What is First Degree Murder?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on August 17, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You've seen it on CSI, Law & Order, and... well, basically all the crime-based procedurals that have aired or are airing on television today. Many viewers might wonder, what is first degree murder?

Is it simply a killing that is morally wrong?

Is it a murder that prosecutors find extra morally repulsive? Well, not quite.

To be more precise, first-degree murder statutes generally vary from state to state. Most criminal statutes, like murder, are state law and are not federal law, meaning that there is some diversity in first degree murder statutes depending on where you live.

Generally speaking, first degree murder is usually considered a killing that was executed willfully and with premeditation.

This usually means that in order to commit first degree murder, the defendant must have knowingly or maliciously killed someone. In other words, the killing must not have been the accident or the result of negligence.

And, what does premeditation require? Generally, it means that there was some planning that went into the killing, or that the killer decided to "lie in wait" for the victim.

Some states have certain felony murder statutes that make it first-degree murder even if a death is accidental if it occurred during the commission of certain violent felonies.

Here are some examples:

  • Bob borrows John's lawnmower without asking. John then buys a gun, waits for Bob to come home, then shoots Bob, killing him. This is likely first-degree murder.
  • Mary and Sue decide to go rob a bank. In the middle of the bank robbery, Sue's gun goes off by accident and a bank teller is killed. This could be first-degree murder under a felony murder statute.

So for all those TV buffs out there, the generalized answer to the question "what is first degree murder" is relatively short and simple: a killing that is premeditated and willful, or sometimes a felony murder.

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