A common question circulating is the difference between capital murder vs. murder. The main difference –– the punishment for capital murder is far more severe. In this article, we will be explaining the different definitions, sentences, and penalties for capital murder vs. murder.

Though these terms are commonly referred to by non-Texans as the degrees of murders in Texas, the state of Texas recognizes four classes of homicide

  1. Capital murder
  2. Murder
  3. Manslaughter
  4. Criminally negligent homicide

Criminal homicide in Texas is defined in Chapter 19 of the Texas Penal Code as occurring when someone: “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual.”

Regardless of which crime you are accused of, receiving a murder charge is nothing to be taken lightly. If convicted of homicide, you can lose a large number of freedoms even if you serve your sentence. These include the right to vote, custody of your children, the ability to find a job easily, suspension of your driver’s license, and more. 

If you are facing a capital murder vs. murder charge, do not wait to seek legal counsel. You need someone to protect your rights and freedoms from the harsh penalties that lie ahead. Mark Thiessen from Thiessen Law Firm is Board-Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, meaning he’ll get you the best results possible. 

Murder sentence and penalties in Texas

An individual can receive a murder charge in Texas for the following circumstances:

  • Intent to kill: When someone intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual.
  • When someone intends to inflict serious bodily injury or commits an act to that effect, and causes the death of an individual in the process.
  • When someone commits (or attempts to commit) another type of felony crime and, in the process of committing that crime, does something clearly dangerous or deadly that results in the death of another individual.

Typically, murder charges are tried as a 1st-degree felony, meaning you could serve a life sentence in prison. If you are convicted, here is what you’re facing with the murder penalty in Texas:

Minimum PenaltyMaximum Penalty
Jail time5 years in prison99 years in prison

However, if you can prove the crime was committed when “under the influence of sudden passion arising from an adequate cause,” your charge can be lessened to a 2nd-degree penalty where you will serve 2-20 years in prison with the maximum fine of $10,000. 

In the state of Texas, taking the life of another individual is one of the most serious crimes you can commit. The law does not take these charges lightly. 

Capital murder sentence and penalties in Texas

In Texas, capital murder replaces the term first-degree murder and is the most serious crime in the state. According to the Texas Penal Code – PENAL § 19.03, An individual can be charged with capital murder in Houston if they are found guilty of committing a serious murder with or under any of the following circumstances:

  • The person murdered was a police officer or fireman on active duty
  • The person murdered was under 10 years of age
  • The person murdered was between 10-15 years of age
  • The person murdered was an employee of a prison or penal institution
  • The person murdered was a judge, and they were murdered in retaliation for a duty they fulfilled as part of their work in court
  • The person murdered was a fellow prisoner in a prison or penal institution and if:
    • The act was committed as part of gang activity
    • The act was committed by a prisoner who was imprisoned for murder, another capital murder charge, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping, or aggravated robbery.
  • The murder was committed as part of a burglary, kidnapping, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction/retaliation, or a terrorist threat.
  • More than one murder was committed during a crime or during a series of related crimes.
  • The person who commits the murder received or would receive remuneration, i.e. payment. (A hired killer.)

A person can be convicted of capital murder if the murder they committed was considered severe. Capital murder is a capital felony offense, meaning the penalties are quite severe. Here is what you’re facing with a capital murder sentence in Texas:

  • If the victim was younger than 18 years old: Mandatory life imprisonment sentence.
  • If the victim was 18 or older: Mandatory life in prison without parole.
  • The death penalty: Though relatively rare, the death penalty is still a very real possibility for those convicted of capital murder.

Capital murder vs. murder defenses

An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to use the following defense strategies to aid your case.

Reducing culpability 

If you’re facing a capital murder charge, your lawyer will likely attempt to demonstrate that the circumstances and evidence surrounding your case do not, beyond a reasonable doubt, meet the requirements of a capital murder charge. If they can’t convict you of capital murder, they may still find you guilty of a “lesser” type of homicide. 

Lack of malice aforethought/intent to kill

In murder charges, intention is a huge factor. If the State cannot prove that the murder was committed “with malice” (intention) or that the murder was predetermined, the punishment range would be reduced to five years or less. 

Mistaken identity 

The wrong person has been accused, charged, and taken to trial for crimes they did not commit. This typically occurs when law enforcement is basing their arrest off of an eye-witness testimony, especially if the crime was committed a long time ago. In this case, your criminal defense attorney will likely try to establish an alibi for you at the time of the crime.

Justifiable defenses: Self-defense

Not all murder cases are cut-and-dry. In some, murder can occur as a result of self-defense, defending those around them, or protecting themselves on the job. In order to prove that you were using self-defense when the death of another individual happened, you will need to prove that your actions were proportional to the threats you or others received. Meaning that you were under conditions in which it was reasonable to assume that you or others around you were facing death or severe bodily injury.


Depending on the case, some defendants are able to argue that due to a mental disease or defect, they were not able to fully comprehend the severity of their actions or confirm that their actions followed the law. If successful, this individual may avoid jail time; however, they will likely have to spend their sentence in a mental institution for treatment. 

Heat of passion

The “heat of passion” defense relies heavily on the assumption that the person did not premeditate the victim’s murder –– it happened as a result of their “sudden passion.” The anger, terror, or rage this person felt rendered them incapable of rational thought and action. This is more often used to reduce the sentence of the defendant, not to throw the case out altogether. 

What can a criminal defense attorney do for me?

Due to the severity of these charges, you must find a reputable and trustworthy attorney to represent you. Without a top legal team on your side, the odds of you walking free is slim to none. Here is what a top defense attorney can do for you.

Your attorney will thoroughly investigate your case, gather sufficient evidence, create a personalized defense strategy, and represent you in and out of the courtroom. Your attorney has your best interest at heart. They will fight to the best of their ability to get you the best possible outcome. 

They will advise you on how to protect your rights –– for example, your right to remain silent. Do not speak to anyone without an attorney present. Law enforcement will use anything you say against you. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to consult a criminal defense attorney immediately.

Facing a Murder Charge? You Need Thiessen Law Firm’s Experienced and Aggressive Attorneys on Your Side.

Now that we’ve discussed the difference between capital murder vs. murder, we hope you’re more aware of how severe murder charges can be. In order to combat such a serious charge, you need a serious Houston criminal defense lawyer to fight for you. 

Thiessen Law Firm has the top criminal defense attorneys in Houston who can keep you from spending the rest of your life behind bars. As a Texas Criminal “Super Lawyer” with 100+ Not-Guilty Verdicts under his belt, Mark Thiessen uses his years of experience and outstanding knowledge of the law to fight for your freedom. 

Give Thiessen Law Firm a call today at 713-864-9000 or fill out our online contact form to get started.

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Mark Thiessen is an aggressive trial lawyer best known for his devotion to justice for his clients and high rank as a DWI Super Lawyer in Texas.