In Arizona, when a person commits arson of an occupied structure, and someone dies, the person is guilty of first degree murder under the felony-murder statute. The punishment is the same as premeditated murder.
Recently, in Prescott, Arizona, Zachary Sutton has been accused of first degree murder. Originally, it looked like an arson-murder (i.e., felony-murder) but has possibly evolved into a premeditated first degree murder.
Either way, if convicted of either premeditated or felony-murder, Sutton faces possible life imprisonment. In Arizona, felony-murder works like this. The crime of first degree felony murder requires proof that: (1) the defendant, acting either alone or with one or more other persons, committed or attempted to commit a specified felony offense (e.g., arson of an occupied structure); and (2) in the course of and in furtherance of this crime or immediate flight from this crime, the defendant or another person caused the death of any person.
Thus, committing arson of an occupied structure, in the course of which someone dies, is felony-murder. Felony-murder is a distinct crime from premeditated murder because the elements of the crimes are different. But, the punishment is identical for both. Like the prosecution that Sutton is facing in Yavapai County, I prosecuted Cynthia McDaniel for an arson-murder. She was convicted of first-degree felony murder, even though she had no premeditation to kill.
According to the Arizona Supreme Court, here is what premeditation means:
“Premeditation” means that the defendant intended to kill another human being or knew he would kill another human being, and that after forming that intent or knowledge, reflected on the decision before killing. It is this reflection, regardless of the length of time in which it occurs, that distinguishes first degree murder from second degree murder. An act is not done with premeditation if it is the instant effect of a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. The time needed for reflection is not necessarily prolonged, and the space of time between the intent or knowledge to kill and the act of killing may be very short.
Therefore, under Arizona law, a person can be sent to prison for life on a first degree (felony) murder conviction without ever having premeditation.
Feel free to email me questions on these issues and any other Arizona criminal law question!