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Attempted Murder Charges and Penalties

Attempted murder is the incomplete, unsuccessful act of killing someone. It is a serious criminal offense that, in all but a few cases of mitigating circumstances, can result in substantial prison time. Although the elements of the offense appear to be fairly straightforward, some issues of the attempted murder charge may lead to a dismissal or result in a lesser offense or penalty.  A criminal defense lawyer can help you understand the elements of attempted murder.

Elements of Attempted Murder

In most jurisdictions, attempted murder charges consist of two elements:

  • The offender took some action towards killing another person
  • The offender’s act was intended to kill a person

Requirement of Direct Action

Any act that is directly done in furtherance of an intent to kill is a direct step. Merely preparing to kill someone or planning to do so is not sufficient to satisfy the elements of attempted murder. The required direct act may consist of using a weapon against another, such as a gun or knife, and either inflicting serious wounds or firing a weapon into someone’s chest or head, areas most likely to result in death. It also includes soliciting and paying someone to kill another person.

Other examples of acts that show an intent to murder are stalking or luring someone to a specific location where the murder is intended to take place or buying all the materials necessary to commit a murder, such as the makings of a bomb, and then driving to the person’s house to commit the act.

The Intent to Kill

Merely causing serious bodily harm or disfigurement to someone is not sufficient to prove attempted murder unless there is evidence of the actual intent to kill the person. For example, stabbing a person in the arm, by itself, does not show an intent to kill, but stabbing or shooting that person in the chest is more likely to satisfy the requisite intent.

It is not necessary to have the specific intent to actually kill the victim. The act of firing a gun into a residence and injuring a person who is not the intended target meets the elements of attempted murder because the offender showed an intent to kill by firing a firearm into an inhabited building. You can abandon your intent to murder someone if you do so before taking any direct step or action; deciding not to pay someone to kill another person or disposing of the materials you bought with the intent to kill are indications of an abandonment of the intent.


Most jurisdictions have degrees of attempted murder charges. A first-degree attempted murder charge requires premeditation or a willful act; a second-degree attempted murder charge is any other act that is not planned or deliberate.

First-degree attempted murder carries greater penalties and often means a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Offenders typically spend at least 10 years in prison, although mandatory minimum sentences for attempting to murder a public official may be 10 to 15 years. Federal laws for attempting to kill a member of Congress or other federal official impose penalties ranging from 70 to 162 months.

Second-degree attempted murder penalties usually range from five years to 15 years in many states, depending on whether serious injury was inflicted. Sentences can be for longer periods if a firearm was used or if the crime was committed by a gang member or at the direction of a criminal gang. A prior criminal record will also enhance a sentence, even doubling it in states with “three strikes” laws, such as California.