The Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm - (Violent Crimes) Murder

Murder charges -- e.g., California Penal Code section 190 (Elements of First and Second-Degree Murder) and California Penal Code section 190.2 (Capital/Special-Circumstances Murder) -- are considered among the most serious violations of federal and state laws, and can lead to lengthy prison sentences. With this in mind, you should expect to face aggressive prosecutors who will be pushing for the harshest possible penalties. 

An Overview of Murder Under California Penal Code Section 187

Penal Code section 187 defines murder as the illegal killing of another human being or fetus with malice afterthought. See also CALCRIM no. 520 ("First or Second Degree Murder with Malice Aforethought -- Penal Code section 187"). (CALCRIM is an abbreviation of the Judicial Council of California's Criminal Jury Instructions.)

This crime is among the most severe anybody can be indicted or charged for for, and being convicted can have devastating and life-changing repercussions -- not least of all the possibility of life in prison without parole. The element of malice distinguishes murder from any other form of killing, such as manslaughter, which can itself be broken down into the following specific offenses:

Voluntary Manslaughter (California Penal Code section 192(a));

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter (Penal Code section 192(c)(1));

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (California Penal Code section 191.5(a));

Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (Penal Code section 191.5(b)); 

Vehicular Manslaughter
(Pen. Code section 191.5(c); Pen. Code section 192(c)); and

Involuntary Manslaughter (Pen. Code section 192(b)).

Malice, or a deliberate intention to cause serious bodily harm or the death of another person, is required as an element of the crime for both first-degree as well as second-degree murder.

Malice could either be expressed or implied. Express malice happens when a person deliberately plans to take another person's life, whereas implied malice is present when a hazardous act has natural repercussions that result in taking of another's life.

Murder is divided into several categories:

First-Degree Murder

This is the intentional killing of another person, and occurs when the perpetrator has premeditated the act. In addition to premeditation, you could be charged with first-degree murder in the following situations:

  • When the perpetrator uses ammunition, poison, or any other weapons to commit the murder;

  • The perpetrator was able to execute the crime by lying in wait (see below);

  • The perpetrator tortured his or her victim before committing the murder; or

  • The perpetrator killed someone else while committing a serious crime like Robbery (California Penal Code section 211), Arson (California Penal Code section 451), or Rape (California Penal Code section 261).

See First-Degree Murder at Penal Code section 187(a), California Penal Code section 188, California Penal Code section 189(a) & California Penal Code section 190.

Second-Degree Murder

When the murder charges do not fall under the first-degree category, you could be charged with second-degree murder. In many cases, proof of premeditation is not required for second-degree murder charges. One good illustration of second-degree murder is discharging a firearm in a crowded place and, in the process, killing someone else. In other words, you can be charged with murder even though you had no intention of killing the purported victim.

See Second-Degree Murder (California Penal Code section 192(a)&(b); California Penal Code section 187);

see also "Watson Murder" (California Penal Code section 187); People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290

Capital Murder

A conviction for capital murder results in the death penalty or life in prison without potential parole. The following circumstances could lead to capital murder charges:

  • You've been charged with many counts of first-degree or second-degree murder;

  • Deliberate murder for personal gain;

  • You killed to evade an arrest or prosecution for another crime;

  • You killed a government official, a law enforcement officer, or even an eyewitness to a criminal act;

  • If the act was a Hate Crime (California Penal Code section 422.55) against the victim. Hate crimes are crimes fueled by the victim's religion, race, or ethnic background; or

  • You killed to support gang activity. See Gang Enhancement (California Penal Code section 186.22).

California Murder Sentencing and Punishments

A California murder conviction can have life-altering repercussions. The consequences for murder crimes differ depending on the level of murder for which you've been charged. A first-degree murder conviction bears a minimum prison sentence of 25 years. If the murder is deemed a hate crime, the offender could face a life-in-prison sentence with no prospect of parole.

A murder conviction in the second degree carries a prison sentence of 15 years to life imprisonment, with the likelihood of sentence enhancement when:

  • You've previously been convicted of a crime;

  • You killed a law enforcement officer; or

  • You executed the act by shooting from a vehicle.

