Murder is one of the violent crimes in California that is severely punished. As defined under PEN 187, the offense involves killing another person, even a fetus, with a wanton disregard for life. If you are accused of murder, you committed the crime with malicious forethought and can be prosecuted on first or second-degree murder charges. The penalties for murder are some of the most severe in California with possible life imprisonment as a punishment.

A conviction on these charges is likely to alter your life forever, and negatively. Fighting against these allegations is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Engage an experienced criminal attorney from Orange County Criminal Lawyer who understands your predicament and is passionate about representing you.

Defining Murder According to the Law

The crime of murder, as earlier stated, is defined under PEN 187a in California. The statute simply defines the offense as the unlawful taking of another person’s life or an unborn child, with a malicious aforethought. The definition of this crime seems uncomplicated, but there is a need to understand further various terms or phrases used in their interpretation. These terms include:

Unlawful Killing or Taking of a Person’s Life

When you kill another person, it is known as homicide, irrespective of whether you did it lawfully or unlawfully. A homicide, according to the law, includes:

  • Murder

  • Justifiable killings and

  • Manslaughter

The crime of murder is considered the most violent and aggravated kind of homicide. The offense is unlawful at all times. The distinguishing factor of manslaughter from murder is the malice involved in the act to get a conviction.

Malice Aforethought

Malice is defined under the homicide law of California as:

A mental state that constitutes a malicious aforethought doesn’t presuppose or need you to have any ill motive or hatred toward your victim. When you are said to have a wanton disregard for life, you have done a deed that has a high likelihood of leading to death. In such a case, you acted with malicious aforethought.

When you are charged with either 1st or 2nd-degree murder, the prosecutor must show that you were malicious. In this case, you can either imply or express malice to be charged with the offense. Express malice is murder means you purposed to kill the person. However, you can imply malice when:

  • The victim died from an act that was intentional or purposeful on your part

  • The natural consequences of your actions are a danger to life and

  • You knew about the possible threat to life, and as you acted, you consciously disregarded the other person’s life

1st Degree Murder Laws

In California, you can get convicted of 1st-degree murder if your offense involved the following:

  • If you commit the crime, you use an explosive or destructive gadget. The use of mass destroying weapons or ammunition that penetrates armor or metal earns you this conviction. If you opted to use poison to kill the person, you would also face first-degree murder charges.

  • If you laid in wait for your victim and killed them

  • Torturing a person resulting in death will earn you this conviction. The law on torture in California is defined under PEN 206

  • You deliberately, willfully and premeditated the killing of the person or

  • You killed a person while committing a particular felony, also known as felony-murder

Based on the various ways that you can commit a 1st-degree murder, you went to a person’s home to kill them. Waiting for your victim to come and kill them or using a type of bomb to penetrate where the victim is and kill them also earns you this conviction.

Capital Murder

If you are charged with capital degree murder, you committed a 1st-degree murder as outlined above. The punishment for this type of offense is the death penalty, also known as capital punishment in California. You can also get life imprisonment instead, without parole. Capital murder is also referred to as murder with exceptional circumstances.

Over twenty situations can result in capital murder charges as listed under PEN 190.2. Some of these unique aspects that enhance murder to a capital offense include:

  • Killing a person to gain financially

  • Causing the death of more than a single person

  • Killing a firefighter, police officer, juror, judge, elected official or prosecutor

  • Killing a potential witness to avoid their testifying

  • Killing a person because of their race, religion, color, or nationality

  • Shooting your victim as you drive by killing them

  • Killings that are gang-related as found under PEN 186.22

When you are charged with murder under the above circumstances, among many others, the offense is no longer a standard first-degree murder. Instead, your crime becomes a capital offense which is more harshly punished.

2nd-Degree Murder

According to PEN 187, this offense is also committed willfully. However, it does not require you to have premeditated about it. Neither is it deliberate. Although the crime is still murder, it is punished less harshly compared to first-degree or capital murder. Some ways that can get you prosecuted for this offense include:

  • If you shot a gun in a room full of people and it killed a person. In this case, you did not plan to murder any person. However, you will be convicted on this offense alongside another discharging a weapon negligently as found under PEN 246.3

  • If you have prior DUI convictions and still drive drunk, resulting in an accident that results in another person’s death.

  • If you viciously attacked a weaker or inebriated or smaller person, punching them to the ground where they hit their head and die from the injury

Felony Murder Rule

You would be charged with felony murder if you killed a person as you committed a violent or dangerous felony. For instance, you get into a store and ask the cashier to give you all the cash while pointing a gun at them. You notice the cashier reaching for a phone or pressing an alarm button, and you shoot them to death. As you were robbing the store, the offense is a felony by itself. The killing you commit during the robbery is murder, irrespective of whether you intended to kill or not.

The rule on felony murder in California changed in the recent past. Previously, if you committed an accidental killing while carrying out a felony, it was treated as murder. The law further held your accomplices responsible for the killing even when they never carried out the murder or purposed to kill.

In September 2018, a revision of the law under SB 1437 was signed by the governor. The review stated that others could get charged with felony murder if they:

  • Actually killed the person or

  • Purposed to kill or helped, encouraged, commanded, asked, solicited, initiated, counseled, or supported the real killer kill or

  • Were primary participants of the initial felony and acted recklessly with no regard to life or

  • The person killed was a police officer on duty, and you knew about it or must have known about it.

However, if during the committing of a felony death occurred accidentally or due to negligence, the offense is not felony murder. But, if the dead victim was a police officer on duty, it becomes a felony murder.

Presently, if you were previously convicted following the old rule on felony murder, you can file for resentencing, according to SB 1437. This rule, however, applies only on 1st and 2nd-degree murders. This rule on felony murder for the 1st degree applies when the death happens while you were committing the following felonies:

  • Arson – PEN 451

  • Robbery – PEN 211

  • Burglary – PEN 459

  • Carjacking – PEN 215

  • Train wrecking – PEN 219

  • Kidnapping – PEN 207

  • Mayhem – PEN 203

  • Torture – PEN 206

  • Rape – PEN 261

  • Unlawful Sodomy – PEN 286

  • Illegal oral copulation – PEN 288a

  • Forcible penetration – PEN 289 and

  • Lewd deeds with a child – PEN 288

On the other hand, a 2nd-degree murder falls under the felony-murder rule if the underlying felony is:

  • Inherently dangerous, and at the same time

  • Is not found in the 1st-degree felony-murder above

These types of felonies are considered to create a possible significant risk of fatality. The law does not, however, provide a list of felonies considered to be inherently dangerous. As a result, the court or judge decides if the offense falls under the 2nd-degree felony murder rule on a case basis. Some examples of when a 2nd-degree murder falls under the rule on felony murder are:

A Case of People Versus James

In this case, Ms. James was making meth at home in her home lab. This is already a felony offense in California. In the process, an explosion occurred that killed her three kids. According to the court ruling, it was concluded that the manufacture of meth causes a significant risk to fatality. This is because the process involves using flammable substances. As a result, Ms. James was sentenced under 2nd-degree felony murder.

A Case of the People Versus Nicholas

In this case, Nicholas had discovered that his wife was cheating. In his anger, he set her car on fire. He intended to frustrate her, but unfortunately, the house caught fire and killed their kids. According to the court ruling, setting a car on fire carries a significant risk to fatality because it involves using a highly flammable substance, gasoline. Nicholas was therefore convicted on 2nd-degree felony murder.

Getting Convicted of Murder

When allegations of murder are leveled against you, the prosecutor must prove their case to get a conviction. This crime has three aspects or elements that must all be determined before a sentence is achieved. These elements include:

  • You were the one that caused a person or a fetus to die

  • Your actions involved malicious aforethought and

  • You killed with no justification or legal excuse

If the prosecutor can show all the three elements, you will be sentenced for murder. However, your criminal lawyer will, on the other hand, be working tirelessly to create doubt in the prosecutor’s case.

Common Legal Defenses for Murder

After studying your case, an experienced criminal attorney will formulate multiple defenses in your favor. Some of the commonly used arguments include:

Defense of Self or Others

The law on self-defense in California allows killing in particular situations. California justifies killing if you had reason to believe you or others were in potential danger of:

  • Getting killed

  • Sustaining significant bodily injuries or

  • Getting raped, robbed, maimed or being a victim of an atrocious crime

For instance, your spouse physically abuses you frequently. During a particular quarrel, he picks a stone, and you believe he will hurt you with it. Because you are scared of what will happen given your past, you pick a gun and shoot him. Unfortunately, the wound kills him. Because of your history of being a battered spouse, you have evidence that you believed you would have suffered death or significant injuries. This belief caused you to act as you did to prevent it from happening. If this is the case, you will get acquitted of murder because you acted in self-defense.

On the other hand, you can also get your charges reduced to voluntary manslaughter. This would happen if you honestly believed you were faced with potential danger, but your belief was unreasonable. This is known as imperfect self-defense.

The Killing was Accidental

If your killing of the person was by accident, your lawyer could present this argument in your defense for murder. This defense is acceptable if you:

  • Did not have a criminal intention to hurt or harm the victim

  • Never acted negligently and

  • You were instead carrying out a lawful act when the killing happened

For instance, you were cleaning your gun, and in the process, it accidentally goes off and kills your wife. Because her family knows you have recently been having disagreements, they believe you were intentional and accuse you of murder. However, because the shooting was accidental, your lawyer will argue your case with evidence and get you a lesser sentence instead.

Insanity Defense

The state of California can allow you to enter a not guilty plea because of insanity. However, the insanity defense is based on the M'Naghten Test. Based on this, you must show that the only reason you killed was:

  • You never understood the significance of your actions or

  • You were unable to differentiate between doing right and doing wrong

If your attorney can prove that you were indeed insane as you committed the offense, you can get excused for it, and the charges get dropped.

