Nevada defines murder as an unlawful killing of a human being done with malice. First-degree murder comprises:
- premeditated killings, and
- felony murder, which are killings done while the suspect is committing a serious felony such as robbery
Second-degree murder comprises unintentional killings where the suspect acted so recklessly that death was a foreseeable consequence.
When a district attorney prosecutes homicide cases in Nevada, they typically bring what’s called an “open murder” information or indictment. This is a general homicide allegation that includes charges of not only first- and second-degree murder but also voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter as well.
|Second-degree murder|| |
Here at Las Vegas Defense Group, we have represented countless people accused of homicide offenses. In our experience, the most effective murder defenses are to show:
- the defendant acted in self-defense,
- the killing was an accident,
- the defendant was insane,
- the defendant’s confession was coerced,
- the police performed an illegal search, and/or
- the defendant was misidentified as the killer.
In this article, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys discuss:
- 1. What is the legal definition of murder in Nevada?
- 2. Can a Nevada murder charge be reduced to manslaughter?
- 3. Does murder carry the death penalty in Nevada?
- 4. What are the penalties for murder in Nevada?
- 5. How do I fight the charges?
- 6. How is murder different in federal vs state court?
- 7. Can the case be sealed?
- 8. Will I get deported?
- 9. Other homicide offenses
1. What is the legal definition of murder in Nevada?
Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought, either express or implied.
- Express malice is that deliberate intention unlawfully to take away the life of a fellow creature, which is manifested by external circumstances capable of proof.
- Implied malice is when no considerable provocation appears, or when all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.
Depending on the circumstances of the case, suspects may be prosecuted for either
- first-degree murder or
- second-degree murder:1
1.1. First-degree murder
First-degree murder comprises any premeditated act of killing. Examples include purposely shooting, stabbing, strangling, poisoning, torturing, or beating someone to death.2
First-degree murder also comprises killings committed:
- by means of lying in wait or torture; or
- to avoid or prevent the lawful arrest of any person by a peace officer or to effect the escape of any person from legal custody; or
- on the property of a public or private school (or at an activity sponsored by a public or private school or on a school bus) with the intent to create a great risk of death or substantial bodily harm to more than one person; or
- in the perpetration of terrorism.
First-degree murder is the most serious crime in Nevada law. The maximum penalty is life in prison or, in some cases, the death penalty.3
1.1.1. Felony murder
First-degree murder also comprises “felony murder.” This is when a person kills another while committing any of the following serious felonies:
- rape (“sexual assault”),
- invasion of the home,
- child abuse,
- elder abuse or abuse of a vulnerable person pursuant to NRS 200.5099,
- sexual abuse of a child (such as lewdness with a minor), or
- sexual molestation of a child under the age of 14 years.
A person is liable for felony murder even if they had no intention of killing anyone while committing the underlying felony.”4
1.1.2. Aiding & Abetting
Accomplices who help others carry out a murder face murder charges themselves even if they did not physically cause the death. Examples of aiding and abetting are:
- “keeping a lookout” while another person is committing the murder
- pretending to be an alibi to the person who committed the murder
- giving information to a person to help them commit the murder
In short, accomplices to a killing are treated the same as the “principal” who actually killed the victim.5
Note that aiding and abetting a murder is an entirely different concept from conspiracy to commit murder. Conspiracy is when two or more people agree to break the law. So if two people conspire together to commit a murder but get caught before they can carry it out, they will still face conspiracy charges.6
1.2. Second-degree murder
Second-degree murder comprises unintentional homicides where the defendant behaved so recklessly that death was a foreseeable result.
The classic example is playing Russian roulette: Even if the defendant had no desire to hurt anyone, any reasonable person would know that firing a partly loaded gun at someone carries a high risk of causing death.
