When one person kills another, whether lawfully or unlawfully, he/she commits homicide, and the circumstances of the killing inform the prosecution of which charges to pursue. Murder is one of the violent crimes covered by California’s homicide laws. An individual commits murder when they unlawfully kill another individual or fetus with malice aforethought. Prosecutors can pursue a conviction for murder in the first or second degree, capital murder, or murder that occurred during the commission of a felony. A conviction results in a lengthy prison sentence.

The Los Angeles Criminal Attorney team has addressed murder under Penal Code 187, what the prosecution must prove to secure a conviction, and the defenses you can assert to challenge the charges to help you better understand murder.

Murder as Defined Under California Law

Penal Code 187 defines murder as killing a fellow human being or fetus with malice aforethought. Being charged with murder suggests your actions showed no regard for human life.

There are various circumstances surrounding the killing of another individual. All these inform the varied categories of murder the prosecution can choose to pursue, depending on what they can prove.

Various Categories of Murder

Homicide incorporates all killings of individuals deemed lawful and unlawful. Murder is one category of homicide that is a crime under PC 187. The other categories of homicide include:

Murder is the most aggravated crime of the three forms of homicide. It is, therefore, the offense that results in the heftiest penalties.

Of importance in a murder case is malice aforethought. It refers to an individual’s state of mind. An individual acts with malice aforethought if he/she acts with wanton disregard for human life or does an action likely to result in death. However, malice aforethought does not presuppose or require that the killer had any hatred or ill will towards the victim.

Malice can be either express or implied. Express malice shows an intention to kill the victim. It is evident when :

  • The killing resulted from deliberate conduct.
  • The conduct’s natural consequence poses a danger to human life.
  • The killer understood the risk posed to human life and acted with a conscious disregard for human life.

Malice is implied when the circumstances of the killing demonstrate abandonment or when no considerable provocation is evident. Therefore an individual is said to have acted with implied malice if they engaged in an act that poses a significant risk to human life but is not necessarily likely to result in death. Simply put, there was no intention to kill.

First- and second-degree murders require malice.

The various forms of murder include:

  • First-degree murder
  • Capital murder
  • Second-degree murder
  • Felony murder

a)  First-Degree Murder

You will be charged with first-degree murder if you:

  • Willfully and deliberately premeditated a killing,
  • Use a poison, explosive, destructive device, or ammunition that can penetrate metal or armor
  • Torture another person before they pass away — A crime under PC 206.
  • Lie in wait, or
  • Directly kill another when committing a felony — Felony murder.

b)  Capital Murder

Capital murder is first-degree murder with exceptional circumstances. There are a few special situations that, per Penal Code 190.2, can result in charges of capital murder. The statute specifies 22 distinct circumstances. Among them are:

  • The murder of multiple people
  • Killing for financial gain
  • The murder of a witness to prevent their testimony
  • Drive-by shooting,
  • Gang killing
  • Killing a firefighter, police officer, judge, elected official, prosecutor, or juror.

c)  Second-Degree Murder

Second-degree murders are willful but lack premeditation. On second-degree murder charges, the prosecution does not need to prove you planned the murder. He/she has only to demonstrate that you intended to kill the victim when the crime occurred.

Murders in the second degree are all intentional killings that do not meet the first-degree murder threshold. Examples include:

  • An individual with a prior DUI conviction, causing a crash while under the influence and killing another — This second-degree murder is called Watson murder.
  • A person shoots into a crowded room with no intention to kill another but ends up killing someone.
  • Getting into a fight while inebriated and sucker punching another individual. The victim falls on a rock and sustains a fatal head injury.

d)  Felony Murder

Prosecutors could charge you with felony murder in the first or second degree for murdering an individual while committing a dangerous felony, as set out in Senate Bill 1437, the felony murder rule.

For example, prosecutors will charge you with killing a cashier while robbing a convenience store, even if you did not intend to kill him/her. Robbery is a dangerous felony in this case.

Under the previous felony murder rule, accomplices to a dangerous felony that resulted in the death of another faced murder charges alongside the actual killer, even if they did not intend to kill anyone. Additionally, accidental killings were murders under the rule.

On September 30, 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed the revised felony murder rule. The new law only holds defendants accountable if:

  • The defendant was the actual killer.
  • The defendant with an intention to kill, induced, counseled, solicited, aided, commanded, requested, or assisted the actual killer.
  • The victim was a law officer on duty during the murder, and the defendant knew or should have reasonably known the victim was an on-duty law enforcement officer.
  • The defendant was a significant participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless disregard for human life.

Furthermore, negligent or accidental killings will not result in felony murder charges unless the victim is an on-duty law enforcement officer.

Any individual charged with felony murder under the previous law who does not meet the new law’s threshold can apply for resentencing.

