What Is the Difference Between Murder and Capital Murder?

Posted on by JACK MKHITARIAN

What Is the Difference Between Murder and Capital Murder?

All criminal cases are important to the people involved. However, murder charges are the most severe cases pending in New Mexico courts. The potential penalty the defendant faces if convicted of murder is the most severe punishment allowed under New Mexico law. 

At the New Mexico Criminal Law Office, we have spent over 22 years protecting the rights of the criminally accused. Our attorneys have handled some of the most challenging cases in the state, thereby building up a wealth of knowledge and experience that can benefit you when the stakes are high. Contact us today.

What is the difference between murder and capital murder? Today, we look into this important topic.

Murder vs. Capital Murder

Clients and their families often want to know, What is capital murder? Most of us understand the concept of murder–but what differentiates capital murder from all the other forms?

New Mexico Statutes Annotated § 30-2-1 sets forth the crime of murder. Murder in New Mexico is either first-degree or second-degree murder. According to Section 30-2-1, first-degree murder is the unjustified killing of another human without sufficient excuse when the victim’s death occurred:

  • As a result of a willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing;
  • During the commission or attempted commission of a felony; or
  • Because the perpetrator acted in a way that greatly endangered the lives of others, i.e., they acted with depraved indifference to human life.

A person convicted of first-degree murder faces punishment for a capital felony. 

Murder in the second degree is a lesser-included offense of first-degree murder. Second-degree murder involves the killing of another human:

  • When acting upon sufficient provocation;
  • Upon a sudden quarrel; 
  • In the heat of passion; or
  • When performing an act that creates a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to another.

A conviction for second-degree murder is a second-degree felony involving the death of a human being. 

What Makes a Murder a Capital Murder?

The difference between capital murder and murder is the accused’s state of mind. A person is guilty of capital murder when that person either deliberately and intentionally kills another, kills another in the course of committing a felony or commits an act that proves the person had complete indifference to human life. 

Premeditated Murder

The intent to kill is known as malice aforethought. Thus, a killing committed with malice and the deliberate intent to kill is premeditated murder. 

What does it mean to form deliberate intent? Deliberate intent means forming the intent to kill or deciding to kill after careful thought and weighing the reason for the crime. And even though deliberate intention means forming an intent to kill after careful thought, New Mexico law does not require a set amount of time for forming this intent. In other words, this deliberate intent can form quickly. However, the State has the burden to prove that the accused had an opportunity to form the intent and did, in fact, form the deadly intent. 

The jury determines the accused’s guilty mind or mens rea. The state can use both direct and circumstantial evidence to prove the intent element. Unless the state obtains a confession, the prosecution rarely has direct evidence of the accused’s intent to kill. 

Felony Murder and Depraved Indifference

If you kill someone during the commission of a felony, this is called felony murder and counts as capital murder. The underlying felony must create a strong probability of causing death or great bodily harm if the accused did not set out or intend to kill the victim.

Killing with depraved indifference to the value of human life is also capital murder. Convictions for either of these crimes do not require the state to prove the accused formed the deliberate intent to kill. These two theories of first-degree murder are substitutes for the element of malice necessary to prove premeditated murder. 

Capital Murder vs. Murder

The critical difference between capital murder and murder is the intent of the person accused. As we’ve seen, capital murder requires deliberate premeditation, felony murder, or indifference to human life. On the other hand, second-degree murder describes killings that do not quite rise to the level of first-degree murder but are more egregious than voluntary manslaughter. Usually, this is because the presence of mitigating circumstances (like the heat of passion or provocation) lessens the heinousness of the crime. Instead of deliberate intent, the state must prove the accused acted with the knowledge that their actions created a strong probability of death or serious bodily injury to prove second-degree murder.

A couple of examples could help distinguish second-degree murder from capital murder. Beating someone with hands, feet, and a baseball bat but without the specific intent to kill is second-degree murder. Pointing a loaded shotgun at someone, not knowing whether the shotgun held ammunition, and pulling the trigger is second-degree murder if there was no deliberate intent to kill. In both of these scenarios, New Mexico courts said that the accused did not intentionally deliberate over the killing. It’s a fine line, but that fine line can mean the difference between spending life in prison or having the opportunity to make parole.

How Many Years for Capital Murder?

In 2009, New Mexico declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional. Thus, the threat of the death penalty no longer exists. Notwithstanding, New Mexico law allows a judge to sentence a person convicted of capital murder to life in prison or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The sentencing judge will weigh the presence of any aggravating factors to determine whether a sentence of life without parole is appropriate. 

Under New Mexico’s sentencing scheme, the sentencing classification for second-degree murder is a second-degree felony resulting in the death of a human being. This classification calls for a basic sentence of 15 years in prison. However, the circumstances of the crime might allow the prosecution to ask for additional prison time beyond the 15-year basic sentence. 

Need More Information? 

At the New Mexico Criminal Law Offices, we know how to get you the best outcome possible for your case—no matter how high the stakes. We pride ourselves on having over two decades of experience fighting passionately for our client’s rights. We know how to defend you. Contact us today for a free consultation with one of our experienced and dedicated attorneys.