Introduction

California’s murder statute – Penal Code section 187 – is arguably not only the most commonly known criminal code in California, but even the world, having been popularized in countless hit rap songs and crime films for more than two decades.

The language contained therein, however, is quite simple: under state law, this crime generally consists of the intentional or “wantonly reckless” and illegal killing of someone (including a fetus) with “malice aforethought” (see below). Malice can be either implicit or explicit, and can be proved at trial through mere circumstantial evidence.

See California Penal Code section 187 at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-187.html. See also California Penal Code section 188 at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-188.html.

To put it another way, murder is essentially manslaughter but with aggravating circumstances.

Murder in California comes with degrees of charges and commensurate punishments – specifically, first-degree and second-degree. In addition, the former is itself composed of additional categories – as discussed below, those involving “special circumstances”, felony-murder, and capital murder (which carries a potential death sentence).

Homicide Crimes -- “Lesser Included Offenses” of Murder

When you go to trial, or when the Assistant District Attorney prosecuting you for murder offers a reduced plea, you might end up with a conviction for a lesser included offense. Without delving into the technicalities of this legal term, suffice it to say that it means you end up being convicted of – and, most importantly, sentenced for – a lower offense.

Lesser included offenses for first-degree murder

These consist of the following:

  1. second-degree murder,

  2. voluntary manslaughter, and

  3. involuntary manslaughter.

Lesser included offenses for second-degree murder

  1. voluntary manslaughter, and

  2. involuntary manslaughter.

Homicide Crimes -- Second-Degree Murder

What the Prosecutor Must Prove to Secure Your Conviction

Second-degree murder is essentially first-degree murder but without the deliberate, cold-blooded, premeditation to kill the victim. It’s important to note, however, that you can be convicted of second-degree murder even if you had no intention of killing or even harming the victim, but you acted in such a way as to display a “wanton disregard” for his or her life.

For example, suppose you had severals DUIs on your record but nevertheless got blind drunk one particular night and drove at a high rate of speed. After running several red lights, you slam into another vehicle and kill its occupants. You would absolutely be charged with second-degree murder and be facing a life sentence (with sentencing enhancements) with potential parole.

See, e.g., Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) number 520 (“First or Second Degree Murder With Malice Aforethought”) at: https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/520/.

Again, the Assistant DA prosecuting you must establish that you had the “specific intent” (also known as mens rea) to commit the act which directly resulted in the victim’s death; and that you committed that act knowing that death would possibly (if not probably) result from that act.

Punishments for Second-Degree Murder

A conviction for murder in the 2nd degree will result in prison terms ranging from a decade-and-a-half to life with potential parole.

See California Penal Code section 190 at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-190.html.

Homicide Crimes -- First-Degree Murder

What the Prosecutor Must Prove to Secure Your Conviction

As with second-degree murder, the Assistant DA prosecuting you must establish that you had the specific intent – but now it must be proven that you explicitly intended to kill the victim, and that you had sufficient time to give serious consideration to doing so before killing him or her.

Punishments for First-Degree Murder

A conviction for murder in the 1st degree always entails a twenty-five-to-life sentence with potential parole, unless special circumstances apply (see below). Pen. Code § 190.

Homicide Crimes -- Capital Murder, a.k.a. “Special Circumstances Murder"

This is the most egregious form of murder, so particularly heinous that in the most extreme cases a conviction merits – at least according to California criminal law – the death penalty. Otherwise, you get life without parole. Another term for this type of crime is first-degree special-circumstances murder.

See California Penal Code section 190.2 at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-190-2.html.

The state’s capital-murder statute sets forth twenty different scenarios which trigger life without parole (“LWOP”) or, again, the death penalty (which hasn’t actually been carried out in California since 2005, and likely won’t until we get another Republican governor).

See: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/us/california-death-penalty.html.

