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South Carolina has an unusual murder statute, as it does not define separate murder charges; in fact, the state law never uses terms like “capital murder,” “first-degree murder,” or “second-degree murder.”

Nevertheless, the statute defines three punishment levels for murder, which roughly correspond to the punishments other states associate with the various degrees of murder.

What are the different murder charges?

South Carolina only has one murder charge. In other words, all murder cases in the state fall under a single statute that defines “murder” as the killing of another person with express or implied malice aforethought.

The state’s legislation is quite clever in how it defines the term. For one, “malice aforethought” defines four different types of murders. What that means is that — even though the state only has one murder statute — prosecutors are given four options through which to prove a murder case.

These options include the following:

  • Premeditated murder
  • Murder resulting from intentional grievous bodily harm
  • Murder resulting from extremely reckless disregard for human life
  • Murder occurring during the commission of another felony

Secondly, by only having one murder charge, South Carolina legislators relieve prosecutors of the risk of losing a murder case by overcharging the accused. 

In other states, a prosecutor could lose a first-degree murder case should a jury feel that premeditation was not proven. Still, the prosecutor might have won if they had brought forward different murder charges, like second-degree murder, instead.

South Carolina avoids that kind of risk by lumping all murder charges together. By simply charging defendants with “murder,” prosecutors in the state can win whether they prove the equivalent of a first-, second-, or third-degree murder.

How does South Carolina distinguish murder charges?

Instead of distinguishing murder charges based on the elements present in the crimes, South Carolina distinguishes the punishments imposed. The three possible punishments for murder are as follows:

  • Thirty years to life
  • Life without parole
  • Death

South Carolina uses these punishments in a similar fashion to how other states denote retribution for different murder charges. These punishment levels tell prosecutors what they need to prove for each level of punishment.


To sentence a defendant to death, all of the following must happen:

  • Prosecutors must ask for the death penalty
  • The jury must convict the defendant of murder
  • The prosecutors must present aggravating factors in a penalty phase
  • The jury must find at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt
  • The jury must unanimously recommend the death penalty
  • The judge must find that the death penalty recommendation did not result from bias

Some examples of “aggravating factors” include the following:

  • The murder happened during a violent crime or in a human trafficking case
  • The defendant has a prior conviction for murder
  • The defendant killed multiple people in a single act or scheme
  • The crime involved murder-for-hire
  • The crime involved a weapon of mass destruction
  • The victim was a police officer

The defendant, however, can also present mitigating factors, such as their age or mental impairment at the time of the victim’s death.

Life Without Parole

A judge can only sentence a defendant to life without parole in one situation: when the prosecution asks for the death penalty, but the jury either fails to find an aggravating factor or declines to recommend the death penalty.

30 Years to Life

The default sentence for murder is 30 years to life. If the prosecutor does not seek the death penalty, the court must sentence the defendant to 30 years to life upon conviction. The court can also impose such a sentence in a death penalty case where the jury did not find an aggravating factor or refused to recommend death.

Defending Against Murder Charges

As South Carolina only has one murder charge, defending against a conviction can represent a huge undertaking. If you or a loved one should ever face murder charges in the state, contact the Law Office of Mo Abusaft, a criminal defense firm in Spartanburg, South Carolina.