Murder is deemed to be one of the most severe criminal offenses in the state of California. If you or your loved one has been charged with this offense, you should reach out to The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney. We are made up of experienced and dedicated criminal defense attorneys who will work tirelessly to help you to possibly win your case.
The Legal Definition of Murder in California
The legal definition of murder in the state of California is set out in its Penal Code, section 187. This section defines murder as ‘the unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus with malice aforethought.’ This definition is rather straightforward.
Don't confuse the crime of murder and homicide. Homicide is the offense of killing someone else, and it can be either lawful or unlawful. Homicide encompasses manslaughter, justifiable killings, as well as murder. Murder is an aggravated version of homicide.
For you to be convicted of murder, the prosecution must prove that you had malice aforethought. This means that you had an intention to kill the victim. This intention should be derived from hatred or ill will. Malice can be either implied or express.
Having express malice means that you had a primary intention to kill another person. On the other hand, you will be deemed to have had implied malice if you deliberately and intentionally acted in a way that could have resulted in the death of another person.
The offense of murder can be divided into two broad categories; first-degree and second-degree. The punishment for first-degree murder is usually 25 years of imprisonment in state prison, and this penalty can be enhanced to a life sentence. Below, is a quick exposition of the different categories of murder.
First Degree Murder
There are three main instances inthat you may be charged with first-degree murder. The first instance is if you killed someone else with an explosive, destructive device, ammunition, or any other mass destruction weapons. According to PC 206, you can also be charged with first-degree murder if you willingly inflicted torture to an individual and watched him/ her die painfully.
The second instance is if you killed an individual in a premeditated, willful, and deliberate way. For example, John parks his car alongside a silent street and gets out to relieve himself. Peter, who is angry at John because he committed adultery with his wife, sees him parking his car. Peter stealthily hides himself in between the tires of John’s car and waits for John to come back. When John reaches his car, Peter pounces on him and strangles him to death. In this situation, Peter will be charged with first-degree murder. This is because he planned on taking away John's life by waiting for him inside his car and willfully strangling him to death.
The third instance is if you committed some specific felonious acts that caused the death of some individuals. In this instance, the prosecution will utilize the felony-murder rule to charge you of first-degree murder.
Capital murder is also referred to as first-degree murder with special circumstances. This offense has very grievous penalties. If you are convicted of capital murder, you will be punished with either life imprisonment or a death sentence.
As per California law, there are over 20 situations that may involve murder. These situations may have some special circumstances that may elevate the crime of first-degree murder to capital murder. These special circumstances are listed in PC 190.2, and they include:
- Killing someone else to get financial benefits
- Killing another person for the benefit of a particular criminal street gang
- Killing more than one individual
- Murdering someone else through a drive-by shooting
- Killing an elected official, police officer, firefighter, juror, prosecutor, or judge
- Killing a witness to a particular lawsuit to prevent him from testifying against someone else
- Killing an individual because of his country of origin, race, nationality, color, or religion
- Killing someone else while committing, after committing, or attempting to commit any felony that may subject an accused person to the first-degree felony murder rule
Second Degree Murder
You will be charged with second-degree murder if you killed someone willfully, but not in a premeditated and deliberate way. Any situation that does not fall into first-degree murder will be automatically categorized as second-degree murder. For instance, you may be drunk driving in a busy street. Because you were mentally impaired, you caused an accident that resulted in the death of an individual. In this case, you may be charged with both drunk driving and second-degree murder.
The Felony Murder Rule
Both first-degree and second-degree murder is subject to the felony murder rule. This rule highlights that you may be charged with the offense of murder if you killed someone else while committing a dangerous act of felony. According to California Senate Bill 1437 – the new law on this rule – accomplices cannot be charged with felony murder.
Under this rule, it is not a requirement that you must have killed someone else while committing a particular felony. You will be punished for any death that is logically related to the felonious act that you committed; including unforeseeable deaths. Your negligent or reckless acts may cause these deaths while you were committing the felony. You would be liable if you killed someone else intentionally too.
The felony murder rule will apply in first-degree murder only if you commit some specific felonious crimes as illustrated by California’s Penal Code. Some of these crimes include arson, robbery, burglary, carjacking, train wrecking, kidnapping, mayhem, torture, and rape.
The second-degree felony murder rule will only apply to felonies that are inherently dangerous, and thatis not included in the first-degree felony murder rule. You would be held by the California courts to have committed an inherently dangerous felony if you committed any act that created a substantial risk of loss of life to one or many persons. Currently, there is no comprehensive list of inherently dangerous felonies in California. Normally, the court uses its discretion to determine whether you can be convicted under the second-degree felony murder rule or not.
