I’m in the middle of a series of posts related to the case of James Fields, Jr., who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person and injuring others. He was originally charged with second degree murder, but the charges have been upgraded to first degree.
So what’s the difference between first and second degree murder?
Both crimes involve the same act: taking a human life. What differentiates them (and all other forms of homicide) is the defendant’s mental state. For second degree, the defendant must intentionally kill. For first degree, he must kill intentionally and with premeditation. In other words, second degree might be a split second decision, but first degree requires some amount of forethought. Because we believe that a planned murder is more blameworthy, first degree carries a more serious penalty than second.
Now, when I say “premeditation,” you may be picturing a villain spending months scheming away, developing the perfect plan to do away with her nemesis. That would certainly count. But the law doesn’t actually require that much. In fact, the defendant might ponder for only seconds before she acts. Or if the killing takes some time—such as when the victim is strangled, for example—the pondering might even take place during the act itself. All that’s required is proof that the defendant had time and opportunity to think about what she was doing to the victim.
It’s also worth noting that the defendant doesn’t have to develop intent to kill any particular person. It’s enough if he decides to create substantial risk to human life in general—such as shooting into a passenger train, setting up a bomb in a public place, placing poison in something people are likely to consume, or dropping a heavy object off an overpass onto a highway.
In Fields’s case, videos show the defendant driving slowly toward the crowd, backing up and then accelerating directly into numerous people. He then quickly reversed again, striking more people before getting away. The prosecutor will have to prove that in those short moments before his foot hit the gas, Fields deliberately decided to strike people with with his vehicle at a substantial speed. If the prosecutor can prove that, Fields may end up convicted of first degree murder.
Next week: What if the prosecutor can’t prove premeditation?