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First Degree Murder Penalties and Sentencing

First degree murder convictions typically draw the harshest sentences of any crime. As with the elements of the crime and defenses available, sentencing can vary from state to state. Possible sentences are outlined in state statutes, with courts deciding, sometimes within strict statutory guidelines, which sentence a convicted murderer will receive based on the facts determined in the case.

Statutory Sentencing Options

The possible sentences for first degree murder (or a state's highest murder charge if called something else) vary widely by state. In some states, such as Florida, all first degree murder convictions bring either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Other states, such as California, use a two tiered sentencing structure: the first being a range of years (often up to life) in prison, and the second either life without the possibility of parole or the death penalty (in states that allow it). Which tier of sentence the court hands down typically depends on whether the prosecution can prove any of a host of aggravating factors.

Aggravating Factors

State laws spell out specific factors which render those found guilty of first degree murder subject to the state's harshest sentence. Aggravating factors include aspects of the crime, of the defendant, or of the victim(s) which render the defendant eligible for either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Common aggravating factors include:

  • The defendant had one or more previous murder convictions;
  • The killing occurred during commission of any of a list of violent crimes (such as arson, rape or robbery);
  • The victim was a law enforcement officer performing his or her duties;
  • The victim was a judge, prosecutor, witness or juror killed to prevent the performance of their duties;
  • The killing was particularly heinous or involved torture;
  • The defendant laid in wait (waited and ambushed) the victim;
  • The defendant poisoned the victim;
  • The killing involved bombs or explosive materials; and
  • The defendant was an active gang member and victim was killed as part of gang activity.

This list merely illustrates several of the factors aggravating factors used in some states consult state law for the complete list of a specific state's aggravating factors.

The Death Penalty

Currently, most states retain the death penalty as an option for those convicted of their highest level murder offense. State vary in terms of how often prosecution seeks the death penalty, and also in whether their top level murder convictions require the death penalty. Texas, for example, imposes death sentences on all those convicted of capital murder, its highest level murder charge. In California, on the other hand, aggravated first degree murder can draw either the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

For more information, see FindLaw's death penalty center.

Life without the Possibility of Parole

In states which do not impose the death penalty, conviction on a first degree murder charge with aggravating factors generally results in a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. In many states which do have the death penalty, an aggravated first degree murder conviction draws life in prison without parole if the prosecution does not seek, or fails to convince the court, to impose the death penalty.

Lesser Sentences

First degree murder convictions without aggravating factors draw a range of prison sentences. This can include life in prison, usually with an eventual possibility of parole. The range of prison sentence for this type of murder conviction varies by state 25 years to life in California and 20 to 25 years New York, to name only two. Consult state laws for specific ranges where you live.

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