Difference between Capital Murder and Murder

While both capital murder and murder do have one thing in common in that one person kills another person, a difference in how they were committed affects what their punishment will be. Let us take a look at their differences.


Capital Murder vs Murder
A map showing the states that have the death penalty (Red), and the states that don’t (Green)


A murder is an act of killing another person without any valid reason or justification. It’s definition originated in the 18th century with an English jurist William Blackstone who set out the common law definition of murder that states:

“When a person of sound memory and discretion, unlawfully kills any reasonable creature in being and under the king’s peace, with malice aforethought, either express or implied.”

While it might be as simple as the killing of another person, you should know that there are different degrees of murder. This tells us how grave the act of murder was and for each, there will be an equivalent punishment by the law, whether it be first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or third-degree murder.

Capital Murder

In some countries like Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a capital murder is known to be a statutory offence of aggravated murder. In the United States however, a capital murder is an act of murder where it makes the perpetrator eligible for the death penalty or capital punishment. Although some states do not recognize the term “capital murder”, they use “first-degree murder”, “aggravated murder”, or simply “murder” instead. Take note however that capital offenses are not punishable by death exclusively. In a courtroom, a presiding judge or a jury will determine the sentence.

While terminology may vary from state to state, a capital murder usually means a murder in which the victim is a police officer, a firefighter, paramedic or a child. It also is called a capital murder if it was committed while in the act of another violent felony like burglary, sexual assault or kidnapping.

Comparison Chart

Capital Murder Murder
Not recognized by some states and countries Acknowledged by all
Punishment includes life imprisonment or death sentence Punishment includes fine, years of imprisonment, life imprisonment
Similar but not limited to 1st-degree murder Classified into 1st-degree murder, 2nd-degree murder or 3rd -degree murder
Planned and premeditated murder May be planned, premeditated, accidental or the result  of rage

Capital Murder vs Murder

So what is the difference between capital murder and murder? Their difference comes down to each one’s punishment and how grave the act of murder was. With capital murder, the perpetrator can be punished with the death penalty or life imprisonment, while murder can only be punished by a fine or years of imprisonment.

By using the degree of the murder that was committed, you can also distinguish if it’s a capital murder or not. For 2nd-degree murder and 3rd degree murder the death penalty can’t be used as punishment, while it can for 1st-degree murder. This is because the legal definition for a 1st-degree murder varies from state to state. In Texas, they use the term capital murder, while in South Dakota the term 1st-degree murder is used. While both states use difference terms, the punishment is the same, namely the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole. So we can say that a capital murder is like a first degree murder, depending on the jurisdiction.

With different terminologies and legal definitions, there is one thing though that we can be sure of. A capital murder is the worst kind of murder that usually leads to a punishment by death, while a murder may be lesser in form through degrees of murder.