According to Penal Code 187, which is California’s law on murder, murder is the unlawful act of killing another human being or fetus with malice aforethought. This offense has one of the most grievous criminal penalties in California. Generally, a murder conviction may lead to a state prison sentence of a minimum of 15 years to life.

You should retain a criminal defense attorney immediately after you have been arrested for murder to avoid suffering these penalties. At the Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, we have a team of attorneys who are highly experienced and dedicated to helping you fight your murder charges. All you need to do is to book an appointment to discuss your case.

How is Murder Defined Legally?

The legal definition of murder is enlisted in California’s Penal Code 187(a). According to PC 187, murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. This definition is simple and straightforward, though it has some complex legal terms that need further explanation.

Unlawful Killing

Homicide is the act of taking away the life of a human being, whether through legal or illegal means. Homicide encompasses manslaughter, murder, and justifiable killings.

On the other hand, murder is an aggravated version of homicide. The offense of murder is an unlawful act since it involves the element of malice aforethought. The major distinction between murder and homicide is that murder is always unlawful, and it involves malice, while homicide can be either unlawful or lawful, and it doesn't involve malice.

Malice Aforethought

For a person to be convicted of murder, the prosecution must prove that he acted with malice aforethought. This means that the individual acted in such a way to be presumed that he disregarded the life and sanctity of another person, and his actions had a high probability of causing death. The prosecutor doesn't need to prove that this person had hatred or ill will towards his victim.

This element of malice aforethought may be either implied or express. When an individual has express malice, it means that this individual had a specific intention to murder the victim. Implied malice is when:

  • The act of murder was intentional
  • The natural effects of this act can endanger human life
  • The suspect performed this act deliberately and consciously knowing that it was dangerous to human life

Types of Murder Charges and Their Penalties

California prosecutors charge the offense of murder in three ways. These are first-degree, second-degree, and capital murder. You can also be charged with murder if you engaged in a felonious act that caused a substantial risk of loss of life to another person as per the felony-murder rule. Here is a brief exposition of the types of murder charges in California, together with their penalties:

First Degree Murder

As per the criminal laws of California, the prosecution can convict a person of first-degree murder in three ways. First, the suspect should have killed another person with an explosive or destructive device or any form of ammunition or weapon of mass destruction; or he should have lied in wait and inflicted torture on his victim, causing him to die. Second, the accused person should have taken away the life of another person in a willful, premeditated, or deliberate way. The third way a prosecutor can convict an individual of first-degree murder is through the felony-murder rule. According to this rule, a person who commits a dangerous felony that can cause a substantial risk of loss of life to another person can be charged with first-degree murder.

Some examples of offenses involving first-degree murder include going to another person’s house to poison him, using an explosive to kill someone else, or hiding in a bush and waiting for a specific person so that you can pounce on him and strangle him to death.

The penalty for first-degree murder is a state prison sentence of 25 years to life. However, if a first-degree murder conviction is based on hate crime, the defendant may face a state prison sentence for life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). This means that the convict will have to spend all his life in prison and will not be eligible for early release on parole. 

Capital Murder

In California, capital murder is also referred to as first-degree murder with special circumstances. Thus, the meaning of the term ‘capital murder’ is charges of first-degree murder whose punishments are the death penalty or a state prison sentence for life without the possibility of parole. Obviously, these first-degree murder charges should have some aggravating factors for them to accrue such grievous penalties.

Penal Code 190.2 has listed various circumstances that can elevate the charges of first-degree murder to become capital murder. Some of these circumstances include:

  • Killing another person to further the interests of a criminal street gang
  • Murdering someone else for financial benefits
  • Killing an individual by discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle (drive-by shooting)
  • Taking away the life of more than one person
  • Killing another person because of his race, country of origin, color, nationality, or religion
  • Murdering an elected official, police officer, juror, firefighter, prosecutor, or judge
  • Killing a witness to suppress evidence
  • Killing another person while in the act of committing a felonious act that is subject to the felony-murder rule

Second Degree Murder

In a nutshell, any murder that is not categorized as first-degree murder is second-degree murder. Second-degree murder is committed willfully, but it isn't premeditated or deliberate. For instance, a person may be driving while under the influence of alcohol and caused an accident, which resulted in the death of another person. Alternatively, an individual can shoot his firearm into a crowded room, and accidentally kill someone else.

