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First and Second-Degree Murder in Arizona: What's the Difference

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If you find yourself facing homicide charges in Arizona, it’s important to understand the differences between first and second-degree murder. In Arizona, first-degree murder is considered a class 1 felony and occurs when someone intentionally and with premeditation kills another person. This offense carries a severe punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole or punishable by death.

On the other hand, second-degree murder involves intentionally causing the death of another person without premeditation, and is punishable by up to 22 years in prison. 

Handling a murder charge can be overwhelming, which is where a skilled criminal defense lawyer can make all the difference. The experienced team at Colburn Hintze Maletta understands Arizona’s legal system and can provide the strong legal representation needed to potentially avoid a life sentence without parole or the death penalty.

If you’re facing murder charges in Arizona, don’t go it alone – reach out to Colburn Hintze Maletta for the help you need.

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First and Second-Degree Murder

First-Degree Murder in Arizona Definition 

In Arizona, first-degree murder is defined by a set of criteria that distinguishes it from other types of homicide, such as second-degree murder or manslaughter. According to the Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS) § 13-1105, first-degree murder involves:


  • Premeditation: This is the most critical element that elevates a homicide to first-degree murder. It implies that the perpetrator planned the murder before it was carried out. The planning period need not be lengthy; a brief moment of intent prior to the act suffices as premeditation.
  • Intentional or Knowing Killing: The action of killing must be intentional—there is a specific intent to end a human life—or knowing, which reflects an understanding of the certainty that the actions will result in death.
  • Felony Murder: If a death occurs during the commission or attempted commission of certain felonies, including but not limited to robbery, burglary, arson, kidnapping, sexual assault, or any other felony involving the use or threat of violence, it is classified as first-degree murder, regardless of the perpetrator’s intent to kill.

investigators at murder scene

First-Degree Murder Penalties 

The penalties for first-degree murder in Arizona are among the most severe in the criminal justice system, reflecting the seriousness with which the state regards premeditated or felony-involved killings. 


Sentencing Guidelines for First-Degree Murder:

        Death Penalty: Arizona is one of the states where the death penalty is still enacted. This ultimate penalty can be imposed when certain aggravating factors are present, as outlined in ARS § 13-751. Aggravating factors might include the presence of prior convictions for serious offenses, the commission of the murder in a particularly cruel, heinous, or depraved manner, or the killing of vulnerable individuals such as children or law enforcement officers.


        Life Imprisonment: If the death penalty is not sought or imposed, the alternative is life imprisonment. The court may sentence a defendant to life without the possibility of parole, or life with the possibility of parole after serving 25 to 35 years, depending on the specifics of the case and the presence of mitigating factors that might reduce the moral culpability of the defendant.


        ➤Mandatory Sentencing: Arizona law requires that these sentences be applied without exception for first-degree murder convictions, eliminating discretion in sentencing for the trial judges in these cases.


Legal Considerations in Sentencing:


  • Aggravating and Mitigating Factors: The determination of whether to seek the death penalty involves a careful consideration of aggravating and mitigating factors. While aggravating factors increase the severity of the crime, mitigating factors might include the defendant’s mental state, background, and any remorse shown.
  • Jury Involvement: In cases where the death penalty is considered, a jury must unanimously agree not only on the guilt of the defendant but also that the aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating factors sufficiently to justify a death sentence.

The penalties for first-degree murder in Arizona serve a dual purpose: they are meant to provide justice for the victims and their families and to act as a stern warning to anyone contemplating a premeditated or felony-related homicide. 

Second-Degree Murder Definition

Second-degree murder in Arizona is defined as the intentional killing of another person without premeditation, which distinguishes it from first-degree murder where planning and forethought are required.


Under Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS) § 13-1104, second-degree murder encompasses situations where the perpetrator intentionally causes the death of another person, but without prior contemplation or planning that characterizes first-degree murder.