Prosecutors pursue first-degree felony charges when individuals kill another while committing the following felonies:

  • Mayhem, a crime under PC 203
  • Torture, a crime under PC 206
  • Kidnapping, an offense under PC 207
  • Robbery, an offense under PC 211
  • Carjacking, a crime under PC 215
  • Arson, a crime under PC 451
  • Burglary, an offense under PC 459
  • Specific sex crimes:
    1. Rape, an offense under PC 261
    2. Sodomy, a crime under PC 286
    3. Oral copulation, a crime under PC 287
    4. Lewd conduct with a minor, an offense under PC 288
  • Forcible sexual penetration, a crime under PC 289

You would face second-degree felony murder if the underlying crime is inherently dangerous and does not feature in the listed offenses under first-degree felony murder. The list of dangerous felonies is not exhaustive since felonies pose a significant risk of fatalities, and several crimes pose a significant risk to human life.

Thus, courts apply the rule in second-degree felony murder cases on a case-by-case basis.

Elements Prosecutors Must Prove

A jury will only find you guilty if prosecutors prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • Your actions caused the death of a fetus or another
  • You acted with malice aforethought
  • You killed without lawful justification or excuse — Claiming the killing was justified or excusable could result in an acquittal or dismissal of your charges.

Defenses You Can Assert to Challenge Murder Charges

There are several legal defenses you can use on a murder charge. The facts inform the ideal defense strategy for the case. Here are a few examples.

a)  Self Defense or in Defense of Others

Killing another individual is justifiable in certain circumstances. If proven, the jury could find you not guilty. The circumstances are:

  • You reasonably believed your life or that of another individual was in imminent danger of being seriously injured or being killed.
  • You believed that force was necessary to counter the threat.
  • You use force that was no more necessary to defend yourself or another individual from the threat.

California Criminal Code 3470, the “Stand Your Ground” law, allows individuals to stand their ground without retreating to defend themselves or another individual if it is reasonably necessary. Further, he/she can pursue the assailant until the imminent danger of great bodily harm or death has passed, even if retreating could have provided you with safety.

Of concern to the jury or judge is whether the belief was reasonable and the threat was imminent. A reasonable standard is applied to determine this belief: Would a rational individual act like the defendant if faced with similar circumstances?

The danger does not need to have existed to meet the threshold for self-defense or defense of others. It is only necessary that the defendant feared that the threat was imminent. The prosecution bears the burden of proving that the defendant did not act to defend others or himself/herself. The judge will dismiss the case if the prosecution fails to prove this.

Additionally, the imperfect self-defense doctrine could apply. This doctrine applies in cases where defendants have an honest but unreasonable belief that they face imminent danger. If so determined, the murder charges will be reduced to voluntary manslaughter.

b)  Accidental Killing

Murder requires malice aforethought for a conviction. You can challenge the charges based on the lack of malice aforethought. With this defense, you will assert that:

  • You lacked a criminal intent to cause harm
  • You acted negligently, and
  • You were engaged in a legal activity when the killing occurred.

Recall that the prosecution must prove all the above-mentioned elements to secure a conviction. Asserting the above three issues creates reasonable doubt. A judge would dismiss your charges or have them reduced to manslaughter charges.

Note: A jury could find you guilty if you acted recklessly, even if the killing was accidental.

c)  Coerced Confessions

Police officers should uphold constitutional protections even if the crime is murder, notably the Miranda rights. Every individual, including murder suspects, enjoys the following protections:

  • The right to remain silent
  • Whatever you say will be used against you in a court of law
  • A right to have an attorney present during the interrogation
  • A right to an attorney. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided to you if you so desire

Officers should not coerce confessions or use illegal coercive interrogation techniques that force suspects to confess to murder. These techniques include:

  • Threatening suspects with the death penalty
  • Issuing threats to suspects or his/her family
  • Offering lenient treatment for a confession

The courts will exclude the confession from evidence if a defense attorney provides proof of a false or coerced confession.

d)  Mistaken Identification

Misidentification is relatively common in murder cases. Prosecutors rely on eyewitness testimonies to make their case if they lack irrefutable evidence like video footage. Numerous factors contribute to the false identification of defendants by eyewitnesses as killers. These factors include:

  • Inebriation
  • Passage of time since the murder occurred and when the eyewitness testifies
  • The stress of the encounter
  • Racial bias
  • Improper suggestions by police officers
  • Fixation on a weapon

A defense attorney’s strategy when questioning the eyewitness’ testimony includes the following:

  • Challenging the procedures police officers used in the lineups and photospreads used to identify the defendant as the killer
  • Requesting for a live lineup, a move aiming to see whether the eyewitness can single out the defendant as the culprit
  • Calling in an eyewitness identification expert — They will explain to the jury how memory works and identify any memory lapses that caused the false identification of the defendant as the culprit. Further, the memory challenges could also explain an eyewitness’ inconsistent recollection of the murder.

Defense attorneys aim to show that the officer's identification process is unreliable.

e)  Factual Impossibility

In some cases, the circumstances of the case make it impossible to identify the defendant as the actual killer. In this situation, claiming factual impossibility is a valid defense.

For example, it is impossible to kill someone who is already dead. It is a factual impossibility.

