First-degree murder and capital murder are commonly confused – most likely because they’re so similar. The main difference between first-degree and capital is the punishment that someone who’s committed these crimes receives.
A person is charged with first-degree if it’s suspected they took time to think about killing another person before killing them. This premeditation differs from other murder charges where a person may have killed someone by accident or in a rage. In either case, planning was not a factor.
Individuals convicted of first-degree receive multiple years in prison – some get life sentences – often without the possibility of parole.
Felony Murder Rule
There are times when a defendant may not plan to kill but receive a first-degree charge. This charge can happen when someone dies as a result of a felony. Typical examples include carjackings, bank robberies, and arson. Known as the “felony murder rule,” accomplices may be charged with first-degree in any of the states where this rule applies. Felony murder is considered a first-degree murder (and sometimes a capital murder.)
One example is Ryan Holle. Even though Holle was not at the scene of the crime – or awake when it happened – Holle is serving 25 years in prison. On the night of the crime, Holle handed his car keys to a group of friends who were going to rob a house, knowing why they were going to use his car. Unfortunately, a young woman died during the robbery.
Florida prosecutors argued that, while Holle didn’t know a murder would occur, he did know his friends were planning to rob the home. Since a resident of the house was killed in the process, he was just as guilty as those at the scene of the crime.
Felony murder may also apply if:
- A victim or bystander dies from natural causes. These natural causes include a heart attack or stroke while a crime is in progress.
- A participant in the crime is killed by a bystander or a peace officer who is trying to stop the crime. In such cases, others who participated in the crime can be charged with the partner’s death.
While the exact phrase “felony murder” may not appear in state legal codes, these types of charges are clearly defined under the circumstances of first-degree where this doctrine exists.
States With The Felony Murder Rule
State laws on how felony murder may be used to charge individuals vary. California, for example, recently changed to a more specific set of circumstances. Before the change, anyone involved in a felony resulting in death could be charged with first-degree regardless of intent or knowledge of a victim’s death.
Under new guidelines, a felony murder charge may only apply if:
- A suspect is involved in the killing of another while committing a felony
- A police officer dies while trying to stop the crime
- A person actively supports another who had an intent to kill a victim during a crime
- A person was a major player in the planning and execution of a crime and acted in a way that would likely lead to someone’s death
Almost all states have a felony murder rule, and the death penalty cannot be enacted on someone who had only a minor role in the crime in any of those states. There are four states that have abolished the felony murder rule, and those states are:
Capital murder is first-degree murder that can result in the death penalty. The state has to have a capital punishment law, and often the crime has to have exceptional circumstances surrounding it. Usually, this is the murder of a police officer, firefighter, or another government worker.
Other Murder Charges
Within each of these charges are different levels, depending on circumstance. Punishments for people convicted of these crimes will also vary. While capital murder and first-degree murder are the most serious murders a person can be charged with, any of these others may also apply. These may even apply in addition to capital or first-degree murder charges. The rules on how these charges may apply vary depending on the state and the circumstances surrounding the victim’s death.
Under the law, murder is typically defined by intent. That is, a defendant knew their actions may lead to another’s death and proceeded anyway. Where there is no intention beforehand, but a victim still dies, other murder charges may apply, such as:
A murder took place, but there was no intent to kill or premeditation before the incident happened. Second-degree commonly applies to heated situations that escalate into an altercation. The defendant did not take time to plan their actions and were, usually, in an emotional rage. We can also label these as “crimes of passion,” but they’re not always romance-related.
Voluntary Manslaughter (or third-degree murder)
The lines between second-degree and voluntary manslaughter can sometimes be difficult to identify until a full trial has taken place. These cases include those where individuals knew that a confrontation – such as a fight – could result in death, but chose to engage anyway.
The contrast between second-degree and voluntary manslaughter is more evident in cases where a defendant claims to have felt imminent danger. A person acting in what they believe to be self-defense may be charged with voluntary manslaughter if they go so far as to kill the person they claim made them fear for their life.
A person charged with involuntary manslaughter didn’t plan, show intent to kill, and had no malice against the victim. Despite intent, this lesser charge is classified as a homicide in most jurisdictions. These charges can include accidental deaths and those that occur through negligence.
More Information on Capital Murder v. First-Degree Murder
The easiest way to recall the difference between capital v. first-degree murder is that capital murder results in capital punishment if a person is convicted. For more information on capital v. first-degree murder, we recommend reading our archives on this subject. There, you will learn more about the death penalty, including its history, and discover which states impose capital punishment and which do not. Anyone with further questions on this topic or who may currently be involved in a capital or first-degree murder case should immediately contact a qualified attorney for more specific advice and assistance.