How Does It Differ from Other Types of Homicide?
Within the American criminal justice system, the crime of homicide can be charged in a number of different ways, with first-degree murder as the most serious offense. As a general rule, homicide crimes are prosecuted in state courts under state law. Though there may be slight variations in the application of the law from state to state, first-degree murder shares many common elements in jurisdictions across the country.
First-Degree Murder vs. Second-Degree and Third-Degree Murder
The legal term “murder” refers to an unlawful killing of one person by another, typically with some level of intent. The original definition of murder, taken from the common law (judge-made law handed down in court opinions) was an unlawful killing “with malice aforethought.” Such premeditated killings are treated as “first-degree” murder.
A person can be charged with second-degree murder in certain situations where the killing is not planned:
- Unplanned killing—This includes killing someone in the “heat of the moment.”
- Intending to cause serious bodily harm but resulting in death—If Joe hits Mark with a shovel, using all his might and intending to inflict serious bodily harm, and Mark ends up dying as a result of his injuries, then Joe can be charged with second-degree murder even though Joe didn’t intend to kill Mark.
- Reckless disregard for the value of human life—A person may be charged with murder for a death caused by behavior that shows a “reckless disregard for the value of human life” that is so extreme a jury might find that it rises to the level of malice aforethought. For example, if a person waves around a loaded gun, not intending to fire it, but the gun goes off accidentally and kills someone, the person may be charged with second-degree murder.
Three states—Florida, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota—have third-degree murder statutes. In those states, third-degree murder is the equivalent of manslaughter in other states–that is, an unplanned, unintentional killing or one caused by criminal negligence. Third-degree murder can be either voluntary or involuntary. The classic voluntary manslaughter example is a “heat of passion” killing where a man comes home to find his wife with another man and kills the other man right then and there. Involuntary manslaughter applies when someone is killed due to the defendant’s negligence, as opposed to second-degree murder, which involves behavior that rises to the level of “extreme recklessness.”
What Are the Elements of First-Degree Murder in Modern Society?
All laws currently governing homicide and murder are statutory, i.e., written laws enacted by legislative bodies. As a general rule, such statutes define first-degree murder as requiring three elements:
- Willfulness—In most states, the prosecution must show that a person charged with first degree murder had the specific intent to kill someone. The intent required is not limited to the actual victim. If you intend to kill one person, but kill another instead, there is still sufficient specific intent for a first-degree murder charge.
- Premeditation—The person must have formed the thought before committing the act. It distinguishes first degree murder from other forms of homicide, such as killings done “in the heat of passion,” or because of an “irresistible impulse,” which are typically charged as either second-degree murder or manslaughter.
- Deliberation—Deliberation suggests that the perpetrator contemplated both the act and its consequence beforehand (including the potential punishment), and decided to commit the act anyway. Whereas premeditation is simply thinking about committing an act, deliberation is a weighing of the factors involved. The two typically go hand in hand, and generally do not require any lengthy period of time.
Other Homicides That Can Be Charged as First-Degree Murder
Again, though laws differ somewhat from state to state, there are other situations where all of the elements referred to above are not present but where a person may nonetheless be charged and convicted of first-degree murder:
- Felony murder—In all but three states—Michigan, Kentucky and Hawaii—a person can be charged with first-degree murder when a death occurs during the commission of a dangerous felony, even though the person is not the killer. As a general rule, those states that make felony murder a first-degree offense restrict its application to situations where the homicide was the result of negligence (and was, therefore, not intentional). Furthermore, some states specifically limit felony murder to crimes of violence and may even enumerate the specific felonies that apply.
- Killing certain public safety officials—Many jurisdictions make the homicide of a police officer, fireman, or other public safety officer first-degree murder.
- Homicides resulting from a pattern of domestic violence or abuse—Some states will elevate a homicide committed during domestic violence or abuse to a first-degree murder charge.
- Killing a child—The use of unreasonable force that results in the death of a child may give rise to a first-degree murder prosecution. For example, an adult who violently shakes a baby or toddler may be charged with first-degree murder if that child dies.
Specific elements or circumstances must be present to elevate a homicide charge to first-degree murder. As a general rule, an intentional killing committed with willfulness, premeditation, and deliberation can be charged as a first-degree offense. Other state laws elevate homicides perpetrated in the commission of a felony to first-degree murder. Other situations where a person might be charged with first-degree murder include the killing of a public safety officer, the homicide of a person during an act of domestic violence, or the use of unreasonable force to take the life of a child.