Murder Law

What is Murder?

Murder, or more accurately, Criminal Homicide, is the unlawful taking of the life of another. Most states have varying degrees of murder and manslaughter, such as premeditated (or first degree murder), or murder committed during the commission of another crime (sometimes called felony murder). Not all states have adopted the Model Penal Code to classify different types of murder. Nevertheless, it serves as the basis of the criminal codes of 2/3 of the states in the U.S.


The most serious type of criminal homicide is Murder. Murder is typically broken down further into several sub-categories; commonly first and second degree murder.

First Degree Murder

First degree murder is the most serious of all homicide charges, and applies to the intentional killing of a person after planning (or premeditation). It requires malice (evil intent) and forethought (planning). These cases are usually considered among the most heinous crimes and as such, the most severe punishments are reserved for them including life in prison or the death penalty.

Second Degree Murder

Second degree murder, on the other hand, usually applies to cases in which the killing may have been intentional but was not premeditated. These are often referred to as “crimes of passion.” A common example is the jealous husband that flies into a homicidal rage and kills his wife and her lover when he finds them in bed together.

Some states also consider grossly wanton and reckless behavior that results in the death of another to be second degree murder. This applies in situations where one's actions were so wanton and reckless that the death of another person was almost assured, even if the killing was not intentional.

Second degree murder is also very serious, and in most situations the defendant could face decades to life in prison, though the death sentence is not a possibility in these cases.


The charge of manslaughter is reserved for instances where the accused did not plan the crime nor did he or she intend for the victim to die because of his or her actions. A common example is the fatal car accident, particularly when the victim is a pedestrian.

Sentences for those convicted of manslaughter vary widely depending on state laws and the circumstances of the event in question. Typically these sentences are less than those given for second degree murder.

Justifiable Homicide

Justifiable homicide is not murder at all, as it is not considered criminal. Rather, it is the taking of another's life in circumstances in which the killing was necessary as the only means of preventing the murder of one's self or to protect another. Because the killing was justifiable, the person who committed the killing will not be held criminally liable for the death, though civil liability may still exist (i.e. the decedent's family could bring a wrongful death lawsuit).

Other Homicides

Some states have developed other forms of homicide crimes. A common example is felony murder. In a felony murder, a person dies while the defendant is committing another crime. For example, if several people are fleeing from a crime scene in one car and their vehicle strikes and kills a pedestrian, all of the people in the car may be charged with felony murder, not just the driver. This is true even though they may not have intended to kill anyone.

States' laws are constantly evolving and diverging, so other forms of homicide may exist or may come into existence in the future, particularly in states that do not observe the Model Penal Code.

As noted, homicide, whether justifiable or not, is always serious. If you or someone you know has been involved with a homicide contact an attorney for assistance in dealing with this matter as soon as possible. You can find additional information about different types of criminal homicide and murder by visiting the resources below or by consulting your state's legislation regarding murder laws on our Criminal Code by State page. You can also find an attorney in your area that specializes in criminal law by visiting our Law Firms page.


Know Your Rights!

Murder Law - US

  • (DPIC) - Federal Laws Providing for the Death Penalty

    Although not listed by BJS, the following offenses are also punishable by death under the federal statute, though it is not clear that the death penalty would be constitutional for these offenses under Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008) since they do not require a murder: -Trafficking in large quantities of drugs (18 U.S.C. 3591(b)) -Attempting, authorizing or advising the killing of any officer, juror,or witness in cases involving a Continuing Criminal Enterprise, regardless of whether such killing actually occurs. (18 U.S.C. 3591(b)(2)).

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) - Violent Crimes

    Violent crime includes murder, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and assault. Information about murder is obtained on a yearly basis from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. There are two measures for non-fatal violence—the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). NCVS measures rape/sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault.

  • First Degree Murder vs Second Degree Murder

    In general, 1st degree murder is grave murder planned and committed in a cruel way against one or more persons, under special circumstances. The special circumstances include accompaniment of other offenses such as, kidnapping, hijacking, robbery, with an intention of financial gain, assault on pregnant women or government officials on public duty, or involving extreme torture. This is considered more serious if the person committing the offence has committed such a crime before. 2nd degree murder, in general, is premeditated murder against spouse or relatives, or due to personal gain and interest, without the presence of special circumstances. It is considered slightly less grave than first degree murder. In some countries second degree murder is also defined as unplanned killing due to an accident.

