first degree murder attorney phoenix
In Arizona, first degree murder is the most serious felony that is punishable by death. If you or a loved one is facing a homicide charge, then your future and life are on the line. That’s why it’s critical to have an experienced Arizona murder lawyer on your side who can potentially drop the death penalty. Call Ybarra Maldonado Law Group today at 602-910-4040 for the best possible outcome in your case.

What is First Degree Murder?

Arizona law defines first degree murder as “intending or knowing that the person’s conduct will cause death, the person causes the death of another person, including an unborn child, with premeditation or, as a result of causing the death of another person with premeditation, causes the death of an unborn child.” In other words, first degree murder is knowingly killing another person with premeditation.
Therefore, a first degree murder charge might result in the death penalty or a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

What Are the Different Types of First Degree Murder?

A jury can charge a suspect with one of three types of Arizona murder:
  1. Premeditated Murder
  2. Felony Murder
  3. Murder of a Law Enforcement Officer

Premeditated Murder

Arizona law defines premeditated murder as actively planning and thinking about killing another person prior to the actual murder. Regardless of how much time a suspect spends planning the killing, the act of premeditation is what takes this crime from second to first degree murder. Additionally, a suspect doesn’t need to think about their decision to kill for a long time to fall into the premeditation category.

Felony Murder

When a suspect kills someone while performing another crime, it’s called felony murder. In order to convict someone of felony murder, the prosecution must show that the suspect:
  • Committed or attempted a crime such as aggravated robbery, kidnapping, or a shooting.
  • Killed another person in the course of committing or attempting a different crime.
For a jury to charge a suspect with felony murder, they don’t have to intend to kill someone. A murder could be undoubtedly unintentional. However, a jury can charge a suspect with both felony murder and premeditated murder if the suspect intended to kill someone while committing a different crime.

What is the “Felony Murder Rule?”

The felony murder rule states that if a group commits a crime together, it doesn’t matter who was responsible for the death. So if a crime results in an unintentional death, all parties involved are held accountable.
This rule especially applies to “inherently dangerous” crimes. Basically this rule applies to crimes such as burglary, robbery, rape, arson, kidnapping, and more. So when a person or a group participates in an inherently dangerous crime, they are automatically held responsible for any deaths that occur.

Murder of a Law Enforcement Officer

To prove that a suspect murdered a police officer, a prosecutor must prove that a suspect participated in certain behaviors knowing that a police officer would die as a result. For this type of first degree murder, a jury doesn’t have to prove premeditation.

What is the Punishment for First Degree Murder in Arizona?

According to Arizona law, first degree murder is punishable by life in prison or the death penalty. In an Arizona murder case, the most crucial job of an attorney is to persuade the prosecutor to drop the death penalty. This is obviously because the death penalty is the most severe punishment and it can cause the suspect’s family to suffer significantly.

Possible Defenses for First Degree Murder

An Arizona murder attorney can bring multiple defenses to the table in order to convince a prosecutor to drop the death penalty. These defenses can include self-defense, mistaken identity, guilty except insane, and more.

Unreliable Investigation and Evidence

This defense will specifically attack the quality of law enforcement’s investigation and the reliability of the evidence used against a suspect. Types of evidence an attorney can generally attack include:
  • Crime scene: did police conduct a proper investigation of the crime scene and the evidence collected at the scene? Was any evidence lost, overlooked, or destroyed?
  • Forensic pathology: did the medical examiner make the correct conclusions or fail to consider specific evidence? Additionally, did the medical examiner accurately document the victim’s time of death?
  • Forensic serology: this is basically the forensic examination of blood. An attorney could utilize this defense by asking questions such as: how was the blood linked to the suspect? And how was this substance determined to be human blood?
  • DNA evidence: one of the strongest defenses an attorney can use regarding DNA evidence is whether forensic detectives used STR analysis or mitochondrial DNA typing procedures. The latter doesn’t have the same discrimination power STR analysis. Additionally, an attorney can question whether detectives somehow contaminated DNA evidence.
  • Fingerprints: when it comes to fingerprints as evidence, an attorney can question whether the prints were properly located, preserved, and digitally enhanced.
  • Ballistics evidence: in crimes involving guns, it’s important for law enforcement to investigate the types of guns and bullets involved. Additionally, it’s important to accurately compare bullet markings and cartridges. Law enforcement must also examine all suspects and victims for gunpowder residue. If law enforcement performs poorly or inaccurately in this part of the investigation, an attorney can use it as a defense.
  • Computer forensics: lastly, an attorney can question whether police properly acquired, examined, and preserved any computer data involved in a first degree murder charge.


