19

Let's say I've spent years setting up the perfect murder to kill person A. Then, when the time comes, I learn some information that makes me realize I'd rather person B died than person A. Thus, at the last minute, I swap out the murder victim, but use the otherwise detailed murder plan to kill B.

I am clearly a murderer, but was the murder premeditated, because I used a premeditated method, or was it not premeditated since I wasn't planning to kill B until the last minute?

I know transferred intent applies if I was trying to kill A and killed B instead, which would make the murder premeditated. But in this scenario I explicitly changed plans to only target B. I'm not sure if the premeditation for killing A transfers when I never actually followed through with an attempt to kill A.

So, what kind of murderer am I?

5
  • IANAL but isn't the definition of murder "pre-meditated killing"? (at least that is the dictionary definition)
    – Peter M
    Nov 28, 2022 at 17:32
  • 13
    @PeterM In the United States, Pre-Meditation is the difference between 1st degree murder (requires pre-meditation) and 2nd degree Murder (requires no premeditation). Generally, Murder 2 is typically classified as a crime of passion, and thus the intent to kill are there but no planning enters into it. Manslaughter or Murder 3 occurs when there is no intent to kill but a minor criminal action causes the death of a person (criminal negligence is common).
    – hszmv
    Nov 28, 2022 at 17:58
  • 2
    And how are you going to prove that this wasn't your plan all along? I don't think a jury is going to buy it.
    – keshlam
    Nov 29, 2022 at 22:03
  • 1
    @keshlam: The burden of proof is not on the accused. But I get your idea - I don't think you're going to create a reasonable doubt either.
    – MSalters
    Dec 1, 2022 at 8:20
  • Here's a case of carjackers charged with murder. Presumably, they did not have a particular victim in mind. usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/03/28/…
    – sdenham
    Dec 23, 2023 at 13:47

3 Answers 3

37

It's still premeditated murder because you made a decision to kill and then acted on it.

"Premeditation" doesn't require detailed planning or an extended period of time between the decision and the action; it just requires some amount of time in which you could have changed your mind after thinking that you want to kill a person -- in some cases, even as little as a few seconds between the act that provoked the murder and the murder itself.

There are many ways of defining the term, but the Supreme Court has accepted instructions that tell jurors to find premeditation if there was a "second thought" about whether to proceed with "a preconceived design to kill." Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463 (1946).

So even if you are literally talking about a minute of time between the decision to kill B and the execution of that plan, the murder is sufficiently premeditated to support a conviction for first-degree murder.

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  • 2
    My thought experiment was sitting on a grassy knoll with a rifle and deciding at the last minute to target person B instead of A. You didn't end up on that grassy knoll by accident.
    – Peter M
    Nov 28, 2022 at 18:44
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    I don't think that's actually relevant for the purposes of the premeditation analysis. If the gunman is looking through his scope into windows to find Person A and he finds his wife having sex with another man, he might instantly pull the trigger "in the heat of passion." The fact that he premeditated the murder of Person A (which now may or may not happen) doesn't mean that he premeditated the murder of his wife, which is the crime he ends up being charged for.
    – bdb484
    Nov 28, 2022 at 19:08
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    I see that. I'm just saying that the premeditation on Person A doesn't really count for Person B, outside of a transferred-intent situation. But if the sniper decides to just keep shooting at Person B, C, and D, that decision and the time spent lining up the shot -- rather than the preparation for Person A -- is what would establish premeditation.
    – bdb484
    Nov 28, 2022 at 19:56
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    Premeditation is often misunderstood to entail months of detailed planning with maps and toy cars and red string, engineering of death traps and whatnot. Depending on the state, minutes or even seconds may be all that it takes. E.g. going to a different room to get your gun: sufficient time to realise the enormity of what you are about to do, and think better of it. If not: premeditated!
    – Deipatrous
    Nov 29, 2022 at 17:04
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    Seems like it could be more nuanced than just "alteration to the plan" though. e.g. you plan to catch your wife in the act of having an affair and kill her in revenge. But when you went to do so, you discover she is not willingly having the affair, but being raped! In a fit of rage you kill the rapist, and not the wife who you now deem an innocent victim. It seems a combination of planning murder but changing your mind at the last minute, and then a crime of passion.
    – komodosp
    Nov 30, 2022 at 14:51
5

The fact that you planned to murder someone at all is enough to convict on 1st degree Murder. The level of planning is not bound by time or revising your plans or recycling them. You shouldn't have killed someone in the first place and you shouldn't have planned to kill them and taken all the steps either.

Suppose that you set up your death trap to kill Alice, and then Bob, who you never intended to harm - or even knew for that matter -, springs the trap before Alice and is killed. The law says if you planned to kill someone and someone dies, your guilty. It doesn't have an exception because "you didn't plan to kill that guy." It doesn't say you have to kill the specific person you planned to kill... you just have to plan to kill someone and kill someone.

As discussed in the notes, Second degree murder requires no planning but because of how pre-meditation has been defined to a very narrow moment of time, the scenarios for murder with no premeditation are basically "A man comes home to find his wife sleeping with another man, flies into a rage, and kills the other man before calming down." It has to occur that quick. The fact that you switched targets doesn't mean you didn't plan the second target's murder. It just means you made a few drafts to kill someone. In many ways it's worse, because you have no reason to kill any target, you just wanted to kill someone.

4
  • Setting a death trap is an intention to do grievous bodily harm to X. It is analogous to vehicular homicide for which the murder 1 / murder 2 distinction and criteria differ by US state.
    – Deipatrous
    Nov 29, 2022 at 16:27
  • Vehicular Homicide could be manslaughter (you were driving in a manner that was negligent and resulted in an accident where someone died). Typically it would be murder if the violations were felonious in nature, but typically all traffic laws are misdemeanor offenses.
    – hszmv
    Nov 29, 2022 at 16:36
  • This answer is incorrect because planning to murder someone at all is not enough to convict on 1st degree murder. The analysis seems to be revolve around the idea of transferred intent, which OP is explicitly not asking about.
    – bdb484
    Dec 1, 2022 at 1:36
  • @hszmv in my state, the majority of traffic laws are not even misdemeanors, but civil matters. The only exceptions I can think of are DUI, reckless driving, and those that involve grievous bodily injury or death. Jan 6, 2023 at 20:02
-5

Long Story Short

Premeditated murder means you know that you will get someone killed by acting in a certain way.

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Premeditation: consideration or planning of an act beforehand that shows intent to commit that act.

In this case, the court focuses if you had the intent to commit murder. The target itself is less relevant.

It would be a different story if you wanted to kill A and end only with B dead.

2
  • That's not a very good dictionary. Merriam-Webster or Cambridge supply better definitions.
    – JdeBP
    Nov 30, 2022 at 16:26
  • This answer is entirely wrong and appears to be written by someone with no understanding of the relevant law.
    – bdb484
    Dec 1, 2022 at 1:38

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