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First Degree Murder

The crime of murder is one of the most severely-punished offenses in the state of Arizona. A conviction can attract grave penalties, which may include several years behind bars, and hefty fines. A murder conviction is also one that can affect the freedom and rights of a person, especially when it a to accessing essential services such as insurance and employment.

For that reason, it is vital for anyone that is facing a first-degree murder charge in the state to engage the services of an experienced criminal attorney. With the help of an attorney, you may benefit from a drop or reduction of your charges, depending on the nature of evidence gathered against you. At Phoenix Criminal Attorney, we have an excellent team of criminal attorneys that can provide the best legal services to anyone that is facing these charges in Phoenix, AZ.

Legal Definition of an Arizona First Degree Murder

Human life is considered precious, and so, if taken by another person, it could be regarded as a grave offense. The state of Arizona is not exceptional among the states that have severe penalties for anyone that is found guilty of taking another person’s life. In essence, murder is defined as an illegal act of killing or taking the life of another person without proper justification or with no valid excuse. It also involves the killing of a fetus or a human being with malice aforethought. As used in this definition, malice aforethought means that the offender engaged in an act that could have directly led to the death of another human being. He/she did so with total disregard of human life.

So much is lost when a life is lost, especially by the family of the deceased person.  The society will also intervene and call for harsher punishment for the offender because of the gravity of the offense. In the state of Arizona, there are two categories' of murder charges a person can face if they are suspected of taking another person's life. They are:

  • The first-degree murder
  • The second-degree murder

The charge the offender gets is mainly determined by the circumstances surrounding the events that resulted in the victim's death.

The first-degree murder is the graver of the two and could carry a prison sentence of 25 years, or even a life sentence, depending on the individual case. A person can be charged with first-degree murder in Arizona if the following elements are correct:

  • If he/she knowingly or intentionally behaved in a manner that they knew could cause the death of another person. Note that the other person, in this case, could also include an unborn child. Knowingly and intentionally, in this case, means that the person may have premeditated or planned their action, and so, the death was in no way an accident.
  • That he/she, acting alone, or with another person causes the death of another person while committing such grave offenses as sexual assault, sexual conducts with a minor, molestation, arson and robbery among other similar offenses
  • That he/she caused the death of another person by the use of a destructive device, poison, a dangerous weapon, tortured or lying in wait.
  • That the person acts knowingly or intentionally in a manner that causes the death of a law enforcement officer while the officer is in line of duty

Difference between First, and Second Degree Murder Charges in Arizona

When a person loses their life in the state of Arizona, the perpetrator can be charged with first-degree-degree, second-degree, manslaughter, or negligent homicide.  The charge the person faces depends on the nature and gravity of the offense committed. It is crucial to understand how different these homicide charges are to be well-prepared when you are arrested or on suspicion of causing the death of another person.

A first-degree murder charge is the gravest of them all. It will come about when a person is under suspicion for intentionally causing the death of another person. This is the charge you can face if you are suspected of having premeditated the demise of another person. In this case, you can face a first-degree murder charge if another person loses their life under the following situations:

  • During or after a kidnapping
  • After an arson attack
  • As a result of child molestation
  • During a robbery
  • During sexual assault

A first-degree murder charge can also happen if death occurs while the person was fleeing from the police. Generally, it is the homicide charge you will face if you knowingly participated in an act that could have resulted in the death of another person.

A second-degree murder charge, on the other hand, occurs when a person causes the death of another person without prior-intentions. If there is no proof to show that the offender had premeditated their actions, the court may only bring forth charges for second-degree murder. You will, however, still be found guilty of knowingly acting in a manner that could have resulted in the death of another person. If, for instance, you were operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and another person lost their life as a result of your actions, you may be found guilty of second-degree murder. 

Generally, second-degree murder is the kind of homicide that occurs in a spur-of-the-moment. In this case, the court will not require the prosecutor to prove that the offender had premeditated their actions and consequences. However, there will be a need to prove that their actions were knowingly or intentionally.

A manslaughter charge is different from the two homicides above and is defined as the offender committed when passion is involved. Manslaughter is a crime of love, and it attracts less-severe penalties than the first and second-degree charges. A manslaughter charge could also occur if a person is found guilty of assisting another in committing suicide.

Manslaughter is categorized as a class-2 felony offense in Arizona, attracting a minimum prison sentence of four years. Several factors will determine the gravity of the penalties the offender will receive, such as their prior convictions and the circumstances surrounding their actions. If a weapon were used in the commission of the offense, the offender would face an even harder penalty.

Circumstances Under Which First Degree Murder Charge Can Occur

As mentioned above, a murder occurs when a person intentionally kills another.  The difference in the charges a person gets lies in the way the offense was committed. Here are the various circumstances under which a person can be charged with first-degree murder in the state of Arizona:

If the Offense Was Premeditated

A person who plots to take another person's life and then proceeds to murder the person will be guilty of first-degree murder. Such a person may have laid down their plan, determined the ideal time and location, and maybe issued threats to murder that person. All these will be used by the prosecutor to prove that the murder was premeditated.

If the Offense Was Committed During the Commission of another Felony

Most cases of first-degree murder are those that are committed during the commission of another felony offense. Such felony offenses include robbery, escape from the police, burglary, child abuse, and drug-related crimes.

In Arizona, robbery is committed when a person uses force or threatens to use force during the commission of theft, to cause the victim enough fear for him/her to relinquish the property the robber is interested in. If the offender used threat or had physical contact with the victim, which later resulted in the death of the victim or another person, the robber will face charges for first-degree murder, among other legal charges.