The most serious form of this crime is capital murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Even though it is highly unlikely, at least while a Democrat serves as Governor, you can be sentenced to death by lethal injection.

In addition, either degree of murder is characterized as a Strike under the state's Three Strikes Law. And on that account, subsequent felony charges can be enhanced.

See Punishment for Second-Degree Murder (15 years to life with possible parole) (California Penal Code section 190.05(a)); see also Punishment for First-Degree Murder (25 years to life with possible parole) (Penal Code section 190).

See Strike Offense (California Penal Code section 667(a)&(b); California Penal Code section 667.5(c) (“Violent Felonies”); California Penal Code section 1192.7(c) (“Serious Felonies”)).

See also Strike Sentencing Enhancement (California Penal Code section 1170.12).

Enhanced Penalties in California Murder Cases

The sentence enhancements that come with murder charges can increase your prison sentence significantly. However, before applying the enhancements, the prosecutor has to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

When the court or jury doesn't find the defendant guilty of murder, the sentence enhancements will be rendered moot. The following are among the most common sentencing enhancements for murder charges:

Gang Sentence Enhancement

When the defendant murdered someone while participating in gang-related operations, they risked bearing an additional 10-year sentence behind bars. When presenting a gang sentence enhancement, the prosecutor has to prove that you were an active member or associate of the gang.

Prior Murder Charges

Serial offenders face harsh penalties under California law. Being found guilty under Penal Code sec. 187 could lead to life imprisonment without parole when you have previously been found guilty of murder charges or manslaughter.

Lying in Wait

This occurs when the defendant makes a surprise attack and kills his or her victim. A defendant commits murder when they lie in wait for a chance to attack their victim by surprise and kill them. Lying in wait can raise the gravity of your charge since it demonstrates premeditation. A murder conviction committed by lying in wait carries serious consequences.

The 10-20-life California Gun Law (“use a gun and you are done”)

An additional typical sentence modification in murder convictions is the employment of a weapon in the execution of the criminal act. If the prosecution can show that you killed someone using a gun, the murder accusations will become more severe, and you may face additional prison time.

See Personal Use of a Firearm (California Penal Code section 12022.53(b)) (10-year enhancement);

Personal Discharge of a Firearm During the Commission of a Serious Felony
(Penal Code section 12022.53(c)) (20 year-enhancement);

Personal and Intentional Discharge of a Firearm Causing Great Bodily Injury or Death (Penal Code section 12022.53(d)); and

Personal Use of a Firearm During a Felony (California Penal Code section 12022.5).

However, on October 11, 2017, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 620 (2017–2018 Reg. Sess., which amended Penal Code sections 12022.5 and 12022.53, to provide trial courts with the discretion to strike a firearm enhancement or finding. See: leginfo.legislature.ca.gov. 

As a result, courts may now “strike or dismiss” an enhancement under these Penal Code sections in the interests of justice under California Penal Code section 1385.

See also People v. McDaniels (2018) 22 Cal.App.5th 420, 423 (SB 620 effective January 1, 2017; amended Penal Codesection 12022.53, subd. (h) and 12022.5 (c) to allow striking firearm enhancements): casetext.com.

Legal Defense Against California Murder Charges Under P.C. Sec. 187

Being charged with murder is a terrifying experience. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers often appear to have absolute power. The penalty for breaking California P.C. sec. 187 can be severe and life-destroying. Luckily, not every arrest will lead to a sentence under this provision. Enlisting the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney is the best approach to protect yourself against charges of murder.

The two most popular ways to defend yourself are to file legal arguments to drop the allegations and to submit legal defenses. The following are some of the arguments you could use to request reduced charges, a reduced penalty, or a discharge of your case:

Dismissal of Murder Charges

You can make a move to drop a murder case with the help of an experienced attorney if the following conditions apply:

  • The court's inability to hear the case;

  • An unusually long period between apprehension and filing of charges;

  • The prosecution's inability to prove reasonable grounds for apprehension and filing of allegations at the preliminary hearing;

  • The prosecution's failure to establish all elements of the offense beyond any reasonable doubt.