A second-degree murder conviction will lead the defendant to face a state prison sentence of 15 years to life. This sentence may be increased if the defendant’s case had some aggravating factors. For instance, the defendant may be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole if he had a prior murder conviction.

The Felony Murder Rule

Both first-degree and second-degree murders are subject to the felony murder rule. According to the felony murder rule, any individual who kills another person while committing a dangerous felony will be criminally liable for the death of that person. However, California prosecutors cannot charge accomplices with felony murder as per California’s Senate Bill 1437.

For you to be convicted of felony murder, it isn't a requirement for the victim to have died while you were committing the felonious act. You will be criminally liable for any death caused by the felony.

For instance, a person who is drunk driving may cause a crash that may lead to grievous injuries to someone else. If the accident victim succumbs to these injuries and dies within two years after the accident occurred, the prosecution may charge the person who was driving under the influence of felony murder. All unforeseeable deaths can lead you to face murder charges, provided that it is your criminal act that caused them.

In first-degree murder, the felony murder rule will only apply when an individual commits some specific felonious crimes. Some of these crimes include arson, sex crimes, robbery, torture, burglary, mayhem, carjacking, kidnapping, and train wrecking.

On the other hand, the second-degree felony murder rule applies to crimes deemed to be inherently dangerous. These crimes should not be included in the first-degree felony murder rule. Most courts in California have interpreted the term ‘inherently dangerous’ to mean felonies that individuals cannot commit without endangering the life of a human being. Currently, there is no provision in California that lists these inherently dangerous felonies. Therefore, the second-degree felony murder rule applies on a circumstantial basis.

Elements of Murder

There are three main elements that the prosecution must prove for the jury to convict you of murder. These elements include:

  • The act which you committed resulted in the death of a human being
  • You committed this act with malice aforethought
  • You didn’t have any justification or lawful excuse to commit this act

Legal Defenses to Murder

The major legal defenses to murder which criminal defense attorneys in California use are pegged on demonstrating to the court that the prosecution has insufficient evidence to prove the three elements listed above. Though murder is a grievous offense, several legal defenses to it can help you get off the hook. Often, cases of justifiable and excusable homicide result in acquittals or dismissals. Here are some of the legal defenses to murder:

1.      Defense of Others or Self-defense

You can murder someone else in defense of yourself or your loved one. This is especially in situations where you have a belief that you or your loved one is in imminent danger of suffering grievous bodily harm, being killed, robbed, maimed, and raped or becoming a victim of an atrocious and forcible crime.

As per California’s self-defense laws, you should take any reasonable measure necessary to protect yourself or your loved ones, even if it involves using deadly force. These laws can excuse your criminal conduct if you have been charged with the offense of murder.

Furthermore, the state of California has an ‘imperfect self-defense’ (Flannel) doctrine. Under this doctrine, a person can kill another if he has an honest but unreasonable belief that he faces imminent danger. When you successfully assert imperfect self-defense, the prosecution may reduce your murder charges to the offense of voluntary manslaughter.

2.      Mistaken Identity

Mistaken identity is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in California. A law enforcement officer can put you under arrest simply because an eyewitness wrongfully identified you as the main perpetrator of the crime.

Various factors can affect the ability of an eyewitness to remember and identify a suspect correctly. Some of these factors include improper suggestions by the law enforcement officer, how stressful the encounter was, the passage of time, whether the suspect is of a different race, intoxication, and fixation on a weapon. 