Key Elements of Second-Degree Murder under Arizona Law:


  • Intentional Killing Without Premeditation: The core element of second-degree murder is the intent to kill that is formed without prior planning. It occurs when a person decides to kill in the moment without having thought about it beforehand.
  • Highly Reckless Behavior Resulting in Death: This category includes actions that demonstrate an extreme disregard for human life. The perpetrator may not have intended to kill but engaged in conduct that they knew carried a substantial risk of causing death or serious bodily harm.
  • Difference from Manslaughter: Second-degree murder is also distinct from manslaughter, which generally involves unintentional killings resulting from reckless actions or in the heat of passion provoked by a victim. The main difference lies in the degree of recklessness and the presence of intent to kill.

second degree murder

Second Degree Murder Penalties

The penalties for second-degree murder in Arizona are severe, reflecting the serious nature of the crime while recognizing the absence of premeditation characteristic of first-degree murder.

 According to the Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS) § 13-1104, sentencing for second-degree murder aims to appropriately punish, deter, and rehabilitate offenders based on the severity and circumstances of their actions.


Sentencing Guidelines for Second-Degree Murder:


        Prison Terms: Individuals convicted of second-degree murder typically face substantial prison time. The statutory range is generally between 10 to 25 years in prison, but this can vary based on aggravating or mitigating circumstances present in the case.

        ➤Aggravating and Mitigating Factors: Similar to first-degree murder, the sentencing phase for a second-degree murder conviction considers various factors that can extend or reduce the standard sentencing range. Aggravating factors might include the defendant’s criminal history, the presence of minors, or the particularly vulnerable nature of the victim. Conversely, mitigating factors may include the defendant’s lack of prior criminal history, mental health issues, or demonstrable remorse.

        ➤Life Imprisonment: In some cases, particularly when there are significant aggravating factors, the court may impose a life sentence. However, unlike first-degree murder, a life sentence for second-degree murder typically includes the possibility of parole after a certain number of years determined by the court.


Legal Considerations in Sentencing:


  • No Mandatory Minimums: Unlike first-degree murder, which often has mandatory sentences (including life imprisonment or the death penalty), second-degree murder sentences are more flexible and allow for judicial discretion based on the individual factors of each case.
  • Jury and Judicial Discretion: Sentencing for second-degree murder can be influenced by the jury’s findings regarding aggravating factors and the judge’s assessment of mitigating circumstances. This provides a framework for personalized sentencing that better fits the nuances of each case.

 By allowing for variable sentencing based on a thorough examination of the circumstances surrounding each case, Arizona’s legal system seeks to ensure that penalties for second-degree murder are justly aligned with the offender’s culpability and the specific details of their offense. 

Murder Defenses 

Defending against murder charges in Arizona involves several potential strategies, each tailored to the specific circumstances of the case. These defenses are critical in providing a fair legal representation and can significantly affect the outcome of a trial.


  • Definition: This defense is used when the accused believes that their life or safety was threatened, and as a result, lethal force was necessary.
  • Requirements: The threat must be imminent and the response must be proportional to the threat faced.
  • Applicability: Commonly applied in home invasion scenarios or when the defendant was in a situation where retreat was not possible.


Defense of Others

  • Definition: Similar to self-defense, this applies when the defendant believes that immediate action was necessary to protect another person from harm.
  • Requirements: There must be a clear and imminent threat to another person, and the action taken should be proportional to the threat.
  • Applicability: Often invoked in cases involving the defense of family members or vulnerable individuals.


Insanity Defense

  • Definition: Asserts that the defendant was suffering from a severe mental disorder at the time of the crime, impacting their ability to understand right from wrong.
  • Standards: Arizona adheres to the M’Naghten rule, which focuses on whether the defendant understood the nature of the act or could distinguish right from wrong due to a mental defect.
  • Applicability: Requires substantial proof, including psychiatric evaluation and expert testimony.



