ⓘ Capital murder

Capital murder

ⓘ 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 can define certain acts of aggravated murder: a capital murder is any murder that makes the perpetrator eligible for the death penalty.


1. Great Britain/UK

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 of a police officer acting in the execution of his duty, or of a person assisting a police officer so acting; s.51d
  • 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.51e.
  • Murder in the course or furtherance of theft; s.51a
  • Murder by shooting or by causing an explosion; s.51b
  • Murder in the course for the purpose of resisting, avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest, or of effecting or assisting an escape or rescue from legal custody; s.51c

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.


2. Northern Ireland

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 62 of the Criminal Law Act Northern Ireland 1967.

Sections 14 and 5 of the Northern Ireland Emergency Provisions Act 1973 read:

4 For the purpose of any proceedings on or subsequent to a persons 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.


3.1. United States Legal meaning

The term "capital murder" is used in only eight U.S. states; however, 29 states and United States federal government currently allow capital punishment, 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", and some use simply "Murder". The eight states that use the term "Capital Murder" are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Texas, and Virginia. 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 killed during the commission of another violent felony, such as armed robbery, kidnapping, arson, etc. felony murder
  • The victim is murdered based on race, national origin, and other associated groups
  • The victim is tortured, raped or sexually assaulted, particularly if the victim is a child
  • Terrorism
  • The victim is a police officer, firefighter, paramedic or similar public safety professional and was killed while on duty
  • Multiple murders are committed pursuant to one another
  • Murder-for-hire

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


3.2. United States Punishment

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 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, or was under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.