I Thought About Killing You. Premeditated Murder.


Guest Post by Santa Clara Law 1L and Colleague: Alana Wilson

“There’s no such thing as murder. There’s only murder statutes.” – Professor W. David Ball, Santa Clara University of Law

Murder vs. Homicide

Contrary to popular belief, murder and homicide do not mean the same thing. Homicide encompasses a wider range of killings including both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Under common law, murder refers to one who intentionally kills another human being without justification, excuse, or mitigating circumstance. One is guilty of common law murder is guilty of killing with “malice aforethought.” “Malice aforethought” generally converge to four constituent states of mind:

  1. Intent to kill
    • intentional or knowing homicide was murder unless the actor killed in the heat of passion engendered by adequate provocation, in which case the crime was manslaughter
  2. Intent to cause grievous bodily harm
    • knowledge that conduct would cause serious bodily injury was generally assimilated to intent and was deemed sufficient for murder if death of another actually resulted.
  3. Depraved-heart murder
    • unintentional homicide under circumstances evincing a “depraved mind” or an “abandoned and malignant heart.” Essential concept was one of extreme recklessness regarding homicidal risk.
  4. Intent to commit a felony
    • origin of felony-murder rule — assigns strict liability for homicide committed during the commission of a felony

Manslaughter, however, differs from murder in that there is no evidence of “malice aforethought” in these cases. At the same time, these killings do not have a justification or excuse and deserve to reprimanded by legal authority. Under federal manslaughter provision, there are two categories of manslaughter:

  1. Voluntary – upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion
  2. Involuntary – in the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or in the commission in an unlawful manner, or without due caution or circumspection, of a lawful death which might produce death

This is just an introduction to manslaughter and will be focused on in more depth in a later post. The focus today is on murder, particularly how to distinguish whether a murder is first or second degree based on different statutes. Typically, the difference between first and second degree murder comes down to whether the murder was “willful, deliberate, and premeditated.” Think about what these three terms mean to you and if you believe this should be the standard that determines whether or not a defendant should face the death penalty for his or her actions. The following three cases will emphasize the importance of this determination.

State v. Guthrie (West Virginia, 1995)

Defendant appeals the jury verdict finding him guilty of first degree murder for which he was sentenced to serve life imprisonment.

Two men, Guthrie (defendant) and Farley (victim) worked together as dishwashers and got along well before this incident occurred. On this particular night, the victim poked fun at the defendant, unaware that the defendant was in a bad mood. The victim told the defendant to “lighten up” and snapped him with a dish towel. The dish towel flipped the defendant on the nose and he became enraged. He proceeded to remove his gloves, take a knife out of his pocket, and stab the defendant in the neck, killing him.

While it is clear that a murder occurred, the degree of murder depends on the phrase that pays: willful, deliberate, and premeditated. The defense argues that the trial court instructions in this case were improper, because they equate those three adjectives with intent to kill. According to the Clifford instructions given to the jury, “it is only necessary that such intention should have come into existence for the first time at the time of such killing, or at any time previously.” The problem with this is that if first degree murder merely requires an intent to kill, then there is no case that would be considered a second degree murder.

Instead, the court turns to the Hatfield jury instruction which determines that first degree murder is: “killing done after a period of time for prior consideration, duration of that period not arbitrarily fixed, time in which to form a deliberate and premeditated design varies as the minds and temperaments of people differ and according to circumstances in which they may be placed. any interval of time between forming of intent to kill and execution of that intent, which is of sufficient duration for the accused to be fully conscious of what he intended, is sufficient to support conviction of first degree murder.” This jury instruction creates a clear distinction between first and second degree murder while remaining intentionally vague so that the jury can decide for themselves whether or not there was premeditation and deliberation. In the case of Guthrie, the judgment was reversed and remanded for a new trial using this jury instruction.

The Michigan approach to premeditation and deliberation in the case of People v. Morrin demonstrates a more meaningful standard. The Michigan approach is two-fold and exemplifies why it is important to differentiate between first and second degree murder:

  1. “The division of murder into degrees was prompted by a feeling that not all murders reflected the same quantum of culpability on the part of the wrongdoer.”
  2. “To premeditate is to think about beforehand whereas to deliberate is to measure and evaluate the major facets of a choice or problem.”

Midgett v. State (Arkansas, 1987)

Warning: This is a horrible facts case and may be triggering to some readers. 

Midgett v. State is a child abuse case resulted in appellant’s conviction of first degree murder. Issue on appeal is whether state’s evidence was sufficient to sustain conviction. Appellant beat his eight year old son and abused him by brutal beating over a substantial period of time. The victim’s 10 year old sister testified to having seen Ronnie Sr. beat Ronnie Jr. multiple times. On the day of beating, he administered four blows – two to the stomach and two to the back. Ronnie Jr. died a few days after the beating when Ronnie Sr. took him to the hospital. Autopsy showed Ronnie Jr. was poorly nourished and under-developed. His death was caused by blunt force trauma determined to have been delivered by a human fist. No evidence that he killed Ronnie Jr. having premeditated and deliberated causing his death. Evidence supports appellant intended not to kill his son but to further abuse him or that his intent, if it was to kill the child, was developed in a drunken, heated, rage while disciplining the child. 

While the facts of this case are absolutely disturbing, it is not an example (beyond a reasonable doubt) of willful, deliberate, and premeditated murder. Evidence was sufficient to convict Midgett of second degree murder but not murder in the first degree.

A more justified rule? Because of this case, Arkansas later changed the statute to include the unlawful killing of a person under the age of 14 to be considered liable for murder in the first degree.

State v. Forrest (North Carolina, 1987)

The defendant was convicted of first degree murder in a noncapital case and received life in prison.

Two days prior to Christmas Eve, 1985, the defendant admitted his father to the hospital. His father had been previously hospitalized and suffered from numerous ailments. Upon admittance, his father’s condition was deemed terminal and untreatable with the designation of “no code” meaning no extraordinary measures would be used to save his life. On Christmas Eve, the defendant visited his father in the hospital with no other family members present. He told nurse’s assistants that there was no need to tend to his father and the nursing staff eventually left him alone in the room with his dad. Alone in the room, he cried and told his father that he loved him. He then pulled out a gun and shot his father in the temple. He fired three more times before walking into the corridor and dropping his gun.

Defendant argues that submission of first degree murder charge was improper because there was insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation presented at trial, but the court does not agree. Under State v. Jackson, “First degree murder is the intentional and unlawful killing of a human being with malice and with premeditation and deliberation. Premeditation and deliberation usually must be proved by circumstantial evidence.”

And so, while Midgett’s actions were less reasonable and more horrifying than Forrest’s actions, there was evidence that Forrest’s actions were premeditated and Midgett’s were not. Under the premeditation-deliberation standard, Midgett deserved his charge of murder in the second degree and Forrest deserved a charge of murder in the first degree. The real question is whether or not this standard is justified.

Premeditation-Deliberation Standard

There is much disagreement as to whether the premeditation-deliberation standard should be the standard that determines whether a murder charge is deserving of first or second degree. On the one hand, there is the argument that premeditated murderers are the most deterrable. The standard requires severe maximum punishment for these killers, because it deters them from following through with a killing they had time to think about. It is much more difficult to deter someone who decided to kill someone in the moment without malice aforethought. On the other hand, there are many legal scholars who believe this method of separating the most serious homicides from lesser ones is dysfunctional. Just look at the cases above. Shouldn’t it be more serious to brutally beat an eight year old child to death than to kill your father whom you loved dearly to keep him from suffering in a hospital bed? Or is it worse that Forrest walked into that hospital room and knew exactly what he was doing when he inflicted a single, lethal wound?




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