Difference between Capital Murder and First-Degree Murder

Murder is among the worst crimes an individual can commit, and correspondingly, there are a variety of severe punishments for this crime. These punishments are usually based on the legal degree of murder an individual commits. This article will help explain the difference between capital murder and first-degree murder.


Capital Murder vs First-Degree Murder
An electric chair, used for capital punishment

Capital murder originates from the term capital punishment. Capital punishment, often known as the death penalty, is when a person is sentenced to death for their crime. Capital murder, in U.S. law, is any murder committed that makes the murderer eligible for capital punishment. The phrase is infrequently used, with only 7 U.S. states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Texas, and Virginia) listing it as a punishment in their laws. The phrase capital murder is usually replaced by “first-degree murder,” the only degree of murder that can receive a mandatory sentencing of capital punishment.

First-degree murder in U.S. law is, according to Wikipedia, “any intentional murder that is willful and premeditated with malice aforethought.” In other words, a murder wherein the murderer willfully murdered their victim, made plans to murder their victim, and had an intention beforehand to murder their victim. In the famous Russian novel Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the protagonist Raskolnikov murders an old woman in her apartment with an axe, with a clear plan ahead of time to kill this woman. Shortly after he murders the old woman, the woman’s sister comes home to the apartment, and Raskolnikov kills the sister to avoid exposure. Legally, the first murder would be first-degree murder; the second murder would not be.

Comparison chart

Capital Murder First-Degree Murder
A murder eligible for capital punishment. A premediated intentional murder with malice aforethought.

Capital Murder vs First-Degree Murder

What is the difference between capital murder and first-degree murder? There isn’t a significant difference between the two, and the main difference boils down to legal semantics.

Legally, capital murder is any murder wherein the perpetrator is eligible for capital punishment. First-degree murder is a premeditated and intentional murder with malice aforethought. First-degree murder is the only degree of murder with a possible mandatory sentencing of death in states still practicing capital punishment, though the death penalty is possible for other crimes. Another way to put it is that all first-degree murders are capital murders, but not all capital murders are first-degree murders (capital murder can be a murder committed during the course of another felony, for example).


The video below explains some differences between the different degrees of murder.