Difference Between Capital Murder & First Degree Murder

By Ramona French ; Updated June 19, 2017
Crime scene tape in building with forensic team working

Capital murder and first degree murder are similar crimes. The difference between the two is based on special circumstances and the sentence received from the court by the murderer. The government has to prove that the defendant committed the murder, that the killing was premeditated and done intentionally, or that it was done with complete reckless disregard for human life. The sentence is prescribed by law and whether the defendant is sentenced to capital punishment depends on special circumstances.

First Degree Murder

Texas criminal law defines first degree murder in the way that many other states do. First degree murder is premeditated, which means the criminal thought about the crime ahead of time. It is deliberate, meaning that the criminal carried out the crime in full awareness of what he or she was doing. "With malice aforethought" means the same thing, the deliberate, planned taking of a person's life without regard for that person's right to life. The California penal code includes murder with the use of an explosive, a weapon of mass destruction, armor-penetrating ammunition, poison, lying in wait, torture or murder by means of discharging a firearm from a car with intent to kill in the definition of first degree murder.


Punishment for first-degree murder is usually severe, requiring a lengthy time in prison, up to the extreme of a life sentence. The purpose of the sentence is as much to protect the public from a dangerous person as it is to punish the murderer.

Capital Murder

Capital murder is murder for which the death penalty is authorized by law, according to the Law Glossary. California and Texas and other states with capital punishment usually authorize execution for murder that is aggravated by special circumstances, for instance the murder of a peace officer or firefighter while that person was on duty.

Special Circumstances

Special circumstances include murder committed intentionally during the commission of a felony crime such as aggravated sexual assault, arson, kidnapping or other similar crimes. It also includes murdering for pay and paying someone to commit a murder, murder while escaping prison and murder of a child under the age of six. Multiple murders, murder with guns, murder during a robbery or rape and murder while hijacking an aircraft are also considered special circumstances that would result in the death sentence.

About the Author

Ramona French owned a massage school and taught massage for 28 years. In that time she wrote textbooks on Swedish, acupressure, deep tissue and lymph drainage massage. She is the author of "Introduction to Lymph Drainage Massage" and "Milady's Guide to Lymph Drainage Massage." Her book, "The Complete Guide to Lymph Drainage Massage," published by Milady, was released in October 2011.