First-Degree Murder Case

First degree murder is one of the most serious accusations you might be charged with in the criminal justice system, and it carries the worst punishments. So that you may understand your rights and protections and create a moving legal strategy, it’s crucial to get in touch with a skilled criminal defense lawyer as soon as you can.

Need A Criminal Defense Lawyer In Scottsdale or Phoenix?

Canterbury Law Group’s criminal defense lawyers in Phoenix and Scottsdale will defend your case with personal attention and always have you and your best interests in mind when offering legal solutions. Call today for an initial consultation! We handle criminal defense cases in all areas of Phoenix including Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Maryville, Apache Junction, and more.

We are experienced criminal defense attorneys and will fight for you to obtain the best possible outcome. Our firm will rigorously represent you, so you can get on with your life. Call today for an initial consultation! 480-744-7711 or [email protected]

*This information is not intended to be legal advice. Please contact Canterbury Law Group today to learn more about your personal legal needs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *