Proving an intent to kill is required in most murder charges, and it involves the specific intent to end a human life.
Although there is often strong evidence to support this element of murder, it can often be hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
So what counts as intent to kill, and how do prosecutors prove it in court?
Implied From Actions
Intent to kill, also referred to in many states as malice aforethought, does not have to be actually expressed by the killer. It can be implied by his or her actions.
For example, shooting a victim with a firearm can certainly be indicative of an intent to kill, but it isn't necessarily the end of the story. It is up to a jury to determine if the totality of the evidence supports the theory that the defendant had an intent to kill.
The use of special implements or ammunition, like hollow-point or "cop killer" Teflon-coated bullets, may convince a jury that the shot was indeed intended to kill, and not merely to injure the victim.
Intent to Kill Someone Else
Often it is sufficient for a murder charge to prove a defendant intended to kill another person but instead caused the victim's death. This is often the case in drive-by or public shootings.
However, many of these acts can be charged under the felony-murder rule, which does not require a showing of intent to kill.
Depraved Heart Killings
Often the intent to kill (or malice aforethought) element of murder can be satisfied by showing that the defendant showed extreme indifference to human life. These are also known as "depraved heart" murders.
Acting with extreme recklessness and knowing that act is dangerous to human life (i.e., firing through the floor of your third-story apartment) and ending a human life may satisfy this intent element, even if the person never intended to kill anyone. This has been argued in fatal DUI cases in which the driver was far too intoxicated to form any intent.
Admissions and Confessions
Of course, demonstrating that the defendant wrote, spoke, or otherwise communicated that he or she wanted to kill someone (and then killing the victim) is a fairly solid way of proving intent. However, these kinds of admissions can be thrown out if the arresting officers elicited a confession without reading the defendant his or her Miranda rights.
Even with a confession, proving intent to kill can be difficult.