In an earlier blog, we looked at the different criminal charges that can be prosecuted after a homicide, the most serious being murder. But there are different types and degrees of murder. Let’s take a closer look at murder and help you understand the difference between first-degree murder, second-degree murder and felony murder.
Murder, as it evolved through the common law in England and subsequently in the United States, has three components:
- The defendant must act with intent
- The killing must not be lawful or legally justified
- The perpetrator must have acted with “malice aforethought”
As a general rule, for a murder to be successfully prosecuted as a first degree murder, it must be shown that the killing was done with “premeditation and deliberation.” As a practical matter, that requires some time to think about the crime and its consequences. Often, the nature of the homicide suggests both premeditation and deliberation. For example, arsenic poison over a period of time suggests a well-thought out plan.
A killing that does not reflect pre-planning or consideration, but nonetheless demonstrates “malice aforethought,” will typically be charged as a second degree murder. Such a killing requires intent. However, if the killing is motivated by “heat of passion” or an “irresistible impulse,” the charge may be reduced to manslaughter.
In New Jersey, as in most states, the concept of “felony murder” applies. Under this legal principle, if you are in the process of committing a felony, and you kill someone, you can be charged with murder, even if the killing was entirely unintentional.
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