First-degree murder is a grave crime, and rightfully so. After all, it involves the intentional and unlawful killing of another human being.
But not everyone accused of first-degree murder is guilty of premeditation or even responsible for the victim’s death. And regardless of the situation, each individual facing a murder charge has the constitutional right to challenge the prosecution and present a criminal defense.
If you are being investigated for murder or are facing murder charges in West Palm Beach or elsewhere in South Florida, you could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole or even death. That’s why you need strong legal representation to help you navigate the criminal justice system and tell your story. But first, you should understand Florida’s first-degree murder law.
First-Degree Murder Under Florida Law
First-degree murder is the most serious homicide charge under Florida law. According to Florida Statute 782.04, there are three types of first-degree murder:
- First-degree premeditated murder, which occurs when one person plans to kill another person ahead of time and executes that plan;
- First-degree felony murder, which is a killing committed during the commission of certain felonies (such as burglary and sexual battery); and
- First-degree unlawful distribution, which occurs when an adult’s unlawful distribution of certain controlled substances (such as cocaine, methamphetamine, or fentanyl) results in another person’s death.
Of course, first-degree isn’t the only type of murder in the Florida law books.
The Difference Between First-Degree Murder, Second-Degree Murder, and Third-Degree Murder
There are three types of murder charges under Florida law.
First-degree murder includes the types of crimes we’ve described above. Second-degree murder is the non-premeditated killing of another human being during an imminently dangerous act, during which the perpetrator had a “depraved mind” and behaved without regard for human life. Third-degree murder is the unintentional killing of another person during the commission or attempted commission of certain non-violent felonies.
As you can see from these definitions, the defining characteristic of first-degree murder is premeditation. Although second-degree murder and third-degree murder are considered less serious crimes than first-degree murder, they can result in a term of years up to life in prison and up to 15 years in prison, respectively, plus a fine of up to $10,000.
Regardless of the type of murder alleged, the prosecution must prove the appropriate set of elements beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Elements of First-Degree Murder in Florida
Florida Statute 782.04 prescribes the elements of each type of first-degree murder, which are as follows.
First-Degree Premeditated Murder
To prove the crime of first-degree premeditated murder, the prosecutor must prove that:
- The victim is dead,
- The victim’s death was caused by the criminal act of the defendant, and
- The defendant premeditated (or consciously decided to perform) the act to cause the death of the victim or another human being.
Florida law doesn’t specifically prescribe how much time must pass between the defendant’s decision to kill and the act itself for a jury to find the defendant had premeditated intent to kill. The period must simply be long enough to allow the defendant time to reflect.
First-Degree Felony Murder
To prove that first-degree felony murder occurred, the prosecutor must prove that:
- The victim is dead, and
- The victim’s death was caused by a person while they were perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate one of the felonies enumerated in Florida Statute 782.04(1)(a)(2).
First-Degree Unlawful Distribution
To prove that a defendant is guilty of first-degree unlawful distribution, the prosecutor must prove that:
- The victim is dead,
- The defendant was 18 years old or older,
- The defendant unlawfully distributed a substance listed in Florida Statute 782.04(1)(a)(3), and
- The substance or a mixture containing the substance proximately caused the victim’s death.
All three types of first-degree murder charges carry serious consequences no matter where they’re committed, but the penalty for a first-degree murder conviction can be especially severe in death penalty states.
Does Florida Have the Death Penalty?
Yes, Florida Statute 775.082(1)(a) prescribes capital punishment, or the death penalty, for capital felonies committed by perpetrators who are 18 years old or older if a special proceeding results in such a determination.
First-degree murder is a capital felony in the State of Florida. Therefore, a first-degree murder conviction can lead to the death penalty if the defendant was an adult at the time of the killing and the court decides the death penalty is appropriate.