  • Laci and Conner's Law - Unborn Victims of Violence Act

    In a landmark right-to-life victory, President George W. Bush on April 1 signed into law the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, also known as "Laci and Conner's Law." The President's action culminated a five-year campaign by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) to win enactment of the legislation, which recognizes unborn children as victims when they are injured or killed during the commission of federal or military crimes of violence.

  • Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act

    This legislation seeks to expand upon 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law by extending its scope towards bodily crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, in addition to the current provisions of bodily crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, and national origin. It would also codify and expand the funding and investigative capabilities of federal officials for aiding their local counterparts.

  • Murder - Definition

    Murder, as defined in common law countries, is the unlawful killing of another human being with intent (or malice aforethought), and generally this state of mind distinguishes murder from other forms of unlawful homicide (such as manslaughter). As the loss of a human being inflicts enormous grief upon the individuals close to the victim, as well as the fact that the commission of a murder deprives the victim of their worldly existence, most societies both present and in antiquity have considered it a most serious crime worthy of the harshest of punishment. A person convicted murder is typically given a life sentence or even the death penalty for such an act.

  • Murder - Overview

    Murder occurs when one human being unlawfully kills another human being. The precise legal definition of murder varies by jurisdiction. Most states distinguish between different degrees of murder. Some other states base their murder laws on the Model Penal Code.

  • Serial Killers vs Mass Murderers

    First, mass murderers are generally apprehended or killed by police, commit suicide, or turn themselves in to authorities. Serial killers, by contrast, usually make special efforts to elude detection. Indeed, they may continue to kill for weeks, months, and often years before they are found and stopped-if they are found at all. In the case of the California Zodiac killer, the homicides appeared to have stopped, but an offender was never apprehended for those crimes.

  • The Model Penal Code - Murder

    The Model Penal Code moved away from the traditional common law approach to murder. A key feature of the MPC is its use of standardized mens rea (criminal mind) terms to determine levels of mental states, just as homicide is considered more severe if done intentionally rather than accidentally. These terms are (in descending order) "purposefully", "knowingly," "recklessly", and "negligently", with a fifth state of "strict liability".

  • US Sentencing Commission - Sentencing Guidelines for Offenses Against the Person

    Chapter Two pertains to offense conduct. The chapter is organized by offenses and divided into parts and related sections that may cover one statute or many. Each offense has a corresponding base offense level and may have one or more specific offense characteristics that adjust the offense level upward or downward. Certain factors relevant to the offense that are not covered in specific guidelines in Chapter Two are set forth in Chapter Three, Parts A (Victim-Related Adjustments), B (Role in the Offense), and C (Obstruction); Chapter Four, Part B (Career Offenders and Criminal Livelihood); and Chapter Five, Part K (Departures).

  • Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

    The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 represents the bipartisan product of six years of hard work. It is the largest crime bill in the history of the country and will provide for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons and $6.1 billion in funding for prevention programs which were designed with significant input from experienced police officers. The Act also significantly expands the government's ability to deal with problems caused by criminal aliens.

Organizations Related to Murder Law

  • National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP)

    The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) was founded in 1976 in response to the Supreme Court decision in Gregg v. Georgia which permitted executions to resume in the United States. Our mission: abolish the death penalty in the U.S. and support efforts to abolish the death penalty world wide.

  • Citizens Against Homicide

    A non-profit, public benefits organization serving families and friends of homicide victims.

  • Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC)

    The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. The Center was founded in 1990 and prepares in-depth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for journalists, and serves as a resource to those working on this issue. The Center is widely quoted and consulted by all those concerned with the death penalty.

  • FBI - Most Wanted - Murder

    Presentation of a list of the FBI's most wanted murderers.

  • Murder Victims' Families For Human Rights

    Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is an international, non-governmental organization of family members of victims of criminal murder, terrorist killings, state executions, extrajudicial assassinations, and “disappearances” working to oppose the death penalty from a human rights perspective.

  • Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR)

    Founded in 1976, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) is a national organization of family members of victims of both homicide and executions who oppose the death penalty in all cases. MVFR includes people of many different perspectives. Because violent crime cuts across a broad spectrum of society, our members are geographically, racially and economically diverse.


    This resource will, unfortunately, be an ever-growing memorial to the many innocent victims of violent crime and a source for help for murder victim survivors, information on murder statistics, news items, discussion and support.

  • OVC - Crime Victims’ Rights

    There have been several advances in the area of crime victims' rights in recent years, including enactment of the Justice for All Act of 2004 (JFAA). A key component of JFAA is the Crime Victims' Rights Act, which applies certain, specific courses of action to help enforce victims' rights. Activities have included developing and expanding services to victims, including establishing and ombudsman office within the U.S. Department of Justice and a nationwide notification system (described below).