Burglary, on the other hand, is committed when a person enters or remains in a residential or non-residential structure with an intent to commit a felony or theft. The offender can still face charges for burglary, even if they did not steal anything. What matters is their intent to commit a felony offense. If in the process a person loses their life, the offender will not only face burglary charges but also additional charges for first-degree murder.

Again, a person can commit a first-degree murder offense in the commission of a felony offense such as child abuse. In Arizona, child abuse is an offense committed when an adult person verbally, physically, or emotionally abuses a minor. Types of child abuse that are likely to result in murder include physical abuse of a minor, neglect, abandonment, sexual abuse, and child molestation.

If the Offense was Committed When Fleeing from a Police Officer

When a person is on the wrong, and they are pulled over by the police, there is always an urge to flee to escape an arrest. Since this act is done intentionally, it could lead to a first-degree murder charge if the pursuing officer or any other person loses their life as a result of the offender's actions. Similarly, causing the death of a law enforcement officer while he/she is in the line of duty will automatically attract charges for first-degree murder.

Note the Following:

There are three things that the prosecutor will have to prove before the offender is convicted of first-degree murder. These are deliberation, willfulness, and premeditation. A person would be considered to have acted willfully if they had prior intentions of taking another person’s life. It, therefore, means that the death was not an accident. This, however, does not mean that the defendant will be required to prove that the offender intended to kill that particular person. If, for instance, a person breaks into a home to take revenge on a person who hurt them before, but the person they end up killing is the man’s wife, he/she will still be found guilty of first-degree murder.

Penalties for Arizona First Degree Murder Conviction

A first-degree murder charge in the state of Arizona is categorized under the Class-1 felony offense. The consequences for its conviction are, therefore, quite severe. A person found guilty of first-degree murder can be sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. In another circumstance, the person could get a death sentence. All this depends on the situation surrounding the offense.

If, for instance, the murder occurred in the commission of a hate crime based on the victim's religion, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation, the judge may give the offender a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

A person who receives a life sentence with a possibility of parole will have to serve at least 25 years behind bars before they can get a parole hearing. If the offender were charged with first-degree murder for taking the life of a minor or an unborn child, they would have to serve at least 35 years in prison before getting a parole hearing.

Possible Legal Defenses for Arizona First Degree Murder Charge

Murder is indeed among the gravest offenses, not just in the state of California, but in the entire world. The life of a human being is precious, and so, society will expect a harsh punishment for the person who deliberately takes another's life. For that reason, anyone facing charges for first-degree murder in Arizona needs the help of an experienced criminal attorney for the fair outcome of their case.  An experienced attorney can, for instance, come up with a strong defense against your charges, to make the court to either drop or reduce your charges. Some of the legal arguments that could be used in your case include:

Mistaken Identity

It is not uncommon for a person to be mistakenly accused of committing an offense as serious as murder. It could happen if the person closely resembles the perpetrator, are related or live in the same home or neighborhood. If the prosecutor has filed the case against the wrong person, an experienced attorney should be able to prove your innocence. It may be because you were at the crime scene, or with the person who committed the murder. Note that the court will not require you to provide evidence to implicate the actual perpetrator. You only need to prove your innocence.


A significant element of the crime of first-degree murder is that the killing must not be justifiable. If therefore, the defendant can justify their actions, they may not be guilty of first-degree murder. An example of a justifiable killing is one that happens when a person is trying to defend themselves or another person from imminent danger. If the victim had threatened the safety of the offender or another person, the offender might have used force against them out of fear, which might have resulted in death. Your attorney must be able to demonstrate this to the court for this defense strategy to be useful.

An Unfortunate Accident

Accidental deaths happen all the time. If a person can prove that the murder was by accident, they may not be guilty of first-degree murder. Remember that for a person to be charged with first-degree murder, their actions must have been deliberate. If your attorney can prove that you did not act deliberately or you did not have prior plans to commit murder, the court may reduce your charges to a less serious charge such as manslaughter. However, the force used in such an accident must not be more than necessary as it will not support your claim of accidental death.

Fulfillment of Duty

If it is a case of a law enforcement officer facing charges for first-degree murder, it could be that he/she was just fulfilling their duty. For the police, murder charges could arise in cases where death occurs while in their line of duty. The defendant, in this case, could have committed a justifiable homicide and not first-degree murder. However, his/her attorney must be able to prove that the offense was not committed recklessly, with illegal intent or with negligence. The most important thing is to ensure that the actions of the officer do not meet the legal definition of first-degree murder. In that case, his/her charges could be reduced to a lesser offense.

Insanity Defense

If the offender were not in their right mind while committing the offense, their case would not qualify to be first-degree murder. Fortunately, a person can use insanity as a defense in Arizona to avoid facing the harsh penalties of the law. An insane person lacks a cognitive ability to understand the severity of the offense committed. The person will also not be in a position to realize that the crime is morally wrong. If the court agrees with the insanity defense, you may not be convicted of first-degree murder.

Find a Phoenix Criminal Lawyer Near Me

Other than lengthy prison terms and hefty penalties, a first-degree conviction in Arizona can significantly affect your life, including your professional and social life. You may not be able to live your life as before. That is why you need help in fighting your first-degree murder charges to avoid a conviction. At Phoenix Criminal Attorney, we may be able to help you with that. Call us at 602-551-8092 if you are in Phoenix, AZ, and let us help you get the justice you deserve.

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