Most murder cases are tried in the state criminal courts. However, there are some instances when murder is considered a federal crime due to the circumstances of the case.

Defendants accused of federal murder are tried in federal court by the United States government.

While murder is always considered one of the most serious charges that a person can face, federal murder cases tend to be high profile and aggressively prosecuted. If you’re found guilty of federal murder, you will be subject to severe penalties which can include life in prison or even death.

If you’re facing any type of murder charge, including federal murder, it is crucial that you work closely with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Your life and future could be at stake, so it’s important that you seek legal counsel right away. Contact the Helfend Law Group and attorney Robert M. Helfend today at 800-834-6434 for a free case review.

What is federal murder? (18 U.S.C.§1111)

Murder is defined under 18 U.S.C.§1111 as the unlawful killing of another person with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is the conscious intent to harm or cause death to another person before committing the crime.

Federal murder is charged as either first-degree or second-degree, based on the circumstances of the case. First-degree murder is considered more serious and carries harsher penalties.

First-degree murder

First-degree murder under 18 U.S.C.§1111 is premeditated and/or involves certain specific circumstances. Some of the circumstances that constitute a first-degree murder charge include:

  • Lying in wait for the victim
  • Killing by poisoning
  • Sexual abuse of a child
  • Killing related to arson or burglary
  • Treason

Any murder that is malicious and premeditated may be charged as first-degree murder.

Second-degree murder

The definition of second-degree murder has changed over time and remains much looser than first-degree murder. Premeditation and intention to kill are not requirements of second-degree murder. Instead, second-degree murder is often committed through acts of reckless indifference toward the value of human life. These acts are sometimes referred to as “depraved heart” of “implied malice” killings. 

The federal government has a lot of resources to put toward the investigation and trial of murder cases and, therefore, tend to work quickly and aggressively.

Due to the high-profile nature of federal murder cases, law enforcement agents and prosecutors are under a lot of pressure to collect evidence, file charges, and secure a conviction as quickly as possible. The federal justice system is complicated and much more difficult to navigate than state courts. That is why it is important to work with a skilled federal criminal defense attorney who understands the trial process and can keep you informed while navigating the system on your behalf.

When is murder considered a federal crime? 

Murder may be charged as a federal crime under 18 U.S.C.§1111 for reasons pertaining to the specific facts of a case. In general, murder is a federal crime if it:

  1. Violates federal law, or
  2. Occurs during the violation of federal law

In some cases, murder violates federal law because of who the victim is. It is a federal crime to kill an elected or appointed federal official including federal judges, DEA or FBI agents, the families of federal officials, and, of course, the president of the United States. 

A common reason that some crimes, including murder, sometimes fall under federal jurisdiction has to do with the location where they take place. For example, if a murder occurs on federal property or federal land, at sea, or on a public aircraft, then it is a considered federal crime. Murders that cross state lines also fall under 18 U.S.C.§1111. 

If a person is killed during the commission of a federal crime, then the murder is automatically considered a federal crime. Some examples of federal offenses during which a murder might take place include:

Federal murder penalties and sentencing

Penalties and sentencing for federal murder depend on the circumstances as severity of the crime. First-degree murder charges as considered more serious than second-degree and thus carry harsher penalties. 

The penalty for First-degree federal murder is life in federal prison or death.

Second-degree federal murder is punishable by a U.S. federal prison sentence of twenty-five years to life. 

In order to build a strong legal defense, you will need the assistance of a criminal defense attorney who understands the complicated federal legal process and has experience representing clients against federal murder charges. Your attorney will look over all the facts of your case, examine the evidence against you, and look for new evidence that could be used in your favor. They will recommend a defense strategy that is most likely to find you the best possible outcome. Below are some common legal defenses used in federal murder cases:

  • Self-defense – Did you have reason to believe that you were in danger, or did you act in self-defense against someone who was trying to cause you harm or bodily injury? Killing that occurs in self-defense rather than real or implied malice is not considered murder under 18 U.S.C.§1111.
  • Death was accidental – If the victim’s death was accidental, your attorney may be able to show that you did not intend to harm them or act in a negligent manner that led to their death.
  • Mistaken identity – Eyewitness accounts are often unreliable and can lead to mistaken identification of a perpetrator. If you’ve been accused of a crime you didn’t commit as a result of mistaken identity, your attorney can search for evidence that may prove your innocence. 
  • Misconduct by law enforcement – If law enforcement treated you in an unlawful manner or you were subject to an illegal search or seizure during the course of an investigation, you may be able to have your charges dropped. 
  • Insufficient evidence – It is the duty of the prosecutor to build enough evidence against you to reasonably charge you with a crime. The federal justice system can’t move forward with your case if there is insufficient evidence. 

The federal government has virtually unlimited resources at their disposal when it comes to the investigation and prosecution of a crime. If you’re facing federal murder charges, you need to have a defense attorney who can customize an aggressive defense strategy based on the details of your unique case. 

Located in Los Angeles and representing clients nationwide, the Helfend Law Group has been winning cases against prosecutors since 1984. He’s been recognized for his work in the courtroom by SuperLawyers, Lead Counsel and the National Trial Lawyers Top 100. Mr. Helfend and his team are available around the clock to answer all your legal questions. Don’t wait, call today for your free consultation – 800-834-6434. 

Published February 13, 2024.