Capital murder

Capital murder was a statutory offence of aggravated murder in Great Britain, and Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, which was later adopted as a legal provision to define certain forms of aggravated murder in the United States. In some parts of the U.S., this term still defines the category of murder for which the perpetrator is eligible for the death penalty.[1] Some jurisdictions that provide for death as a possible punishment for murder, such as California, do not have a specific statute creating or defining a crime known as capital murder; instead, death is one of the possible sentences for certain kinds of murder.[2] In these cases, "capital murder" is not a phrase used in the legal system but may still be used by others such as the media.

Great Britain/UKEdit

In Great Britain, this offence was created by section 5 of the Homicide Act 1957. Previously all murders carried the death penalty on conviction, but the 1957 Act limited the death penalty to the following cases:

  • Murder in the course or furtherance of theft; s.5(1)(a)
  • Murder by shooting or by causing an explosion; s.5(1)(b)
  • Murder in the course or for the purpose of resisting, avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest, or of effecting or assisting an escape or rescue from legal custody; s.5(1)(c)
  • Murder of a police officer acting in the execution of his duty, or of a person assisting a police officer so acting; s.5(1)(d)
  • Murder of a prison officer acting in the execution of his duty, or of a person assisting a prison officer so acting, by a person who was a prisoner at the time when he did or was a party to the murder; s.5(1)(e).

In all other cases murder carried the mandatory penalty of imprisonment for life.

Section 1 of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 abolished the separate category of capital murder, and all murders now carry the mandatory penalty of imprisonment for life.

Northern IrelandEdit

In Northern Ireland, this offence was created by section 10 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966.

On the trial of an indictment for capital murder, the jury could not return an alternative verdict to the offence charged in that indictment under section 6(2) of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967.

Sections 1(4) and (5) of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 read:

(4) For the purpose of any proceedings on or subsequent to a person's trial on a charge of capital murder, that charge and any plea or finding of guilty of capital murder shall be treated as being or having been a charge, or a plea or finding of guilty, of murder only; and if at the commencement of this Act a person is under a sentence of death for capital murder, the sentence shall have effect as a sentence of imprisonment for life.
(5) In this section "capital murder" means a murder which immediately before the commencement of this Act is a capital murder within the meaning of section 10 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966.[3]

Republic of IrelandEdit

See sections 1(1)(b) and 3 of the Criminal Justice Act 1964 (both of which are now repealed) and section 8 of the Criminal Justice Act 1990.

United StatesEdit

Legal meaningEdit

The term "capital murder" is used in only eight U.S. states; however, 29 states and United States federal government currently allow capital punishment,[4] and each has its own terminology for an offense punishable by death. In most states, the term "First-Degree Murder" is used; others may use the term "Aggravated Murder" (such as New York, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia (since 2021)), and some use simply "Murder". The seven states that use the term "Capital Murder" are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Texas. The state of Georgia uses the term "Malice Murder".

Not all offenses are parallel between the states. In some, first-degree murder is a very broad term defined by a number of circumstances, only a few of which make a defendant eligible for execution. In other jurisdictions, an offense carrying the death penalty is strictly defined and is separate from other, similar crimes.

Although legal definitions vary, capital murder in the United States usually means murder involving one or more of the following factors:

  • The victim is a police officer, firefighter, paramedic or similar public safety professional and was killed while on duty
  • The victim is killed during the commission of another violent felony, such as armed robbery, kidnapping, arson, etc. (felony murder)
  • The victim is tortured, raped or sexually assaulted, particularly if the victim is a child
  • Multiple murders are committed pursuant to one another[citation needed]
  • Murder-for-hire[citation needed]
  • Terrorism[citation needed]
  • The victim is murdered based on race, national origin, and other associated groups[citation needed]

Some states may include other factors which amount to capital murder or its legal equivalent.


Capital offenses in the United States are not punishable by death exclusively. Most states afford courts the option of imposing either the death penalty or a life sentence upon conviction, though lesser sentences are rare and in some cases legally impossible. Depending on the state, the presiding judge may determine the sentence, or the decision may be left to the jury.

The United States Supreme Court has placed limitations on the use of the death penalty and has prohibited its use in cases where the offender is mentally incompetent,[5] or was under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.[6]


  1. ^ Bohm, Robert (1999). DeathQuest: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Capital Punishment in the United States (4th ed.). ISBN 1437734936.
  2. ^ "Chapter 1 of Title 8 of Part 1 of the California Penal Code". California Office of Legislative Counsel. 1872–2020. Retrieved 25 March 2021.CS1 maint: date format (link)
  3. ^ Digitised copy from
  4. ^ "States With and Without the Death Penalty".
  5. ^ "Atkins v. Virginia 536 U.S. 304 (2002)". Justia Law. Retrieved 7 April 2017.
  6. ^ Kennedy (1 March 2005), Roper v. Simmons (Opinion of the Court), 543, p. 551, retrieved 7 April 2017