Other examples of second-degree murder may include:
- throwing an object off a roof when there is a crowd below, causing the object to strike and kill one of the people on the street
- firing a gun into a building that the defendant wrongly believes is vacant, and an occupant dies
- setting off fireworks knowing there is a person within an unsafe distance, and the person dies from the explosion
Second-degree murder is the second most serious crime in Nevada law after first-degree murder. The maximum penalty is life in prison.7
1.2.1. Death by drugs
Unintentionally causing someone’s death by providing them drugs is always prosecuted as second-degree murder. An example is bringing brownies laced with ecstasy to a potluck, and one of the guests has a bad reaction to the drug and dies. Learn more about death by drugs (NRS 453.333).8
1.3. Attempt murder
Like it sounds, the crime of attempted murder is deliberately trying to kill someone but not succeeding. An example is shooting at someone, but the bullet misses or does not fatally wound the victim.9
Note that if the victim dies from their injuries while the defendant is being prosecuted for attempt murder, the prosecutor can switch the charge to murder.10
2. Can a Nevada murder charge be reduced to manslaughter?
Possibly. Murder trials take a lot of time and effort, and prosecutors may be willing to reduce a murder charge to manslaughter as a way to avoid litigation.
Like murder, manslaughter is a type of homicide. Though unlike murder, manslaughter is killing without malice or premeditation. There are two kinds of manslaughter in Nevada:
- Voluntary manslaughter is killing in the heat of passion. The typical example of a provocation that could give rise to an “irresistible” impulse to kill is a spouse unexpectedly finding their spouse in bed with another person and immediately killing the affair partner out of rage. The maximum prison term is ten years.11
- Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing done while either breaking the law (such as hunting without a license) or by being negligent (such as leaving out a loaded gun). The maximum prison term is four years.12
3. Does murder carry the death penalty in Nevada?
Nevada judges may impose the death penalty for a first-degree murder conviction only if:
- the court finds there is at least one aggravating circumstance (such as that the defendant tortured the victim before killing them), and
- the aggravating circumstances outweigh all the mitigating circumstances (such as that the defendant was abused as a child)
In short, only first-degree murder qualifies as “capital murder.” The court is required to impose the death penalty only if it finds the defendant more deserving of punishment than mercy.13
Note that defendants who were under eighteen (18) at the time of the killing or who are intellectually disabled may not be sentenced to death.14
The death penalty is carried out in Nevada by lethal injection at Ely State Prison.15
4. What are the penalties for murder in Nevada?
The possible punishments depend on whether the defendant was convicted of first or second-degree murder. Because second-degree murder comprises unintentional killings, the penalties are less severe:16
|Nevada Murder charge||Penalties (Category A Felony)|
|1st-degree murder|| |
|2nd-degree murder|| |
When determining the harshness of the final sentence, the judge or jury takes into account all of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
Aggravating circumstances are factors that make the murder more shameful. Examples include:
- the defendant tortured the victim prior to killing them
- the victim was under 14-years old
- the defendant killed at random without a motive
Mitigating factors make the defendant more deserving of a lighter punishment. Examples include:
- the defendant grew up in an abusive home
- the defendant has contributed to the community
- the defendant is a good parent
Note that defendants who were under 18 at the time of the murder may be eligible for parole after serving 20 years in prison.17
4.1. Penalty enhancements
Nevada courts may increase murder sentences by one to twenty (1 – 20) years if:
- the defendant used a deadly weapon such as a gun to commit the murder,18 or
- the victim in the case was aged sixty (60) or older19
See our related article on habitual criminals and habitual felons.
4.2. Attempt murder penalties
|Nevada Attempt Murder Charge||Penalties|
|without poison20||category B felony: |
|with poison21||category A felony: |
The prison sentence may be increased by one to twenty (1 – 20) years if
- the defendant used a deadly weapon, or
- if the victim was aged sixty (60) or older.22
4.3. Conspiracy to commit murder
Conspiracy to commit murder is a category B felony carrying:
- two to ten (2 – 10) years in prison, and
- up to $5,000 in fines (at the judge’s discretion)23
5. How do I fight the charges?
How best to defend against a murder charge depends on the facts of the case and the available evidence. Based on our successful track record of getting homicide charges reduced or dismissed, our Las Vegas murder defense attorneys may seek to establish that:
- The defendant acted in self-defense (or the defense of others),
- The incident was an accident,
- The defendant was insane,
- The police coerced a confession,
- The police conducted an illegal search, and/or
- The defendant was wrongly identified as the killer
Note that it is not a defense to murder if the defendant had no clear motive.24
5.1. The defendant acted in self-defense (or the defense of others)
People in Nevada are allowed to kill another person in self-defense or defense of others. In order to qualify as legal self-defense, the following two conditions must be met:
- it is reasonable to believe that the perpetrator is about to inflict death or substantial bodily harm, and
- the defendant fights back with no more force than necessary to deflect the threat25
In short, a person’s decision to defend themself or others using deadly force must be reasonable in order for it to serve as a defense to murder charges. Killing in self-defense without reasonable justification is called “imperfect self-defense.” Although imperfect self-defense can never get a murder charge reduced, we have used it to persuade prosecutors to lower a murder charge to manslaughter.