If your defense attorney believes that the prosecution’s eyewitness identification evidence is questionable, he can take several measures to instill doubt to the jury. Some of these measures including demanding a live lineup to ascertain whether the witness can distinguish the defendant from other people, challenging the procedures used by the police in the previous lineups and photo spreads, and summoning an ‘eyewitness identification expert’ to testify before the court how eyewitnesses can mistakenly identify an innocent person to be the suspect. When you use the defense of mistaken identity, you will have to aim towards demonstrating to the court that the eyewitness identification evidence is unreliable.

3.      The Killing was Accidental

An accident can serve as a legal defense to murder charges in California if the accused person:

  • had no intention to kill the victim
  • was not engaged in a negligent act
  • was involved in a lawful activity when the victim died

4.      Illegally Obtained Evidence

As per Federal Law, evidence obtained in contravention of the law is illegal and should be excluded in court. The defense of illegally obtained evidence is one of the most commonly used defenses in California criminal trials.

Various seizure and search laws in California limit the power of a law enforcement officer to search your property and person. For example, no police officer is legally permitted to conduct a search in your house without producing a search warrant.

If law enforcement officers fail to follow proper procedures while collecting and gathering evidence, this evidence will not be used against you. Your attorney can seek to exclude this evidence from the trial by filing a motion to suppress evidence, under Penal Code 1538.5. If this evidence is omitted, the prosecutor may be unable to proceed, and your case will be dismissed.

5.      Insanity

As the accused person, you can plead ‘not guilty because of insanity.’ This way, you will be asserting to the court that you were not in the right state of mind when you murdered the victim.

The standard of the defense of insanity is well laid out in the McNaughton test. Under this test, for you to be successful with the insanity defense, you must prove that you didn’t understand the nature of your actions and you were not able to distinguish between right and wrong at the time when you killed the victim. By successfully proving this defense, the court will acquit you.

6.      Coerced and False Confessions

When a law enforcement officer is arresting you or gathering evidence against you, he is supposed to adhere to the Miranda rules and make sure that none of your constitutional rights are violated during the process. Particularly, police officers should not use coercive means to force a suspect to confess.

Some examples of coercive and illegal police questioning methods include the use of threats to instill fear to the suspect and his loved ones and offering lenient treatment to obtain a confession. Provided that the confession was made involuntarily, the court will exclude it from the prosecution’s evidence.

Although coercive tactics are illegal and widely condemned, they are quite common in California. In any murder case that involves a confession, the defense attorney must thoroughly scrutinize how the police interrogated the accused person. If he finds out that the confession was acquired through illegal means, it will be thrown out from the evidence and the case of the prosecution will collapse. This may result in a dismissal or an acquittal.

Related Offenses to Murder

There are various crimes that are closely related to murder charges. Some of them include:

1.      Attempted Murder

A person will be charged with attempted murder if he intends to kill another person or if he takes a direct but ineffective step to take away the life of another person. An attempted murder conviction results in a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

2.      Voluntary Manslaughter

According to PC 192(a), the prosecution may charge an individual with voluntary manslaughter if he killed another person in the heat of passion or during a sudden quarrel. Unlike murder, voluntary manslaughter does not involve malice. Its punishment is a state prison sentence of three, six, or eleven years.

3.      Vehicular Manslaughter

You may face charges of vehicular manslaughter if you drive unlawfully and cause the death of another person, drive during the commission of a lawful act that results in the death of someone else in an unlawful manner, or knowingly cause an accident for financial gain. This offense is a wobbler. The penalty for felony vehicular manslaughter is a state prison sentence of two to ten years, while that for misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter is a county jail sentence of a maximum of one year.

4.      Aiding a Suicide

If you deliberately help, advice, or encourage another person to kill himself, California’s prosecution will charge you with the offense of aiding a suicide. Though this offense is categorized as a felony, it carries a lenient penalty of a state prison sentence of a maximum of three years.

Find a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

If you or your loved one is facing murder charges, we invite you to contact us at the Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer. Call us today at 310-502-1314 for a free consultation.