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First-Degree Murder Charges in North Carolina – All You Need to Know

On Behalf of The Law Firm of Brent D. Ratchford |

Facing a first-degree murder charge is incredibly serious. Traversing the legal landscape alone can be overwhelming. If you or someone you know is facing this charge in North Carolina, it is a good idea to seek immediate legal counsel from an experienced North Carolina homicide attorney. These legal professionals have the knowledge to navigate the complexities of your case, build a strong defense strategy, and advocate for your rights in the legal process.

First-Degree Murder Explained

Like many states, North Carolina has laws to deal with many crimes. The most serious of crimes is killing someone, known as homicide.

In North Carolina, first-degree murder is a homicide that is premeditated, willful, or deliberate. First-degree murder is the most serious charge a person can have. Someone convicted of this charge will permanently lose their rights. It is essential to understand the ramifications of a first-degree murder charge.

Homicide vs. First-Degree Murder

North Carolina law defines homicide as killing another person. All first-degree murders are homicides, but not all homicides are first-degree murders.

Homicides are separated based on whether or not they were planned and intentional. There are five types of homicide:

  1. First-Degree Murder: Premeditated or planned, intentional killings.
  2. Second-Degree Murder: Unplanned but intentional killings, or deaths from extreme reckless disregard for human life.
  3. Voluntary Manslaughter: These are unplanned, unintentional killings in response to adequate provocation.
  4. Involuntary Manslaughter: Someone’s negligence or recklessness causes someone to die, with no malice involved.
  5. Felony Murder: Someone commits an inherently dangerous act such as arson or kidnapping, and someone ends up being killed.

Penalty and Defense for First-Degree Murder

Each homicide comes with a varied penalty. As the highest charge and a Class A felony, first-degree murder carries the harshest one: life in prison without parole, or death.

Individuals with a first-degree murder charge should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to develop a strategy for their unique case. Part of the defense strategy may include pleading insanity, mistaken identity, heat of passion, self-defense, or innocence.

Understanding Felony Murder

Although first-degree murder has the highest penalty, there is another charge that, if convicted, can land someone the same sentence: felony murder. If the defendant committed or was an accomplice to an inherently dangerous felony that resulted in the killing of someone, they could get the charge of felony murder.

The thought behind this is that the law is set to deter people from committing any inherently dangerous felony. If someone commits a felony like this and there is a homicide, those involved would face first-degree murder charges even if the homicide was not their intent. Inherently dangerous felonies include:

  • Arson
  • Burglary
  • Robbery
  • Kidnapping
  • Rape
  • A felony attempted or committed with a deadly weapon

The state is not required to prove premeditation when determining an act as felony murder due to the defendant intentionally committing an inherently dangerous felony. Also, felonies can fall under felony murder if they were committed with a deadly weapon and result in a homicide.

Possible Defenses

While a first-degree murder charge carries a severe sentence, an experienced homicide attorney can help explore potential defenses depending on the facts of your case. These defenses may include lack of intent, self-defense, defense of others, mistaken identity, exercise of duty, or insanity.

Lack of Intent

Lack of intent argues that the killing was accidental or unintentional or that the defendant did not intend to cause serious harm.


Self-defense would argue that the defendant believed they were in danger and used deadly force to protect themselves or others.

Defense of Others

In a defense of others argument, the defense would state that the defendant’s actions were justified as they were protecting or acting to protect others.

Mistaken Identity

If the defendant has an alibi, the defense may claim that the prosecution has charged the wrong individual with the killing and present evidence. Mistaken identity could also include challenging the evidence that alleges the defendant was at the crime scene.

Exercise of Duty

Since law enforcement must defend others, if they believe they justifiably used their authority in the killing of someone, this may be presented as a defense.


If the defense shows that the defendant did not have control over their faculties, insanity may work as a defense. This defense has to be proven by “clear and convincing evidence.”


Q: How Much Time Do You Get for First-Degree Murder in NC?

A: First-degree murder is a serious crime. As a Class A felony, first-degree murder carries one of the harshest sentences in North Carolina: imprisonment for life without parole or capital punishment (the death penalty).

The court can enhance the sentence beyond life imprisonment if the defendant used a firearm, wore a bullet-proof vest, or had similar effects.

Q: What Is the Most Common Sentence for First-Degree Murder?

A: As with most Class A felonies, the most common sentence for first-degree murder is life in prison without parole. With the severity of the crime, this sentence is the harshest possible. Although there hasn’t been a death by injection in North Carolina since 2006, it is possible to receive a death sentence for a first-degree murder conviction in the state.

Q: What Is Felony Murder in NC?

A: Felony murder in North Carolina enables a defendant to be charged with first-degree murder even if intent to kill was not there. The rule comes into play when the defendant was committing a dangerous felony that resulted in the killing of someone. Applicable dangerous felonies have to be “inherently dangerous,” such as burglary, robbery, rape, arson, and kidnapping.

Q: What Is a Class A Felony?

A: Each felony in North Carolina is assigned a class and is used alongside the defendant’s criminal history to provide a sentence. Class A felonies are considered the most severe felonies. The highest level of felony comes with the harshest penalties if convicted: life without parole or capital punishment.

Anyone with a first-degree murder prosecution faces a serious criminal offense. A North Carolina homicide attorney can help someone craft a defense based on the specifics of their case. If you or a loved one is facing a first-degree murder charge, contact The Law Firm of Brent D. Ratchford today.