Federal murder cases are some of the most obviously serious cases in American criminal law. Under some circumstances, federal murder charges can involve the death penalty (even in states where the death penalty is illegal at the state level).
The most common two murder charges at the federal level are contained in 18 U.S.C. § 1111 and § 1117. The former describes federal murder as being the unlawful and killing of another human being with “malice aforethought.” Spur-of-the-moment killings thus might be charged as manslaughter instead, though “malice aforethought” does not require more than a moment’s reflection on the part of the actor. The charge is broken down into two degrees: first and second degree murder.
First degree murder involves those intentional killings perpetrated by “poison, lying in wait, any other kind of willful, deliberate, malicious and premeditated killing; or committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, any arson, escape, murder, kidnapping, treason, espionage, sabotage, aggravated sexual abuse or sexual abuse, child abuse, burglary, or robbery; or perpetrated as part of a pattern or practice of assault or torture against a child or children; or perpetrated from a premeditated design unlawfully and maliciously to effect the death of any human being other than him who is killed…” First degree murder is punishable by death or life in prison.