Note that Nevada law allows people to “stand their ground” and fight back as long as they are not the initial aggressor. The “castle doctrine” permits people in their homes or cars to use deadly force against intruders. Learn more about justifiable homicide (NRS 200.120).26
5.2. The incident was an accident
An accidental killing occurs when the following three conditions are true:
- the defendant had no criminal intent to do harm,
- the defendant was not acting in a negligent way at the time of the killing, and
- the defendant was not acting unlawfully at the time of the killing27
In short, an accident serves as a defense to murder when the defendant is legally blameless. Helpful evidence that we search for in these cases includes video surveillance and eyewitness accounts of the incident.
5.3. The defendant was insane
Nevada courts rely on the “M’Naughten test” to determine whether a defendant is insane. This means that the court may adjudge someone “not guilty by reason of insanity” if the defense attorney can prove that either:
- the defendant did not understand the nature of their act, or
- the defendant could not distinguish between right and wrong28
Predictably, we often call expert medical witnesses to testify as to the defendant’s mental state. Many defendants who are acquitted of murder due to insanity are committed to mental institutions.
5.4. The police coerced a confession
Sometimes murder suspects give a fake confession because the police coerced them with such illegal tactics as:
- threatening the suspect’s family,
- threatening the suspect with the death penalty, or
- offering laxer treatment in exchange for the suspect confessing29
If our Nevada murder defense attorneys can show that the police forced the defendant to make an involuntary confession, the judge may exclude the confession as evidence.
5.5. The police conducted an illegal search
The Fourth Amendment limits the extent to which police may conduct searches and seizures. If the police failed to follow proper procedures, we can ask the court to exclude any evidence found from the unlawful search.30
Note that consenting to a police search always makes it legal, even if the police do not have a search warrant or legal grounds to search.
5.6. The defendant was wrongly identified as the killer
One of the leading causes of wrongful convictions is that the defendant was mistakenly identified as the killer. There are several reasons that eyewitnesses may incorrectly identify a suspect, including:
- Being fixated on the weapon instead of the killer
- The heightened stress of the situation
- The passage of time between the incident and the identification
- Improper suggestion by law enforcement31
If our Las Vegas murder defense lawyers can demonstrate that the state’s witnesses are unreliable, then the D.A. may be left with insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction.
6. How is murder different in federal vs state court?
The definition of murder under federal law is very similar to Nevada’s.32 Some situations which elevate murder to a federal crime include:
- killing of a congressman or a judge33
- killing in order to influence a court case, such as killing a witness34
- killing during a bank robbery35
- killing while on a ship36
- killing through the mail, such as package bombers37
Typically, murder suspects face charges in either state or federal court. There are situations where a person can be charged with the same homicide in both state court and federal court, but this is rare.38
|Federal murder conviction||Penalties|
|1st-degree murder|| |
|2nd-degree murder|| |
|Attempt murder|| |
7. Can the case be sealed?
Murder convictions can be sealed from criminal records in Nevada, unless the victim was a child:
|Nevada conviction||Waiting period to get a record seal|
|Murder of a child under 18||Never|
|Murder of an adult41||10 years after the case ends|
|Manslaughter42||10 years after the case ends|
|Dismissal of the charge (no conviction)43||No waiting period|
8. Will I get deported?
Yes. Murder is an “aggravated felony” as well as a “crime of moral turpitude“, both of which are deportable. Aliens who are convicted of murder face removal from the U.S. following completion of their criminal sentence.43
Non-citizens who have been accused of homicide are advised to retain experienced legal counsel right away to try to get the charge dismissed or reduced to a non-deportable offense so they can stay in the U.S.
9. Other homicide offenses
|Nevada Crime||Definition & Penalties|
|Vehicular Manslaughter44||A driver who negligently causes another’s death. As a misdemeanor, the punishment carries up to 6 months in jail and/or up to $1,000 in fines, plus license suspension for a year|
|Vehicular Homicide45||An impaired driver with 3 prior DUI convictions who causes another’s death while behind the wheel. As a category A felony, the punishment includes 25 years to life in prison (with the possibility of parole after 10 years)|
|Feticide46||Terminating an unborn baby is manslaughter unless a licensed physician is performing a lawful abortion. As a category B penalty, the punishment includes 1 to 10 years in prison, and up to $10,000|
Learn more at the Nevada Law Library.