Petition to Dismiss Further Unfitting Charges

When you're suspected of murder, the prosecution will often pursue different murder-related criminal charges to ensure that you don't walk free. As a result, they opt to file many charges in the hope that one of them will stand until they have enough proof to find you guilty of murder. By requesting to drop these unsubstantiated accusations, you could lessen your sentence or possibly weaken the prosecution's murder allegations against you. A petition to dismiss incorrect criminal accusations can be filed at any time during the lawsuit and can substantially alter the result of the defendant's murder case.

Petition to Prevent the Prosecutor's Testimony

Before the commencement of a murder trial, your lawyer can file a petition asking the court to block the prosecutor from providing evidence that is not permitted under the provisions of California's evidence laws. Motions to preclude particular kinds of testimony are sometimes comparable to motion objections made during the trial. However, the petition submitted before the trial describes precisely why the specified evidence can't be considered in your case. Furthermore, these motions necessitate extensive investigation to ensure their efficacy.

Petition to Dismiss Evidence

This petition covers your rights to avoid self-incrimination and/or illegitimate searches. The prosecutor can't use illegal evidence at trial if the defense wants to suppress it. Some of the facts gathered through illegitimate searches are used as a basis for murder cases. As a result, dismissing this evidence could diminish the case and increase your prospects of acquittal. You could submit the following defenses:

You Acted in Self-Defense or the Defense of Someone Else

California law allows killing under certain circumstances. When a defendant's security is compromised, no law forbids him or her from responding in self-defense. However, he or she could only plead in the defense of someone else or self-defense if the facts are in their favor. If you blindly attack and murder someone, you obviously wouldn't be able to claim self-defense. The defendant can prove that he or she responded in self-defense or defense of another person by demonstrating:

  • The defendant was concerned that he/she or another individual would suffer immediate serious bodily harm or death;

  • The defendant applied only the required force necessary to protect himself/herself, and the other person died as a result of the defendant's efforts to protect himself/herself. The accused should demonstrate to the courts that he or she didn't use excessive force during his/her trial.

If you're threatened with deadly force in your house, you'll not have to justify applying force to defend yourself or another individual. Using self-defense as a legal argument for your case can be challenging. 

See CALCRIM No. 505 (“Justifiable Homicide: Self-Defense or Defense of Another”).

Accidental Killing

An unintentional murder occurs when the defendant kills another individual without malicious intent. You could also make the argument that the incident was unintentional if your acts weren't criminally negligent or if you were carrying out an authorized activity.

See CALCRIM No. 3404 (“Accident -- Pen. Code § 195”);

See also CALCRIM No. 510 (“Excusable Homicide: Accident”).

Insanity

If a defendant has a mental condition that hinders him or her from comprehending the nature and repercussions of their acts, they could plead not guilty to the crime on the grounds of insanity. If the defendant intends to use insanity as a legal defense, the defendant should provide the following evidence:

  • He or she has a mental condition or defect when he/she violated murder statutes; and

  • Because of the mental impairment, the defendant was unable to see that his or her action was both morally and legally inappropriate.

If you claim insanity during your murder case, you will not be released right away. Because the insanity defense, you will still have to spend many years in a locked-down psychiatric facility.

See CALCRIM No. 3450 (“Insanity: Determination, Effect of Verdict -- Pen. Code §§ 25, 29.8”);

See also CALCRIM No. 3428 (“Mental Impairment: Defense to Specific Intent or Mental State -- Pen. Code § 28”).

Mistaken Identity

The circumstances surrounding a murder crime are often complex. Because of the severity of the offense, law enforcement officers will typically apprehend the first individual who appears to be involved. This could lead to the wrong person being arrested and prosecuted. Eyewitnesses' judgment can be clouded at times, leading to mistaken identity. When there's enough evidence to connect you to the crime, you can be convicted of murder. As a result, eyewitness testimony should not be enough to warrant a conviction.