Raising this defense could result in prosecutors reducing the charges to attempted murder. Your charges could also be dismissed if you had an alibi. For example, you cannot be found guilty of killing another when you were in a different state at the time unless evidence shows you solicited or ordered the murder.

f)  Motion to Suppress Evidence Obtained From an Illegal Search and Seizure

Any search conducted should be within legal limits and not in violation of an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. The constitutional provision safeguards individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Defense attorneys will file a motion to suppress under Penal Code 1538.5. Should the judge grant the motion, the evidence obtained from the illegal search will be excluded from the trial. Thus, it is likely that the prosecution will reduce the charges to manslaughter or dismiss them altogether.

g)  You are a Non-Peace Officer Attempting to Preserve the Peace

A citizen who kills another while attempting to preserve peace or suppress a riot can use the reason behind his/her actions as a valid defense. The defense only works if you can prove the following:

  • You had a reasonable belief that the victim posed a danger of grave bodily harm or death to another or the defendant, and
  • The killing was necessary and appropriate, given the circumstances.

h)  Killing in the Heat of the Moment

Killings committed in the heat of passion do not constitute murder. These killings occur when the defendant was provoked or was embroiled in a fight that ultimately caused the death of another. A defense attorney will have to prove the following:

  • The defendant killed another but did not use a deadly weapon
  • The killing lacked the intent to kill or a conscious disregard for human life
  • The killing was not cruel or committed in an unusual way that could suggest premeditation

This defense aims to have the murder charges reduced to manslaughter.

i)  Insanity Defense

Under the M'Naghten rule, defendants can plead not guilty by reason of insanity. An individual deemed insane lacks the mental ability to act with malice aforethought. However, this defense requires establishing two elements as actual.

  • The defendant did not understand the nature of the act
  • He/she could not distinguish right from wrong

Engage with your attorney to see if the insanity defense is ideal. Although it seems like an ideal option, the repercussions of an insanity defense could potentially be severe.

Penalties for Murder

The penalties you will face depend on the degree of murder you are charged with and subsequently found guilty of.

a)  First-Degree Murder

A conviction on first-degree murder charges results in 25 years to life in prison. If the murder charge is deemed a hate crime, a conviction results in life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Murders motivated by hate target victims based on their race, gender, religion, nationality, disability, or sexual orientation.

b)  Capital Murder

Capital murder is a grave offense. Convictions result in:

  • The death penalty, or
  • Life without the possibility of parole

Governor Gavin Newsome, on March 12, 2019, halted the death penalty citing the risk of executing innocent individuals. Los Angeles County no longer seeks the death penalty but life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

c)  Second-Degree Murder

Second-degree murder convictions are punishable by a prison sentence of 15 years to life. Some factors could increase this prison sentence, as detailed below.

  • Life without the possibility of parole if you served a prior murder sentence
  • 20 years to life if you fired a gun from a car and you intended to inflict serious bodily harm
  • 25 years to life if the victim was a peace officer
  • Life without the possibility of parole if the victim was a peace officer and:
  1. You intended to inflict great bodily injury to the officer
  2. You intended to kill the officer
  3. You killed the officer using a firearm or deadly weapon

Additional Penalties

You face additional penalties upon conviction, including:

  • Victim restitution
  • A strike under California’s Three-strikes Law
  • A maximum fine of $10,000
  • Sentence enhancements if you used a firearm or if you committed the murder in furtherance of gang-related activity
  • A loss of your gun rights, according to PC 29800
  • A further 10,20 or 25 years to your prison sentence if you used a firearm in the commission of the underlying felony

If the underlying felony was a sex crime, you will be required to register as a Tier Three sex offender upon conviction for murder pursuant to Senate Bill 384. The sex crimes considered are rape, sodomy, oral copulation, forcible penetration with a foreign object, and lewd acts with minors below 14 years of age.

Civil Action in Murder Cases

The state pursues criminal charges. The criminal process does not stop the surviving family of the victims from pursuing civil action against you.

The two court processes are independent. The determination of either has no bearing on the other. Surviving family members do not need a conviction to pursue civil action. They can sue you even if the D.A. never files murder or manslaughter charges.

Families can seek damages under two lawsuits, namely:

  • A wrongful death suit — This lawsuit, if successful, will compel you to compensate the survivors for the losses occasioned by the death of their loved one,
  • A survival cause of action — This suit, if successful, compensates the estate for the losses the victim suffered before his/her death, or both.

Both lawsuits allow surviving family members to recover compensation for medical costs, funeral expenses, and the loss of consortium, that is, the loss of the victim’s financial support and companionship.

Additionally, the jury in civil cases could award the plaintiff punitive damages. The damages are awarded alongside the compensatory damages to punish the defendant for the outrageous conduct. Further, punitive damages also discourage others from behaving like the defendant.

Note: The criminal process mandates that you pay victim restitution, while a civil trial awards damages significantly higher than victim restitution.

Contact an Experienced Defense Attorney Near Me

Being charged with murder can be extremely overwhelming and distressing. You will need the assistance of experienced attorneys to fight the charges. At the Los Angeles Criminal Attorney, we will assess your case and formulate the ideal defense strategy and what plea to take. We aim to provide you with the best possible legal representation. Contact our team at 424-333-0943 for more information.