  • Definition: Claims that the defendant was forced to commit the murder under an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury.
  • Requirements: The threat must be immediate, real, inescapable, and more significant than the harm caused by the murder.
  • Applicability: Rarely used, as it is difficult to prove that no other options were available.

Mistake of Fact

  • Definition: This defense argues that the defendant had a mistaken belief that, if true, would have justified their actions.
  • Requirements: The belief must be reasonable under the circumstances, and the mistake must pertain to a factual situation.
  • Applicability: Can be applicable in cases where the defendant misinterpreted another person’s actions as a threat.


Accidental Killing

  • Definition: Used when the death was a result of an accident where there was no criminal intent or negligence involved.
  • Requirements: The defendant must prove there was no reckless or negligent behavior and that they were engaged in lawful activity at the time.
  • Applicability: Appropriate in cases involving hunting accidents or misidentification incidents where safety protocols were followed.

Successful deployment of these strategies often depends on the credibility of evidence, the persuasiveness of legal arguments, and the expertise of defense counsel. Experienced criminal defense attorneys leverage these defenses to challenge prosecutorial claims and advocate for their clients’ rights and freedoms effectively.

Is Murder the Same as Manslaughter?

Murder and manslaughter are serious criminal offenses involving the unlawful killing of another person, but they differ significantly in terms of intent, legal definitions, and penalties under Arizona law.

Murder is characterized by the intentional killing of another person with premeditation (first-degree) or without premeditation but with malice (second-degree), indicating a higher degree of planning and moral culpability.

Conversely, manslaughter under Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS) § 13-1103 typically involves recklessly causing death, including killings in the heat of passion or due to sudden quarrels.


The defining feature of manslaughter is the absence of the premeditated intent that defines murder.

The penalties for murder are more severe than for manslaughter, reflecting the degree of premeditation and recklessness involved. Murder can result in long-term imprisonment or the death penalty, whereas manslaughter generally leads to shorter sentences due to factors like emotional provocation or diminished capacity.

The distinction between murder and manslaughter significantly impacts legal strategies in criminal cases. Defense attorneys may argue to downgrade murder charges to manslaughter by demonstrating that the act was committed without forethought, potentially reducing penalties.

What is Negligent Homicide?

Negligent homicide is a criminal offense that occurs when a person causes the death of another through actions that constitute criminal negligence.

This charge is distinct from murder and manslaughter due to the absence of intentional harm.

According to the Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS) § 13-1102, negligent homicide involves causing death through a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the same situation.

Criminal negligence is more severe than ordinary carelessness. It refers to behavior that shows a blatant disregard for human life, such as recklessly handling a loaded firearm in a crowded area. The key aspect of negligent homicide is that the perpetrator does not intend to cause death but engages in conduct that is so careless it becomes criminally liable.


This might include failing to secure a swimming pool where children are present, leading to a drowning, or texting while driving, resulting in a fatal car accident.

The penalties for negligent homicide in Arizona vary but are generally less severe than those for manslaughter or murder, reflecting the non-intentional nature of the crime. Sentencing may include shorter prison terms, fines, and probation, depending on the specifics of the case and the defendant’s prior history.

Facing Murder Charges? Get Help From Our Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you or a loved one are facing murder charges in Arizona, it is crucial to have experienced legal representation. At Colburn Hintze Maletta, we specialize in defending serious criminal charges, leveraging deep knowledge of Arizona law and comprehensive legal strategies to support our clients.

Our team, brings extensive courtroom experience and negotiation skills to manage complex cases effectively. We provide aggressive legal representation, focusing on strong defense tactics such as challenging evidence, asserting self-defense, and negotiating plea deals when appropriate.

The stakes in a murder case are extremely high, with penalties potentially including long-term imprisonment or the death penalty. Our attorneys are dedicated to protecting your rights and achieving the best possible outcome.

Contact them for dedicated and effective legal representation at (602) 825-2500.

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