What Is Considered Capital Murder?

Capital murder is a general term for murder for which one may receive the death penalty. What constitutes capital murder varies from one jurisdiction to another. For example, capital murder in Nevada may not be the same crime in other states.

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Capital Murder

Definition and Legal Framework

Capital murder only exists in states with capital punishment. As of this writing, 27 states still have the death penalty. Nevada is among those states. Most states with the death penalty don’t have crimes named “capital murder.” However, a crime still qualifies as capital murder if it leads to capital punishment.

Criteria for Capital Murder

A crime must meet the criteria for first-degree murder to qualify as capital murder in Nevada. Under Nevada law, first-degree murder includes:

  • Premeditated murder
  • Murder committed during kidnapping, sexual assault, or similar crimes
  • Murder with the intent to avoid lawful arrest or escape legal custody
  • Murder committed on a school’s property or on a school bus
  • Murder committed while perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate terrorism

A case of first-degree murder may become a capital murder case if one or more “aggravating circumstances” apply. Nevada law defines aggravating circumstances as:

  • A person is under a sentence of imprisonment when they committed a murder
  • A person having already been convicted of murder or a similar violent crime when committing murder again
  • A murderer using a weapon or other such means of taking a person’s life that could put multiple others in danger
  • Someone committing murder while fleeing the scene of a robbery, arson, kidnapping, or other similar crime in which they participated
  • Someone committing murder to escape lawful arrest or custody
  • Someone committing murder in exchange for money or anything else of monetary value
  • Someone killing a peace officer or firefighter while performing their official duties and because they were performing said duties
  • A murderer torturing or mutilating their victim
  • Someone killing one or more people with no apparent motive
  • A murderer targeting a victim under the age of 14
  • A murderer kills someone due to their race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
  • Someone attempting to force a victim to engage in non-consensual sexual penetration before, during, or immediately after taking their life
  • Someone committing murder on public or private school property (including school buses)
  • Someone murdering with the attempt to cause, aid, or otherwise contribute to an act of terrorism

The burden of proof may be relatively high in a capital murder case. Even if it appears someone committed murder, the prosecution may still lose their case if they fail to establish any aggravating circumstances.

Case Examples

Reviewing an actual capital murder case may help you better understand the general nature of such cases in Nevada. As of this writing, the most recent execution in Nevada is that of Daryl Linnie Mack. The state executed him on April 26, 2006. He was 47 at the time.

Mack had already been serving a life sentence for the 1994 murder of Kim Parks. A three-judge panel sentenced Mack to death after DNA evidence linked him to the 1988 rape and murder of Betty Jane May. Aggravating circumstances in this case include forced non-consensual penetration and multiple convictions.

Mack’s execution marked the first execution of a Nevada convict solely on DNA evidence. Mack had appealed his case but eventually dropped his appeals. He cited a desire to no longer live on death row as his reason for doing so.

Legal Process and Penalties

Nevada currently uses lethal injection to execute capital murder convicts. Someone convicted of capital murder can appeal their case in Nevada.

If someone receives a conviction of first-degree murder in Nevada but does not receive a death sentence, penalties may include:

  • Life imprisonment in state prison without the possibility of parole
  • Life imprisonment in state prison with the possibility of parole after serving 20 years
  • 50 years imprisonment in state prison with the possibility of parole after serving 20 years

The existence of aggravating circumstances doesn’t guarantee a capital punishment sentence in Nevada. A person may avoid capital punishment if “mitigating circumstances” outweigh aggravating circumstances.

Mitigating circumstances under Nevada law include:

  • The defendant lacks a significant prior criminal history
  • The perpetrator committed a murder while experiencing an “extreme mental or emotional disturbance”
  • The victim of a murder participated in criminal conduct with the defendant or consented to
  • The defendant was merely an accomplice in a murder, and their participation wasn’t significant
  • The defendant murdered while under duress or otherwise under someone else’s control
  • The defendant was relatively young when they committed a murder

Nevada law also allows a person who might otherwise receive a capital murder conviction to avoid one if a court determines they have an intellectual disability.

Controversies and Debates

Capital murder is often the subject of debate in the U.S. Arguments against capital punishment include:

  • Wrongful executions  According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, at least 195 people sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated. Capital punishment critics argue the risk of executing innocent people is too great to justify the death penalty’s continued existence.
  • Ineffective deterrent  Proponents of capital punishment may argue it deters potential murderers. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Justice, the current research doesn’t conclusively indicate whether the death penalty is an effective deterrent.
  • Cruel and unusual punishment  The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the death penalty constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment. While that ruling didn’t result in the permanent nationwide abolition of capital punishment, it provides a basis for further legal arguments.

Ongoing debates about capital murder sometimes result in the law changing in some states and jurisdictions. However, capital punishment currently remains an option prosecutors may seek in Nevada.

The Importance of Understanding Capital Murder

Regardless of your opinion on the topic of capital murder, learning about its legal framework can help you better understand the role it plays in Nevada’s criminal justice system. If you’re facing a capital murder charge, the best way to learn about this topic is to discuss your case with an attorney.

Review your case with our Las Vegas capital murder defense attorneys at De Castroverde Law Group Criminal & Immigration. We can help protect your rights at a critical time. Learn more by calling us today or contacting us online for a case review.