The Potential Penalties for a First-Degree Murder Conviction in Florida
Each variation of first-degree murder is punishable as a capital offense in Florida. A person accused of first-degree murder faces one of two possible sentences:
- Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, or
The prosecution may decide to waive the death penalty. If they do so, the mandatory minimum sentence would be life in prison without parole. If the state does not waive the death penalty, the court will conduct a special sentencing hearing to determine if a life prison sentence or the maximum sentence — death — is appropriate.
These severe penalties are just part of the reason that presenting a solid defense is so crucial for defendants fighting first-degree murder charges.
Legal Defenses to First-Degree Murder
During criminal proceedings, a defendant can proclaim their innocence or establish an affirmative defense, where they admit they committed the act but argue that they aren’t criminally liable.
For example, a defendant can argue that they justifiably used deadly force under Florida Statute 782.02:
- To prevent their own murder, or
- When the victim attempted to commit a felony in the defendant’s home or a dwelling where they were staying.
A defendant can also argue that they acted in the heat of passion based on legally adequate provocation pursuant to Florida Statute 782.03. In other words, they can present evidence that they didn’t premeditate the killing and instead decide to commit the act in the moment because they were provoked.
A killing is committed upon “adequate provocation” when:
- A sudden event occurs that would have suspended an ordinary reasonable person’s exercise of judgment,
- A reasonable person would have lost self-control and experienced a blind and unreasoning fury,
- A reasonable person would not have had a reasonable amount of time to cool off before committing the act, and
- The defendant was provoked and did not cool off before they committed the act.
If the jury has reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant premeditated the act because the defendant acted in the heat of passion based on adequate provocation, the jury must find the defendant not guilty of first-degree premeditated murder.
Regardless of your situation, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you put together the strongest possible defense for your case. Even if your arguments don’t result in an acquittal, they can at least get you a favorable plea deal or convince a jury to convict you of lesser charges.
Lesser Charges in First-Degree Murder Cases
If the jury finds a defendant not guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, the jury can consider entering a guilty verdict on a lesser charge, such as:
- Second-degree depraved mind murder under Florida Statute 782.04(2)
- Second-degree felony murder under Florida Statute 782.04(3)
- Third-degree felony murder under Florida Statute 782.04(4)
- Manslaughter under Florida Statute 782.07
- Vehicular homicide under Florida Statute 782.071
- Aggravated manslaughter (of an elderly person, an adult with a disability, a child, a law enforcement officer, a firefighter, an EMT, or a paramedic) under Florida Statute 782.07(2)-(4)
- Attempted premeditated murder under Florida Statute 782.04(1)
- Attempted felony murder under Florida Statute 782.051(1)-(3)
- Attempted second-degree murder under Florida Statute 782.04(2) and 777.04
- Attempted manslaughter under Florida Statute 782.07 and 777.04
Hire an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney to Handle Your First-Degree Murder Case
If you’re facing first-degree or other murder charges in or near West Palm Beach, you need a local criminal defense attorney who knows everything there is to know about state and federal laws.
The criminal defense lawyers at Meltzer & Bell have extensive experience fighting serious criminal charges and litigating homicide and attempted homicide cases throughout Palm Beach County. We also represent clients throughout South Florida, from Broward County (including Fort Lauderdale) to Miami-Dade County (including Miami).
For example, Rachel Newman is a criminal defense attorney who has handled countless homicide cases, including death penalty cases. She gained 17 years of litigation experience at the Broward County Public Defender’s Office, representing thousands of defendants in standard and high-profile cases. Rachel has appeared on CourtTV and multiple news stations, belongs to the Broward Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and serves as Board Secretary to Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Rachel has obtained favorable outcomes for numerous clients. By hiring her or one of the other skilled attorneys at Meltzer & Bell, you can rest assured that your case is in good hands.
To learn more about first-, second-, or third-degree murder charges in South Florida and to schedule a free consultation with one of our seasoned attorneys, call our law firm at (561) 557-8686.
This article was last updated on Friday, May 26, 2023