First Degree Murder Laws & Charges + Statute of Limitations

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In most states, murder in the first degree is the illegal killing of another person that is both willing and premeditated. This means that the murder was committed after planning.

Most states also feature a legal concept called ‘the felony murder rule.’ This means that you have committed first degree murder if there is death as other violent felonies are being committed, such as rape, robbery and burglary.

For example, if two people rob a liquor store and the owner of the store shoots and kills one of the robbers, the other robber could be charged with first degree murder, even though the second robber did not pull the trigger.

First Degree Murder Laws

Most state laws categorize murders into 1st, 2nd and 3rd degrees. For a murder to be considered first degree, there must be three elements proven in a court of law:

  • Willfulness
  • Deliberation
  • Premeditation

Some states also mandate that ‘malice aforethought’ be proven as well, but states will differ on how malice needs to be proven. Most states also have laws that stipulate that certain types of first degree murder do not need to have proven intent, deliberation and premeditation. One of the most common examples is the killing of a police officer.

Not every state does break murder into these degrees. In some areas, the top murder crime is referred to as ‘capital murder.’


Someone convicted of first degree murder must have had the intent to end human life. The intent does not have to have been actually focused on the victim. A murder where the killer wants to kill but kills someone else would still be first degree murder. Also, in many states, killing through an action that shows indifference to life can also be first degree murder.

Deliberation and Premeditation

Whether the killer acted with deliberation and premeditation only will be determined by the facts of the case. The need for these does not mean that the suspect must think for a long time about the possible murder. There just has to be enough time to form a thought to kill and then to actually act upon it after enough time to pass for a person to second guess the thought is usually enough.

This can happen quickly, deliberation and premeditation must have happened before and not at the same time that the killing occurred.

Malice Aforethought

In many states, perpetrators in a first degree murder case must have acted with malice. This means they had an evil disposition/purpose and did not have any care about human life. States will treat ‘malice’ in different ways. In some states, malice aforethought means the same as acting with premeditated intent to kill or callous indifference to human life.

Other states state that you must show malice as distinct from deliberation, willfulness and premeditation that is required for a charge of first degree murder.

First Degree Murder Crimes and Charges

Some states will specify some types of killings as first degree murder. In many of these cases, the elements of intent to kill, deliberation and premeditation are not always needed. For example:

  • A child being killed with unreasonable force
  • Killings committed in a domestic violence situation
  • Murder of a police officer
  • Homicides that happen in the presence of other serious felonies, including rape, arson, robbery etc.

First Degree Murder Punishment

The possible punishments for first degree murder vary a great deal from state to state. In many states, such as Florida, anyone convicted of first degree murder can receive the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole.

Other states, including California, have a sentencing structure with two tiers. The first features a range of years, which can be up to life in prison. The second is either life without possibility of parole or the death penalty. Which sentence tier is handed down often depends if the prosecution is able to prove any aggravating factors.

Death Penalty

Most states have the death penalty as the ultimate sanction for a first degree murder conviction. States will vary upon how often prosecutors seek the death penalty. Texas will impose a death sentence for all convicted of capital murder. In California, first degree murder can lead to a penalty of life in prison.

Life Without Parole

The states that do not have a death penalty usually have a sentence of life in prison without chance of parole.

First Degree Murder Sentencing Guidelines

Many state laws detail specific factors that can make those found guilty of first degree murder subject to harsher sentencing guidelines. Aggravating factors usually include some aspect of the crime or the defendant. Some of the most frequent aggravating factors that can increase the sentence are:

  • Defendant has a previous murder conviction
  • Killing occurred during the commission of another serious crime
  • Victim was a law enforcement officer who was performing his duties at the time
  • Victim was a prosecutor or judge
  • Killing was especially heinous, may have involved torture
  • Defendant laid in wait
  • Defendant used poison
  • Killing involved a bomb

First Degree Murder Statute of Limitations

There is no statute of limitations for first degree murder in any US state.


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Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

About Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

Geoffrey G Nathan is a top federal crimes lawyer and Chief Editor of He is a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1988, admitted to practice in both Federal and State courts. If you have questions about your federal case he can help by calling 877.472.5775.