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What is the legal definition of aggravating factors (special circumstances)?
Aggravating factors make the defendant in a criminal case seem more blameworthy. For instance, if someone tortures and kills a victim, the torture counts as an “aggravating factor.” It makes the killing even more egregious. And the district court jury (“trier of fact”) can use this aggravating circumstance to justify imposing the death sentence.
Aggravating factors are the opposite of mitigating factors, which make a defendant in a criminal case seem less blameworthy. An example is if a murderer was abused as a child. This childhood abuse does not excuse the murder, but it does show the defendant in a more sympathetic light. And the district court jury can use this mitigatingcircumstance to justify imposing prison instead of death.
During the sentencing phase following a murder conviction, the district attorney presents evidence of aggravating factors, while the criminal defense attorney presents evidence of mitigating ones.
What are the aggravating circumstances in a Nevada murder case?
NRS 200.033 spells out the 15 special circumstances that can make a first-degree murder aggravated – thereby making the defendant eligible for capital punishment:
The defendant was a prisoner at the time of the killing.
The defendant has a criminal history of either murder or a felony involving the use or threat of violence.
The defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to more than one person by means of a weapon, device or course of action which would normally be hazardous to the human life of more than one person.
The murder was committed while the defendant was in perpetration of a robbery, first-degree arson, burglary, invasion of the home, or first-degree kidnapping, and the defendant either 1) killed or attempted to kill the person murdered, or 2) knew or had reason to know that life would be taken or lethal force used.
The murder was committed to avoid or prevent a lawful arrest or to effect an escape from custody.
The defendant killed to receive financial gain or any other thing of value.
The defendant knowingly killed an on-duty peace officer (including law enforcement officers / police officers) or firefighter.
The murder involved torture or the mutilation of the victim.
The killing was committed at random and without an apparent motive.
The victim was less than 14 years of age.
The killing was a hate crime (due to perceived race, color, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression).
The defendant has more than one prior murder conviction.
The defendant – alone or with others – sexually assaulted the victim.
The killing took place on school property, at a school event, or on a school bus, and the defendant intended to create a great risk of death or substantial bodily harm to more than one person by means of a weapon, device or course of action that would normally be hazardous to the lives of more than one human being.
The murder was committed with the intent to commit, cause, aid, further or conceal an act of terrorism.
Nevada’s criminal justice system requires that the jury find at least one aggravating factor before it can sentence a defendant to death. But if the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating ones, the jury may not impose death.
How is first-degree murder different from second-degree murder?
First-degree murder comprises both premeditated murder as well as felony murder (killing done in the commission of a crime, such as a robbery or carjacking gone wrong).
Second-degree murder has no premeditation. Although the defendant acted with reckless indifference to human life, the defendant did not have the specific intent to kill anyone. A classic example is playing Russian Roulette. Anyone knows death is likely to result from firing a deadly weapon / destructive device like a firearm.
Note that voluntary manslaughter is a less serious crime than murder. It comprises “heat of passion” killings done without premeditation.
What are the penalties for murder?
A category A felony, first-degree murder carries the death sentence only if there is at least one aggravating circumstance, and it is not outweighed by any mitigating circumstances. People sentenced to death often remain on death row for years before their execution. And currently, executions are on hold while the state is having trouble obtaining the supplies necessary for lethal injection. (Note that death row is in Ely, not Las Vegas.)
Otherwise, the punishment for first-degree killing includes:
A sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; or
Life with the possibility of parole, with eligibility for parole beginning when a minimum of 20 years has been served; or
50 years in prison, with eligibility for parole beginning when a minimum of 20 years has been served.
The court does not need to make a determination about whether aggravating circumstances exist to decide whether to grant the possibility of parole.
Also a category A felony, second-degree killing carries:
life with the possibility of parole, with eligibility for parole beginning when a minimum of 10 years have been served; or
25 years, with eligibility for parole beginning when a minimum of 10 years have been served.
What other states have the death penalty?
State executions are also legal in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi. Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. (Despite popular belief, Colorado is not a death penalty state.) And in 2020, the United States Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling permitting the Trump administration to resume implementing the death penalty in federal capital punishment cases following a 17-year lull. (BOURGEOIS, ALFRED, ET AL. V. BARR, ATT’Y GEN., ET AL., No. 19-1348 (19A1050) June 29, 2020.)
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.