Legal Defenses to Murder
It is possible to get away with a murder charge in California. There are various legal defenses to murder that can work in your favor, depending on the specific circumstances of your case. Here are some of them:
Defense of Self and Defense of Others
Sometimes, you may kill someone else in a bid to defend yourself or your close friends and family members. Maybe an individual wanted to kill, injure, rob, maim, or rape you. In such situations, you will not be convicted of murder. In fact, California laws permit you to take any reasonable measure; including utilizing force to protect yourself or your loved ones from harm.
Furthermore, you can assert that you acted in ‘imperfect self-defense.' This means that you took away the life of another person because of an honest but unreasonable belief that you were facing imminent danger. This defense can reduce your murder charges to the less severe charge of voluntary manslaughter.
You Killed the Victim Accidentally
One of the main elements that the prosecution must prove before you are convicted of murder is that you took away the life of another person willfully and intentionally. If you tell the court that you had no intention to kill the victim and that his or her death was accidental, you may be acquitted.
Apart from asserting that you had no willful intention, you must prove that you were not acting negligently. You must also demonstrate that you were involved in lawful activity at the time when the victim died. For instance, Mary, an older woman, has been having fights with Charity, her downstairs neighbor. Mary takes her gun, which she believes is empty, stands outside her entrance door, and fires it to scare Charity. She doesn't know that Charity is outside the apartment and that her gun is loaded. Charity dies from the shooting. Mary can assert that she accidentally fired the weapon, and her murder charge can be reduced to manslaughter.
This is one of the most effective defenses to murder charges in California. If your attorney can successfully plead that you were insane at the time of committing the offense, you will be set free.
The defense of insanity in California is subject to the McNaughton Rule. Under this test, the defendant must prove that he or she killed because he or she didn't understand what exactly they were doing, andcouldn't distinguish between right and wrong.
Coerced and False Confessions
Law enforcement officials in California should follow the proper procedure when arresting and investigating you for murder. They should inform you of your Miranda rights, and they should not breach any provision of the Constitution of the United States.
In particular, police officers are prohibited from utilizing coercive tactics to force a suspect to confess committing the offense of murder. Law enforcement officers should not threaten you in any way or treat you preferentially to make you confess.
Your attorney can successfully assert that the police utilized coercive tactics to force you to confess involuntarily. In such a case, the evidence that is gotten from the coercion will be excluded. This way, you will be acquitted because of insufficient evidence.
There are very few instances of police coercion in California. However, some social science studies have illustrated that at least 23% of innocent individuals have been prosecuted and convicted because of illegal coercion in California. Your criminal defense attorney must scrutinize all the interrogation methods that the law enforcement officials used when investigating your case.
The Evidence was Gotten Through Illegal Search and Seizure
As illustrated by the American Fourth Amendment, you must be protected from illegal and unreasonable seizures and searches. No law enforcement official should search your person or property without a warrant since it will be a violation of your right to privacy.
If it is discovered that the prosecution obtained most of its evidence from unlawful seizures and searches, this evidence will be excluded. Your attorney can apply for a suppression hearing. The primary purpose of this hearing is to exclude all the evidence that was gotten through unlawful means. This way, the prosecution will be unable to prove that you are guilty; and your charges may be reduced, or your case may be dismissed.
An innocent person may be arrested for murder due to mistaken identification. Numerous factors can prevent an eyewitness from remembering and correctly identifying a murder suspect. Some of these factors include stress, improper police suggestion, intoxication, and effluxion of time.
Your attorney can take several measures to defend you if the primary evidence of the prosecution is only based on eyewitness identification. For instance, he can demand a lineup to gauge whether the eyewitness can distinguish the defendant from other people who have similar physical characteristics. Or rather, he can challenge the procedures that the police utilized in the lineups and photospreads.
The main line of defense that your attorney will use in such cases is that the court shouldn’t rely on the identification to evaluate whether you are guilty or not. After all, the burden of proof in a murder case should be beyond a reasonable doubt. Your lawyer will successfully defend you if he instills some uncertainty to the court that the eyewitness is mistaken.
The Penalties of Murder
There is no fixed penalty for the criminal offense of murder. These penalties vary widely depending on whether you have been convicted of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or capital murder.
As asserted earlier, a first-degree murder conviction will earn you 25 years of imprisonment in state prison; and you may also be sentenced for life. If you were involved in a hate crime that resulted in being convicted of first-degree murder, you would face a life sentence without the possibility of parole. This means that you will stay in prison for the rest of your life, and you can't get released earlier on parole. You would be convicted of hate crime murder if you killed someone else because of his race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or gender.
