The federal crime of murder in Nevada under 18 U.S.C. § 1111 consists of two degrees. First degree murder is premeditated killing or killing done in the commission of a serious felony, and it carries a life sentence or the death penalty. And second degree murder, which is any other unlawful killing done with “malice aforethought”, is punishable by up to a life sentence.
In this article, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys discuss:
- 1. What is murder under federal law?
- 2. When is murder in Nevada a federal crime?
- 3. What is the sentence for federal murder?
- 4. How can defendants in Nevada fight the charges?
1. What is murder under federal law?
Similar to Nevada law, the legal definition of murder under federal law is the “unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.” It is the most serious class of homicide and carries the harshest penalties.
Also similar to Nevada, federal law divides murder into first and second degrees.
1.1. First degree murder
Under federal law, murder in the first degree consists of the following types of killing:
- Murder perpetrated by poison, lying in wait, or any other kind of willful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated killing;
- Murder committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, any arson, escape, murder, kidnapping, treason, espionage, sabotage, aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse, child abuse, burglary, or robbery;
- Murder perpetrated as part of a pattern or practice of assault or torture against a child or children; or
- Murder perpetrated from a premeditated design unlawfully and maliciously to effect the death of any human being other than him who is killed
In short, murder of the first degree is largely comprised of two types of homicide: 1) killing with no premeditation, and 2) killing committed in the perpetration of a serious crime – which is commonly called “felony murder.”
1.2. Second-degree murder
Second-degree murder is any kind of murder that is not considered first degree. This encompasses an extremely reckless killing where the person may not have intended to cause death but should have known that death was the likely result. The classic example is killing someone by playing Russian Roulette.1
2. When is murder in Nevada a federal crime?
Most murder cases in Nevada are prosecuted in state court. But Nevada federal court has jurisdiction over unlawful killings in Nevada when:
- The killing occurs on federal property;
- The killing is committed during a bank robbery;
- The victim is a federal judge, an elected or appointed federal official, a federal law enforcement official, or a family member of a federal law enforcement official; or
- The murder was intended to influence a court case.2
Note that only the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas and the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse in Reno hear federal murder cases in Nevada.
3. What is the sentence for federal murder?
Under federal murder law, a first-degree murder conviction carries up to a life sentence in Federal Prison or the death penalty. And a second-degree murder conviction carries up to a life sentence.3
Note that an attempted murder conviction carries up to 20 years in federal prison and/or a fine.4
3.1. Penalties under Nevada state law
Murder (NRS 200.030) is a category A felony in Nevada. Defendants convicted of first-degree murder in Nevada state court face a sentence of either:
- The death penalty; or
- Life in Nevada State Prison with no possibility of parole; or
- Life in state prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years; or
- 50 years in state prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years.5
Note that defendants face the death penalty only if there are aggravating circumstances that outweigh any mitigating factors. Examples of aggravating factors are that the defendant committed sexual assault (rape) on the victim, the murder was in commission of a home invasion, or the murder was an act of terrorism.6
Meanwhile, a second-degree murder conviction is punishable by:
- life in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years; or
- 25 years in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years.7
Finally, attempted murder is usually prosecuted as a category B felony in Nevada. A conviction carries 2 to 20 years in Nevada State Prison.8
4. How can defendants in Nevada fight the charges?
Murder has the same potential defense strategies under Nevada state and federal law. Depending on the circumstances of the case, four common defenses to murder charges are:
- The defendant killed in lawful self-defense because he or she reasonably believed that he or she was facing an immediate threat of death or substantial bodily harm.
- The defendant was legally insane at the time of the killing.
- The defendant was falsely accused or misidentified out of a lineup.
- The police officers committed misconduct by coercing a confession or finding evidence through an illegal search or seizure.
Alternatively, the defense attorney can argue that the killing was done with no malice aforethought. This could get a federal murder charge reduced to voluntary manslaughter (which carries up to 15 years in prison) or involuntary manslaughter (which carries up to eight years in prison).9
In any criminal case in federal or Nevada courts, the D.A. has the burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As long as the defense attorney can demonstrate through investigation, litigation and cross-examination that the prosecution’s case is too weak to sustain a murder conviction, then charges should not stand.
- 18 USC § 1111. See United States v. Begay, (9th Cir. 2019) 934 F.3d 1033. See United States v. Zamastil, (9th Cir. 2013) 550 Fed. Appx. 446, 93 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (CBC) 223.
- 18 USC §§ 1111, 1114, 1115b3, 351, 1152, 2280.
- See note 3.
- 18 USC § 1113.
- Nevada Revised Statute NRS 200.030.
- NRS 200.033.
- See note 5.
- NRS 193.330.
- 18 USC § 1112.