An attorney can potentially convince a jury to drop the death penalty if a suspect killed someone as a result of self-defense.

Defense of a Third Person

Similarly to the self-defense claim, an attorney can potentially convince a jury to drop the death penalty if a suspect kills someone because they tried to protect another person.

Crime Prevention

Another possible defense is if a suspect killed someone for the sole purpose of preventing a deadly crime. According to Arizona law, the suspect must have thought deadly force was necessary to prevent:
  • Arson
  • Burglary
  • Kidnapping
  • Manslaughter
  • Murder in the first or second degree
  • Child molestation
  • Armed robbery
  • Aggravated assault

No Motive

Another potential defense against the death penalty is to prove that a suspect had no motive to kill someone. Although the prosecution isn’t required to prove motive, they frequently try to use it against a suspect anyway. If an attorney proves that a suspect didn’t have a motive, they can argue that the suspect didn’t commit the crime.

Mistaken Identity

Mistaken identity can be a strong defense against the death penalty. This is because many suspects are initially identified through eyewitness identification. Research proves that eyewitness identification is the most unreliable type of evidence.

Mere Presence

Occasionally, a jury charges a suspect with first degree murder if they happened to be present during the crime. Mere presence doesn’t mean a suspect was involved in a crime, nor does it mean they killed someone. In other words, mere presence doesn’t equal criminal intent.


In an alibi defense, an attorney will provide evidence that the suspect was somewhere else when the murder happened. Obviously if a suspect proves that they weren’t on the scene when a murder happened, then they didn’t commit the murder.

Third Party Culpability

If a suspect has evidence that connects someone else to a murder, then a jury may drop the death penalty. Depending on the facts of a particular case, a suspect could have both an alibi and a third party culpability defense.

No Premeditation

As stated previously, premeditation is an essential part of a first degree murder charge. If an attorney can prove that a suspect didn’t plan or think about the murder beforehand, a jury may not charge them with first degree murder.

Attack the Underlying Felony

When a suspect is accused of felony murder, an attorney should always challenge the evidence that proves they committed the underlying crime. The prosecution won’t be able to prove felony murder unless they can prove the underlying felony.

Character Trait for Impulsivity

An attorney can use a suspect’s tendency for impulsivity to their advantage. This is because impulsivity can prove that the suspect didn’t premeditate a murder. However, an attorney can’t argue that their suspect suffered from a mental disorder that prevented them from premeditation unless the attorney is arguing for complete insanity.

Guilty Except Insane

An attorney can argue insanity on behalf of a mentally ill suspect in order to potentially drop the death penalty. To prove that a suspect is guilty but insane, an attorney must prove that the suspect didn’t know right from wrong during a murder because of their mental illness. This defense is generally uncommon because many people suffer from mental illness but still know right from wrong. However, the insanity defense is still used for suspects who suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder), and more. Instead of facing the death penalty or life imprisonment, a suspect who claims insanity will spend their life in a mental hospital.
For example, a famous case in the 1970s in which the suspect claimed insanity was Billy Milligan. He suffered from dissociative identity disorder. His lawyers claimed that two of his 24 alternate personalities committed rape and armed robbery without Milligan’s host personality being aware of the crimes.

Mitigation Evidence

Mitigation evidence is basically any factors in a suspect’s life that should spare them from the death penalty out of mercy alone. Potential factors that an attorney can argue are a suspect’s young age, mental illness, and biosocial history.

Call an Arizona Murder Attorney Today

Facing criminal charges can feel like the end of the world, but you have the right to a fair trial and protection under law. Filled with passion for justice and fighting tirelessly for our clients, Ybarra Maldonado Law Group will ensure your rights aren’t violated. Call us today at 602-910-4040 for an impressive defense that will take Arizona murder accusations head-on. Even if you were merely an accessory to a crime, we can craft a strong defense for you.

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