Capital murder has the most grievous penalties. It is punishable by a death penalty, or a life imprisonment sentence without the possibility of parole. Therefore, California courts have the power to impose death penalties on capital murder convicts. However, since 2012, there has been no execution that has been carried out in California. This is because of a temporary moratorium announcement issued by California Governor Gavin Newsom on death executions within the state.
Second-degree murder has less severe penalties, in comparison to first-degree murder and capital murder. The sentencing period of second-degree murder starts from 15 years, but it may be lengthened to life. There are some specific circumstances that can automatically increase your second-degree murder sentence. For example, your sentence may be increased to 25 years and even to life if you murdered a peace officer. Also, you may have to serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole for second-degree murder if you were ever previously convicted of murder before.
Furthermore, California law enlists some additional penalties for murder. These penalties are:
- Extra years in prisonthat may vary from ten years to life if you utilized a firearm while killing someone else
- Striking of the defendant’s record
- Losing the right to possess or own a gun
- Restituting the victim
- A fine that may be up to $10,000
- Registering as a tier three sex offender if you’ve been convicted of murder while committing or attempting to commit specific sex crimes like rape, sodomy, forcible penetration, among others
Murder and Related Offenses
There are some offenses that are related to murder for various reasons. Some of them may trigger the felony-murder rule, while others involve the illegal act of killing another person. Here is a brief explanation of related offenses to murder:
You may be charged with attempted murder if you willfully tried to kill another person, but you ended up being unsuccessful. The penalty for attempted murder is a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Additionally, you may have to deal with the possibility of a strike, restituting the victim, and paying huge amounts of money as a fine.
If you kill someone else during a quarrel, you may be charged with voluntary manslaughter. This crime is quite similar to that of first-degree murder, though it doesn't involve malice aforethought. You might be convicted of voluntary manslaughter if you killed someone else spontaneously as a result of heated passion. A voluntary manslaughter conviction will make you serve three, six, or eleven years in state prison.
According to California’s PC 192(b), you may be charged with involuntary manslaughter if you took away the life of another person without a specific intention to kill and without malice, but with a specific disregard for human life. The offense of killing another person by excusable accident and involuntary manslaughter contrast each other in one specific way. Typically, a defendant in an involuntary manslaughter case is accused of acting recklessly or infringing the law at the time when he killed the victim. Most people who kill other people accidentally normally don't violate any law or behave recklessly. You may serve a state prison sentence of 2 – 4 years if you are convicted of this offense.
Sometimes, you may cause the death of another person while driving. In such instances, you will be charged with vehicular manslaughter. For example, you may drive recklessly and unlawfully and cause a grievous accident that killed someone else. Or, you may indulge in automobile insurance fraud and knowingly be involved in an accident to benefit financially.
In California, vehicular manslaughter is categorized as a wobbler. This means that it can be charged as both a felony and a misdemeanor. You may be obliged to serve 2 – 10 years in California’s state prison if you are convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter. On the other hand, the punishment for a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter is a jail sentence that may be up to one year.
Watson Murder/DUI Murder
If you drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, then you cause an accident that resulted in the death of another person, the prosecution may charge you with DUI murder. Watson murder charges are usually based on a lighter version of the theory of implied malice. Here, the prosecutor alleges that the defendant was involved in the commission of a dangerous act with a blatant disregard for human life. Typically, the prosecution will charge you with Watson murder if you have a past DUI conviction.
When a person is convicted of drunk driving in California, he will have to sign a document that is fondly referred to as a ‘Watson Advisement.' The primary purpose of this document is to warn themthat the crime of DUI may endanger human life, and you will be charged with murder in the future if you kill someone while driving under the influence.
Aiding a Suicide
According to PC 401, you will be charged with the offense of assisting a suicide if you deliberately helped another person to commit suicide, or encouraged and advised someone else to take away his own life. Most people may confuse the crimes of murder and aiding a suicide. If you enable another person to kill himself, you may be convicted of assisting a suicide. But if you took away the life of another person because he requested you to do so, you will be guilty of murder.
As per California laws, the offense of aiding suicide is a felony. Its sentence is less grievous when compared to murder,which is a maximum of three years in state prison.
Find a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
The offense of murder in Los Angeles may carry with it the most grievous penalties – but you don't have to face them without a fight. With the help of the right attorney, you can fight off your murder charges. CallThe Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney today at 310-564-2605, and we will help you build an excellent defense strategy.