First degree murder is the intentional killing of another person by someone who has acted willfully, deliberately, or with planning. Generally, there are two types of first-degree murder: premeditated intent to kill and felony murder. This definition will focus on first-degree murder involving premeditated intent to kill.
It is important to note that the exact definition of first-degree murder depends on each state’s statute, and its definition will vary by jurisdiction. Most jurisdictions define first-degree murder as cases involving premeditation and deliberation; all other intentional murders are defined as second-degree.
A premeditated intent to kill requires that the defendant had intent to kill and some willful deliberation (the defendant spent some time to reflect, deliberate, reason, or weigh their decision) to kill, rather than killing on a sudden impulse.
Prior planning and deliberation are often closely intertwined. Courts focus on the “pre” in premeditation, and generally look for evidence that the defendant deliberated and subsequently formed the intent to kill prior to the act of killing. This is justified because the defendant must have thought about the murder for a period of time and did not change their mind.
There are several factors indicating premeditation and deliberation. These include: lack of provocation from the victim, actions and words of the defendant before and after the killing, any threats from the defendant before and/or during the killing, whether the victim and the defendant had a poor history, whether there was an additional lethal attack after the victim was already helpless, evidence of brutality, and the nature and number of wounds. However, many jurisdictions concede that there is no bright, arbitrary line when premeditation begins and ends.
[Last updated in January of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]