Capital Murder

Capital murder is a murder that subjects the perpetrator to the death penalty if found guilty. For this to apply, there has to have been some horrific extenuating circumstance, often called “special circumstance,” in addition to causing the death. This may include such things as murdering a police officer, murdering a child, or murdering multiple victims. To explore this concept, consider the following Capital Murder definition.

Definition of Capital Murder


  1. A murder punishable as the most serious of felonies, by death


1300-1350       Middle English

What is Capital Murder

Murder is the unlawful killing of another person without justification, and is considered to be the most serious crime a person can commit. A person committing murder may be sentenced to the harshest of penalties, including spending the rest of his life in prison. Murdering someone with special circumstances, which is charged as capital murder in many states, is seen as a most heinous crime, even when considering other murders. Because of this, the perpetrator may be sentenced to death in many states.

Classifications of Murder

Throughout history, the definition of what constitutes murder has evolved. Modern legal systems group the crime of murder into several classifications, which depend on the specific circumstances of the crime. These classifications include:

  1. Intentional Murder
  2. Murder resulting from an intentional action meant to cause serious bodily harm
  3. Murder resulting from extreme and wanton recklessness
  4. Murder by an accomplice as an individual commits, attempts to commit, or flees from the commission of a felony

These classifications of murder are referred to as “degrees” of murder in many jurisdictions. While some states define these degrees of murder numerically, others use certain name labels in their laws. Regardless of the naming system used, punishments for the crime of murder increase substantially with the severity of the crime committed.

Capital Murder vs. First Degree Murder

Capital murder is a murder for which the perpetrator may be sentenced to capital punishment, which is the death penalty. By far the most common crime for which perpetrators are sentenced to death is murder, though the specifics of what constitutes special circumstances vary by state. First degree murder is always considered capital murder, though capital murder is not always first degree murder. This is because other crimes are eligible for capital punishment, such as a murder committed during the course of committing another felony crime.

Specific elements that lead to a classification of capital murder, or first degree murder, vary by state, but the most common elements include:

  • Premeditated and Deliberate – the perpetrator intended to kill the victim, and had time to think about it, considering the consequences, if even for a brief time.
  • Killing During the Commission of another Felony – an individual may be charged with murder if someone was killed during the commission of another felony crime, even if he is not the one who killed the victim. This is also called “felony murder,” and generally requires that death was a foreseeable result of the initial crime.
  • Motive – the perpetrator had a good motive, or reason, for killing the victim.
  • Special Circumstances – some states list certain special circumstances, as to how the murder was committed, who was murdered, and other conditions, that are so horrific as to raise the degree of the crime automatically. Special circumstances that make the perpetrator of the murder eligible for capital punishment include:
    • Killing accomplished through lying in wait
    • Killing committed by poison, beheading, or torture
    • Killing combined with another violent felony, such as sexual assault
    • Intentional killing of a child
    • Killing of more than one person

Example of Capital Murder – First Degree Murder

Lola is stuck in a job where her boss, Beth, constantly berates her, makes her work late off the clock, and expects her to do things that are way outside her job description. Lola is looking for a way out without making herself ineligible for unemployment benefits. She knows that Beth loves tea, as she demands that Lola make her a cup several times a day.

Lola hatches a plan. She obtains a bag full of dried oleander leaves, which she crushes and puts into tea bags. Twice each day, Lola adds an oleander tea bag to one of Beth’s regular teas. Within a couple of days, Beth becomes ill, and Lola offers to come to her house to do a few chores, as well as to offer her another cup of tea.

Beth dies from the oleander poison, and soon Lola’s secret is found out. While Lola felt she had a good reason for killing her boss, the law doesn’t agree. In this example of capital murder, not only did Lola think about, plan, and execute the murder, she killed her boss using poison.

Second Degree Murder

Second degree murder refers to the killing of a person that was intentional, and with malice aforethought, but that wasn’t planned in advance or premeditated. A second degree murder is a killing caused by the perpetrator’s dangerous act, or his obvious lack of concern for the lives of others. This does not include, however, killing in the heat of passion, which is considered voluntary manslaughter. Second degree murder is not eligible for the death penalty.

Capital Punishment

Capital murder gets its name from capital punishment, which is the lawful killing of a person as punishment for a crime. Capital punishment is more commonly referred to as “the death penalty.” Historically, capital punishment was widely accepted, in some places for crimes that wouldn’t seem today to be severe enough for the perpetrator to pay such a high price. In 18th century U.S., there were 162 documented executions, though documentation in the colonies at the time was sketchy, leaving historians wondering just how many people paid for their crimes with their lives.

When, at the end of the Revolutionary War, the colonies wrote their own constitutions, most precluded “cruel and unusual punishment” as a penalty for any crime. However, this did not preclude capital punishment, as all of the colonies recognized the death penalty. The First Congress of the United States approved capital punishment for the crimes of murder, rape, robbery, and forgery of public Securities, in 1790.

Modern times have brought controversy over the issue of capital punishment. Many people in the U.S. feel that the death penalty should be outlawed regardless of the crime, others feel that it is necessary, not only to punish the perpetrator of the heinous crime of capital murder, but to deter others from committing similar offenses. The issues of the death penalty, and what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, have plagued the Supreme Court for many years.

As of 2016, 31 states recognize the death penalty, and murder is not the only crime for which one may be sentenced to death. In the U.S., a capital murder sentence may be given for terrorism, treason, espionage, large-scale drug trafficking, federal murder, and attempting to kill a juror, witness, or court officer. Additionally, military law in the U.S. allows for the execution of soldiers for certain reasons.

Capital Punishment in Capital Murder Example

In 1974, a number of attractive female college students were found raped and murdered in Washington state. Witnesses told investigators they had seen a Volkswagen Beetle and a young man who appeared to be injured. The following year, similar murders were committed in Utah, Idaho, and Colorado. In August 1975, police happened to pull over the owner of the Volkswagen, not knowing the driver was the perpetrator of a long string of murders in multiple states. They did, however, find a number of items in the car that made them suspicions, including a ski mask, handcuffs, and rope.

Authorities in several states began connecting the dots of the murders, and Theodore “Ted” Bundy, the perpetrator of the chain of murders, was eventually recognized as the most notorious serial killer in U.S. history. In February, 1976, Bundy was convicted of kidnapping and assaulting a teenager in Utah, and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. As a result of other investigations, Bundy was charged with the murder of a young woman in Colorado.

Bundy escaped police custody twice, when on January 14, 1978, Bundy broke into a sorority house in Florida, where he attacked four female residents, two of which he killed. About a month later, Bundy kidnapped and murdered a 12-year old girl, Kimberly Leach. Bundy was again captured when police stopped his vehicle in February, 1979. Three months later, Bundy was tried and convicted for the sorority house murders, for which he received the death penalty.  A year later, Bundy was convicted of the death of 12-year old Kimberly Leach, for which he received another death sentence.

It was Bundy’s viciousness in the way he raped and murdered his victims that first exposed him to capital murder charges. Later, when authorities were able to confirm that he had killed multiple victims, across multiple states, his crimes again rose to the level of capital murder. In all, Bundy only admitted to 36 killings, though authorities believe the true number to be far higher. In this example of capital murder, on January 24, 1989, Ted Bundy was put to death in the electric chair at Florida State Prison.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Malice Aforethought – A conscious intent to kill, or to cause great bodily harm to, another person, before the crime is committed.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
  • Premeditated – To have formed an intent to carry out an action, such as a crime.

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