See CALCRIM No. 3406 (“Mistake of Fact”);

see also CALCRIM No. 315 (“Eyewitness Identification”).

Unauthorized Searches and Seizures

California law authorizes searches and seizures of the property and belongings of a murder suspect when the police have probable cause to do so. However, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution places restrictions on searches and seizures.

Coerced or Inaccurate Confessions

When obtaining facts from a defendant or witnesses during murder investigations, law enforcement officers are supposed to adhere to all applicable legal protections. If the defendant can show that the law enforcement officer forced him or her into making a false confession, the confession will be invalidated in court. Among the coercion techniques employed during interrogation are:

  • Threatening the defendant or his/her family's safety;

  • Giving special privileges in exchange for confessions; and

  • Threatening the defendant with the prospect of the death penalty.

See Motion to Dismiss (California Penal Code section 995);

see also Motion to Suppress Evidence (California Penal Code section 1538.5).

Is Murder a State or Federal Offense?

Based on the details, a murder charge can be pursued at the state or federal level. You could be prosecuted under California P.C. section 187 if the murder occurred in California. However, if the unlawful act that led to the murder involved interstate activity, or if the killing occurred on federal property, for example, the matter will be heard in federal court.

Murders involving criminal organizations or gang-related operations are some of the cases that can be tried in federal court. Additionally, killing an eyewitness in a federal or state criminal proceeding could result in a federal murder charge. Again, murder charge, whether it be in federal or state court, carries a substantial prison term ranging from 25 years to life without parole. 

California Murder-Related Offenses

Most of these crimes are comparable to murder as they include the illegal killing or attempted killing of another person, and in certain circumstances can also result in a life sentence (with possible early parole). Several of these crimes that can be charged in addition to or in lieu of Penal Code sec. 187 encompass:

Attempted Murder

When you plotted to kill somebody and took steps to do so, you will be charged with attempted murder. Being convicted of attempted murder can result in a life sentence even though the offense was not carried out.

See Deliberate and Premeditated Attempted Murder (“First-Degree Attempted Murder”) (California Penal Code section 664) & Pen. Code section 187(a)); and

“Second-Degree” Attempted Murder (Pen. Code section 664).

Voluntary Manslaughter

When you take someone's life during an unexpected altercation or on the spur of the moment, you could be arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter. One of the most distinguishing factors between voluntary manslaughter and first-degree murder is that the prosecutor does not have to show that you committed the act with malice afterthought to secure a conviction.

Being convicted of voluntary manslaughter can result in a lengthy prison sentence of up to 11 years. If you are charged with murder, your lawyer could be able to persuade the prosecution to grant you a voluntary manslaughter plea deal. This means you won't have to serve up to a lifetime in prison.

See Voluntary Manslaughter (Penal Code section 192(a)).

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is defined by California Penal Code sec. 192(b) as killing with deliberate contempt for human life but with no malice or intent. Accidental killing varies from involuntary manslaughter in that the latter happens when you are engaging in an illegal or legal action that involves a significant degree of risk. Involuntary manslaughter carries a punishment of 2 to 10 years in state prison.

See Involuntary Manslaughter (Pen. Code section 192(b)).

For other murder-related charges, see also Aiding and Abetting Murder/Accessory After the Fact to Murder (California Penal Code section 32);

Conspiracy to Commit Murder (California Penal Code section 182) & California Penal Code section 189(e)); and

Solicitation to Commit a Crime (California Penal Code section 653f) -- Murder (Penal Code section 187(a)).

The Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm

For more than 17 years, Ninaz Saffari has been fighting on behalf of her clients against serious crimes, including First-Degree Murder, Second-Degree Murder, and even First-Degree Murder with Special Circumstances/Capital Murder (California Penal Code section 190.2). She recently completed a First-Degree Murder trial with multiple victims in Long Beach, and currently has two other First-Degree Murder cases, including a Special Circumstances case (lying in wait, multiple killings, and gang affiliation).