Arrested in California? Go to our article on Penal Code 187 PC.
Arrested in Colorado? Go to our article on CRS 18-3-102 – 103.
- NRS 200.010 “Murder” defined. NRS 200.020 Malice: Express and implied defined. See also Guidry v. State (2022) 138 Nev. Adv. Op. 39.
- NRS 200.030 Degrees of murder; penalties.
- NRS 200.030.
- Id.; McConnell v. State (2004) 120 Nev. 1043.
- NRS 195.020.
- NRS 199.480.
- Leavell v. Eighth Judicial District Court, No. 79923 (September 14, 2020); David Ferrara, Nevada Supreme Court prohibits murder charges in fatal DUI cases, Las Vegas Review-Journal (September 14, 2020); NRS 200.030. Note that fatal DUI accidents are not grounds for a second-degree murder charge; instead, the defendant would face charges for DUI causing death (NRS 484C.430).
- NRS 453.333.
- NRS 200.030.
- See also NRS 200.390.
- NRS 200.050.
- NRS 200.070. In addition to carrying lesser penalties than murder, manslaughter also carries less of a social stigma. People with manslaughter convictions may have an easier time moving on with their lives and jobs than people with a murder conviction on their record. See our related article: Manslaughter v. Murder – The Law in Nevada.
- NRS 200.030.
- Roper v. Simmons (2005) 543 U.S. 551; Atkins v. Virginia (2002) 536 U.S. 304. Also note that sexually-motivated murder carries lifetime supervision under NRS 176.0931. Though it may be possible to get off lifetime supervision after 10 years. There are various legal recourses defendants can use to try to reverse a death penalty sentence. These include appeals and writs of habeas corpus, which may take several years to work through the court system.
- Sean Whaley, “Nevada’s new $860,000 execution chamber is finished but gathering dust,” Las Vegas Review-Journal (November 27, 2016). Nevada is one of 27 states that still carries the death penalty. Learn more at the Death Penalty Information Center.
- NRS 200.030.
- NRS 200.035. NRS 213.12135. Learn more at the Nevada Department of Parole and Probation official site. Also see our related article about asset forfeiture laws.
- NRS 193.165.
- NRS 193.167.
- NRS 200.030.
- NRS 200.390.
- NRS 193.165; NRS 193.167.
- NRS 199.480.
- See State v. Boudreau (1950) 67 Nev. 36.
- Pineda v. State (2004) 120 Nev. 204, 88 P.3d 827 (“[A] reasonably perceived apparent danger as well as actual danger entitles a defendant to an instruction on self-defense”).
- NRS 200.120; Culverson v. State (1990) 106 Nev. 484.
- See NRS 200.010; NRS 200.020.
- Finger v. State (2001) 117 Nev. 548, 27 P.3d 66; Hudson v. State (1992) 108 Nev. 716.
- Watts v. Indiana (1949) 338 U.S. 49.
- Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009), fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree doctrine.
- See United States v. Wade (1967) 388 U.S. 218. Some ways that a defense attorney can try to demonstrate an eyewitness’ unreliability include demanding a live lineup to observe whether the eyewitness can identify the defendant again; challenging how the police conducted the earlier lineup in order to try to get the identification excluded as evidence; and relying on an “eyewitness identification expert” to cast doubt on the eyewitnesses’ memory.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1111.
- 18 U.S.C. § 351; 18 U.S.C. § 1751; 18 U.S.C. § 1114.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1512.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1111.
- 18 U.S.C. § 2280.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1716.
- See Adam J. Adler, “Dual Sovereignty, Due Process, and Duplicative Punishment: A New Solution to an Old Problem,” Yale Law Journal (November 2014).
- 18 U.S.C. § 1111.
- NRS 179.245.
- NRS 179.255. Note that a case “ends” after the defendant is finished serving their sentence, including parole. Therefore, people serving life sentences will never be eligible for a record seal.
- 8 USC § 1101(a)(43); 8 U.S. Code § 1227.
- NRS 484B.657.
- NRS 484C.130.
- NRS 200.210.