Hawai’i Changes the Law on First-Degree Murder Again – Part 1


While attending a Sisters (and Misters) in Crime meeting during May of this year, the topic of first-degree murder in Hawai’i raised its grisly head. Actually, I raised it. My intentions were good. I wanted my fellow SINCs (Sisters in Crime) to get their facts straight when they wrote about murder. Since I’m the only author in the group who’s written about a killing that really occurred, I volunteered to talk about the penalty for the murder described in my true crime memoir Angel Hero.

“That murder took place in 1985,” I told a dozen or so writers as we sat at round tables in Makiki Library. “Twenty-eight years later, in 2013, the law changed. The conviction for first-degree, premeditated murder that occurred in 1985 could not have happened in 2013. The new rule for a first-degree murder conviction in 2013 was that a police officer or judge had been killed. The murderer in Angel Hero would have been convicted of second-degree murder instead of first if that murder had occurred in 2013.”

A woman in the group frowned and shook her head. “A conviction for first-degree murder has to do with premeditation, not whether you kill a cop or a judge.” She looked something up on her smart phone. “The law agrees with me,” she added. “Better get your facts straight lest you embarrass yourself, Liz. If that’s what you say in your novel, better change it.”

“It’s not a novel, it’s a true crime romance memoir.” I gritted my teeth. My heart races when someone tells me I’m wrong about something that I’m sure as shooting I’m right about. I have to breathe deeply for a bit before I speak.

So I breathed in and breathed out. As world renowned peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh recommended, I did my darnedest to rejoice in my breathing in, and smile at my out breath.

“I never said premeditation wasn’t a factor in a murder conviction.” I smiled. “And I’m sure I’m right about the change in law, but I’ll Google it and get back to you.” I could hardly wait to surf the net and find some facts that proved her wrong.

What did my research reveal? I was correct. Back in 1985, the gunman I write about in my book was convicted of first-degree, premeditated murder. He was sentenced to life in prison (20 years,) but the parole board set the minimum at less than half that time.

In 2013, however, the law changed. Even if a killing was premeditated, the gunman could no longer be charged with first-degree murder unless a judge or police officer was fatally shot. Had the gunman I wrote about in Angel Hero murdered someone in 2013 instead of 1985, he would have been charged with second-degree murder.

The woman was correct that first-degree murder is premeditated. Defined as an unlawful killing that is both willful and premeditated, the latter means it was committed after planning or “lying in wait” for the victim.

(To be continued tomorrow)