For instance, you are accused of murder because you drowned your two children. However, a psychiatrist testifies to your postpartum psychosis that indicates you are insane. Your actions excluded malice aforethought because of your mental illness, meaning you are not guilty of murder.

Your Confession was Coerced or Falsified

The police are prohibited from coercing a suspect to a confession in California. Additionally, they must read you your Miranda rights and question you while protecting your constitutional rights. You can be a victim of coercive and illegal interrogation if the police:

  • Made threats against you or your family

  • Threaten you with a death penalty sentence or

  • Offer you better treatment if you confess to the offense

If any of these happened to you, you must communicate it to your lawyer. When you confess to a crime involuntarily or out of coercion, the evidence obtained is excluded from your case. For instance, if you were arrested and are accused of 1st-degree murder, the police can tell you that you can avoid the charges if you agree to have committed the unpremeditated killing.

You confess to the offense out of fear. But your lawyer can present this in court and get your statement or confession excluded from evidence. Coercing a confession by making promises is unlawful in California, with many people serving sentences after a wrongful conviction.

Unlawful Search and Seizure

The court allows for the search and seizure of property belonging to a murder suspect. However, based on your fourth amendment rights, there are limits to this. Every citizen has a right to refuse unreasonable search and seizure of their property. In some cases, the police go beyond what is allowed. If this happens, your lawyer can ask the court to remove the evidence obtained through the illegal search. This will be done under a motion of suppressing evidence, as found under PEN 1538.5.

In most cases, a murder case could be built around the illegally obtained evidence. Once your lawyer challenges it, the judge decides whether the proof will be suppressed or not. If the motion is granted, the prosecution may have nothing to go on, leading to the dismissal of the charges against you.

Mistaken Identity

Many cases resulting in wrongful convictions are because of mistaken identity. Many innocent individuals are wrongly convicted of murder or other crimes by being mistakenly identified as the perpetrators. Many factors contribute to the inability of an eyewitness to identify a suspect. Some of the factors include:

  • Intoxication

  • Focus on the weapon alleged to have been used

  • Stress from the encounter

  • The lapsing of time

  • When the alleged suspect belongs to another race

  • Inappropriate suggestion by a law enforcement officer

Prosecutors build many of their cases on identification from unreliable eyewitnesses. Even so, your criminal lawyer can take various measures in your defense if you were wrongly identified. Some of these are:

  • Asking for another live lineup for the eyewitness to recognize you again or determine if they can isolate and identify you

  • Arguing against the police’s procedures in the previous lineups or photo spreads and requesting the exclusion of the identification as evidence

  • Presenting an expert in eyewitness identification to explain the memory process and how it works. This will enable the jury to see how it is possible to make a mistake in identifying a person as the perpetrator of a crime.

In doing this, your attorney will demonstrate that witness identification can be unreliable and does not mean you committed the offense. This creates reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds, which can dismiss the case against you.

Penalty for Murder in California

Sentences for murder vary based on the particular charge you are faced with. As earlier stated, you can be charged with 1st-degree murder, 2nd degree, or capital murder.

If you get convicted on a 1st-degree murder charge, you get sentenced to a minimum of 25 years state imprisonment to life. If the offense were committed as a hate crime, you would be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Your offense would be termed a hate crime if you murdered the victim because of their gender, nationality, religion, race, or sexual orientation.

Capital murder is the most serious of all the murder offenses in California. If you are convicted on this offense, you face either of the following penalties:

  • A death sentence either through a gas chamber or lethal injection or

  • Life imprisonment without parole

If, on the other hand, you are charged with 2nd-degree murder and are convicted of the crime, you will face 15-year imprisonment to life. However, some factors can enhance your sentence. These include:

  • If you were previously convicted of murder, you get life with no parole

  • If you shot your victim from a car and you intended to cause severe injury, you will face a twenty-year sentence to life imprisonment

  • If the victim were a police officer, you would be sentenced to 25 years imprisonment to life

  • If the victim was a police officer and your actions were aimed at causing significant injuries, killing them, or killing them using a firearm or a dangerous weapon. In that case, you earn life imprisonment without parole.

You can also have your sentence enhanced to an extra ten years, twenty or twenty to life if you used a gun to commit the murder. If you have a strike according to the three-strikes law, you also have your sentence enhanced. Additionally, if the crime was gang-related, the judge will increase your sentence.

You may also be ordered to pay the family of the victim restitution as part of your punishment. A fine of $ 10,000 is charged on you as well as losing your gun rights.

Find a Murder Defense Attorney Near Me

A murder charge is one of the harshest punished offenses in California. Failure to defend yourself can result in a wrongful conviction or receiving the harshest sentence possible. With an experienced attorney from Orange County Criminal Lawyer, you can get a more favorable outcome. Call us at 714-262-4833 to discuss your case in greater detail.