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What Is Capital Murder?

Individuals committing deliberate murder may be charged with capital murder.
The classification of murder is based primarily on the state of mind that the murderer had towards the victim.
A conviction for capital murder could lead to the death penalty.
San Quentin State Prison, which houses the only death row for male inmates in California. The death penalty could be imposed for a murder conviction in the US.
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  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2014
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Capital murder is any homicide for which the potential punishment is death. The death penalty, or execution, is also known as capital punishment. The word "capital" is derived from the Latin word for "head," and one ancient method of executing criminals was cutting off their heads. Any time a particular type of murder can be punished by putting the murderer to death, it is capital murder, which also can be referred to as capital homicide.

The word "homicide" means taking a human life, which is often a crime, but not always. Certain homicides are considered legal or justifiable, such as killing another person in self-defense. The word "murder," however, applies only to homicides that are not legal or justifiable under the law and are punishable as crimes. Capital murders are those crimes of murder that the law will punish by its severest penalty, the death penalty.

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Not all murders are capital, and in fact, not all criminal homicides are considered murders. A less severe form of homicide that is still considered a crime is often called manslaughter, which is the unlawful killing of another person through negligence or recklessness or in the heat of the moment. Murder, at least as it is defined in the common law tradition, involves what is called malice aforethought. This term describes the murderer's state of mind, or what the common law refers to as mens rea, which is Latin for "guilty mind." The state of mind required to call a killing murder, and the state of mind to which the term "malice aforethought" refers, is killing intentionally or killing recklessly with extreme disregard for human life.

Murder is often classified in various degrees, depending primarily on the particular state of mind that the murderer had. A murder usually is classified as murder in the first degree, the most serious kind of murder, when the murderer is determined to have acted deliberately with premeditated intent to kill another. That means that he or she planned or thought about the killing before doing it.

Some jurisdictions do not impose capital punishment for any crimes, and in those places, there is no capital murder. In places that do use the death penalty for certain types of murder, it typically is used only for the most severe forms of murder. These forms of murder include first degree murder; murders with specific aggravating circumstances, such as murdering a police officer; or felony capital murder, when the murder is committed as part of another serious crime, such as burglary or bank robbery. These will be considered capital crimes because those who commit them might suffer capital punishment.

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anon294483
Post 8

I was curious about what capital murder in a murder trial meant. Now that wisegeek explained what capital murder means I have a better understanding of how individuals are charged with such a serious crime.

anon294481
Post 7

Murder is murder, no matter which way you want to look at it. Juries are usually pretty good at deciding whether the accused is guilty and the proper punishment to be used.

anon150395
Post 6

I just got back from jury duty on a capital murder case and as far as I am concerned, let 'em *all* hang.

BioNerd
Post 5

@FitzMaurice

It seems to me that it ultimately comes down to a worldview of justice vs. grace. If the law condemns the innocent sometimes (as in a rigid system), isn't that worse than letting the guilty go free sometimes (in a system without the death penalty)? I think that a grace mentality in the justice system will give each individual under the law a stronger sense of individual responsibility.

FitzMaurice
Post 4

@BioNerd

If we choose to give leniency to murderers, won't they realize that they can get away with their crimes easily and therefore be motivated to disregard the law? I think that we need a solid justice system in order to have a safe society. Have you ever met the family of someone who has been murdered? The bitterness and grief that weighs upon them is only aggravated when they realize that the person who killed their loved one has gotten off scot-free.

BioNerd
Post 3

I think that the death penalty is a relic of the past and should be avoided wherever life in prison or a radical change on the part of the killer is possible. Not only that, there is always the potential that people will be put to death on what turns out to be faulty evidence. In my opinion, the death penalty is a relic of the past and something to be re-evaluated in our modern culture.

Armas1313
Post 2

@Leonidas226

I think that you make a sweeping generalization when you say "murder is murder." There are always nuances in every crime that the judge and jury need to find out. In America, the system dictates "innocent until proven guilty," and it is the burden of the accuser to prove that the accused committed a capital crime. Even in Biblical times, we see that there are differences in the laws for criminals depending on what the nature and motives of a murder was.

Leonidas226
Post 1

First of all, I don't understand why killing a certain individual should be seen as worse than killing another individual merely because one of them is somehow "important." Is it really permissible to kill someone without malice? I think that murder is murder and should be treated as such.

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