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Laws are strict, but they try to be fair. In most scenarios, the law acknowledges that the circumstances around a violent crime vary. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation for what led to a violent act. Therefore, crimes are often charged by the degree of severity.

For many, murder is considered the worst crime a person can commit. Even so, the law recognizes that not all murders are the same, and they should be tried accordingly.

The result of this philosophy is that most states try murders by degree. They have a first-degree murder charge, then a second-degree charge, and some states go even further.

In Virginia, there are two degrees for a murder charge: first-degree and second-degree. In this article, we will discuss the differences between the two, exploring how the state defines and charges these allegations.

First-Degree Murder

In Virginia, first-degree murder is often called “aggravated murder.”By law, these murders are “willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing(s).” The law also defines various scenarios that qualify as aggravated, first-degree murders.

First-degree murder includes:

  • Killing someone during a drug deal
  • Killing someone in the act of an abduction
  • Killing someone while committing robbery
  • A murder committed during an act of terrorism
  • Killing someone while committing sexual assault
  • Killing more than one person in the same violent act
  • Committing more than one murder over the span of three years
  • Killing a pregnant woman with the intent of destroying the fetus
  • Killing a witness for the purposes of interfering with a criminal trial
  • The murder of someone under 14 committed by someone 21 or older
  • Any murder committed by an inmate or by someone in police custody
  • Murdering someone for hire or at the bidding of a criminal organization
  • Murdering someone who represents the law, including officers, judges, fire marshals, etc.

First-degree murder is a Class 2 felony in Virginia. Sentencing ranges from 20 years to life in prison, and fines can go as high as $100,000.

Second-Degree Murder

Virginia’s definition of second-degree murder is less clear. Essentially, it is any murder that doesn’t isn’t aggravated murder, or murder in the first degree. Second-degree murder is considered an act of “malice.” It could be intentional; it could be a sudden act of passion; or it could be the result of gross criminal negligence.

This crime is an unclassified felony in the state. If convicted, someone could go to prison from 5 to 40 years. They could also face fines up to $100,000.

Defenses Against a Murder Charge

As you can see, a murder conviction carries heavy penalties in the state. If you’ve been accused of killing someone, you need to secure a skilled lawyer right away. Here are some possible defenses you can discuss with your attorney.

You Are Not the Killer

Quite simply, this defense claims that the police arrested the wrong person. The time it takes to mount this defense is highly dependent on the evidence. The prosecution could have little more than an unreliable eyewitness, so that testimony could be easily debunked in court. However, your accusers may have fingerprints, video of you entering the victim’s home, and more, making your case look bad indeed.

One tactic against such evidence is claiming it is circumstantial. This means that there is no direct link between you and the murder, but the prosecution is drawing conclusions based on what they know. Perhaps your prints are on the murder weapon, but it’s a common object that you use daily. Maybe there is video of you entering the home, but this house belongs to a friend you visit frequently. By challenging the validity of the evidence, you can create doubt in your case.


Virginia allows its citizens to defend themselves when attacked. Moreover, the state has “stand-your-ground” laws, which do not require you to retreat. If your life is threatened, you may be justified in killing your attacker.

For a self-defense plea to work, your response must be proportional to the attack. If you killed someone in self-defense, you must prove that you had no choice. Otherwise, you would have been grievously harmed, sexually assaulted, or killed yourself.

Self-defense pleas are also valid for the defense of others. If someone else was under threat, you could have justifiably committed an act of violence to protect them. Again, this is true only when the act of defense is proportional to the attack.


If you suffer from severe mental health issues, you may sometimes lose control. During a particularly bad episode, you may have harmed or even killed someone else. This situation justifies an insanity plea in court.

Be careful when using this defense. It should be used only when it is 100% true. If the court rules that your actions were the result of mental health, you will not be released back into society. You must go to a mental health ward and face intensive treatment. Your freedoms will be limited or removed entirely, much as they would in prison. An insanity plea is only for those who truly need help.

If you or someone you love has been charged with murder, contact our firm right away for a free consultation. We may be able to start work on your defense right away. You can call us at (540) 386-0204 or contact us online.