  • True Crime and Justice

    Between 1976 and 1994, almost 37,000 children were murdered. 66% were less than 1 years old and 58% of those from 1 - 4 years old were killed by beating with fists, or blunt objects or by kicking.

Publications Related to Murder Law

  • FBI - Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report

    Preliminary figures indicate that, as a whole, law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation reported a decrease of 3.5 percent in the number of violent crimes brought to their attention for the first six months of 2008 when compared with figures reported for the same time in 2007. The violent crime category includes murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The number of property crimes in the United States from January to June of 2008 decreased 2.5 percent when compared with data from the same time period in 2007. Property crimes include burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. Arson is also a property crime, but data for arson are not included in property crime totals. Figures for 2008 indicate that arson decreased 5.6 percent in 2008 when compared to 2007 figures.

  • NACJD - Capital Punishment in the United States Resource Guide

    Capital Punishment in the United States provides annual data on prisoners under a sentence of death, as well as those who had their sentences commuted or vacated and prisoners who were executed. This study examines basic sociodemographic classifications including age, sex, race and ethnicity, marital status at time of imprisonment, level of education, and State and region of incarceration. Criminal history information includes prior felony convictions and prior convictions for criminal homicide and the legal status at the time of the capital offense. Additional information is provided on those inmates removed from death row by yearend.

Articles on Related to Murder Law

  • What Is a Subpoena? Can You Refuse to Testify?
    People who receive a subpoena for a criminal matter often wonder if they can ignore the subpoena or refuse to testify. Neither is advisable.
  • Three Strikes - What Does This Mean in Missouri?
    Three strikes laws typically apply to habitual offenders who commit serious felony crimes. Three-strikes and similar laws exist in a little over half of the states in the U.S., including Missouri.
  • Self Defense Principles Under Florida Law
    In Florida, self-defense may be asserted as a defense when someone exerts force in a manner that would otherwise be considered unlawful. This defense may be asserted in cases involving physical violence, such as to refute claims of domestic violence, battery or murder.
  • Death Penalty Appeals Process
    When the death penalty has been invoked for as punishment for a lost case, the appeals process may be the only saving grace to overturn or stay the conviction for the individual sentenced. Through proper legal representation and proof to assist in the appeal, the convicted person may follow through and remove the death penalty from its conclusion.
  • The Long Battle of the Death Penalty Appeal
    The death penalty is used for the most aggravated of crimes to deter and prevent the same actions occurring again in the future. However, when the person on death row is actually innocent of his or her crimes, an appeal could provide a positive result that leads to a conviction overturned, a stay, or even exoneration.
  • Defending Murder Charges in Philadelphia
    Defending murder charges in Philadelphia requires experience and an extensive understanding of the strategies which can make the difference when your life potentially hangs in the balance. All homicide-related charges in Philadelphia carry severe consequences.
  • "Making a Murderer" Mini-Series' Steven Avery Denied a New Trial
    This week the Circuit Court Judge of Sheboygan County considered whether to grant a new trial in the Steven Avery case; a case that captured the country’s attention with the popular Netflix series, “Making a Murderer.”
  • Jury Selection in Texas Capital Murder Cases
    Voir dire is the process by which both the prosecution and criminal defense attorneys attempt to select the most favorable people to sit on a jury and decide a criminal case, especially a death penalty jury.
  • Can We Continue to Afford the Luxury of the Death Penalty?
    The death penalty consumes tremendous amounts of financial and labor resources. In fact, making the death penalty expensive is a key component of defending these cases. That begs the question whether the death penalty has become to expensive to continue.
  • Murder Charges in Minnesota
    Minnesota has several degrees of murder that they can charge a defendant. The state also has other types of laws that involve the unlawful killing of another that do not rise to the murder level.
  • All Criminal Law Articles

    Articles written by attorneys and experts worldwide discussing legal aspects related to Criminal Law including: arson, assault, battery, bribery, burglary, child abuse, child pornography, computer crime, controlled substances, credit card fraud, criminal defense, criminal law, drugs and narcotics, DUI, DWI, embezzlement, fraud, expungements, felonies, homicide, identity theft, manslaughter, money laundering, murder, perjury, prostitution, rape, RICO, robbery, sex crimes, shoplifting, theft, weapons, white collar crime and wire fraud.

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