These LWOP/death penalty scenarios include the following:

  1. murder for financial gain;

  2. contract murders;

  3. murders committed for the benefit of a organized-crime or criminal street gang (see California Penal Code section 186.22 at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-186-22.html);

  4. using a bomb (see California Penal Code section 189(a) at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-189.html);

  5. killing multiple victims;

  6. murdering a police officer or judge;

  7. murdering a witness to prevent them from testifying or in retaliation therefor;

  8. hate crime (see California Penal Code section 190.03 at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-190-03.html); and

  9. drive-by shooting.

Homicide Crimes -- The "Felony-Murder Rule"

This rule applies when you personally kill someone during the commission of an inherently dangerous/deadly felony. For example, you fired your gun into a bank’s ceiling during a robbery to frighten everyone but the bullet ricocheted, striking and killing one of the customers.

Before the rule recently changed, you could have received LWOP simply because you participated in, say, a bank robbery where your accomplice was shot to death by a security guard. In other words, you would have been criminally culpable for your confederate’s “murder”.

See: https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-felony-murder-signed-jerry-brown-20180930-story.html.

For a list of inherently dangerous/deadly felonies, see Pen. Code § 189(a).

Homicide Crimes -- Sentencing Enhancements

Regardless of what type of murder conviction or sentence you receive, if certain additional circumstances are present, you’ll receive additional years in prison – for example, discharging a firearm or personally using deadly weapon to commit the killing. See California Penal Code section 12022.53 at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-12022-53.html.

Or, for example, if you have prior convictions for serious or violent felonies under California’s notorious “Three-Strikes Law”. See California Penal Code section 667 at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-667.html.

Homicide Crimes -- Attempted Murder

For an attempted-murder conviction, state law requires you to take at least one direct step (such as hiring a hitman or actually shooting at the victim) towards that goal, and that you have the specific intent to either kill him/her or to commit the act that could have foreseeably caused his/her death.

See CALCRIM number 600 (“Attempted Murder”) at: https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/600/.

Such a conviction can carry penalties almost as, or even as, severe as first or second-degree murder. See California Penal Code section 664 at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-664.html.

Example of a Second-Degree Murder Case

Four men are sentenced for the kidnapping, multiple beatings, and second-degree murder of a friend

On or about September 6, 2012, Jose Duenas (age nineteen), Christopher Ramirez (twenty), Rafael Bravo (twenty-one), and Rafael Portales (same) were all hanging out at a residence in Riverside Co. when they got into an altercation with Hector Campos (twenty).

One of these men shot Campos in the skull, then another struck him in the same place with a hammer. Incredibly, Campos survived – at least for a little while. As an eyewitness would later testify at their trial, Duenas and Ramirez then dragged the victim outside of the home and savagely beat him.

Campos survived this second attack, as well, but then these two assailants threw him into the back of their vehicle and drove him to Long Beach. Meanwhile, Bravo drove the victim’s vehicle to Pomona. After arriving in L.B., Duenas and Ramirez were joined by Portales. At that residence, the three defendants once again punched and kicked Campos.

Duenas then unsuccessfully tried to choke him to death with a t-shirt, before the trio resumed beating him yet again. Once more, they then placed Campos into their vehicle, which Ramirez and Portales then pulled into a nearby alley. There, they dragged the victim out of the vehicle, and one them shot him in the skull again. Thinking he was finally dead, the two men drove off – but not before another eyewitness jotted down their license-plate number.

Later that same night, after an all-points bulletin had been issued for their vehicle, Ramirez and Portales were pulled over and arrested. As would be proven at trial, they were both covered in the victim’s blood. Campos would die the next morning in the ICU.

Meanwhile, an anonymous caller phone police to inform them that defendant Bravo had returned to the Riverside Co. residence to clean up the mess the four men had left. Police (presumably SWAT) descended on the residence and arrested him. Duenas was arrested later that same day by Long Beach PD.

On or about July 24, 2016, all four defendants were convicted of second-degree murder and kidnapping. Less than three weeks later, on or about August 9th, they each received a sixteen-to-life sentence. It remains unclear what the defendants’ motive was in the series of attacks on the victim, including whether they were gang and/or drug-related.

See: https://da.lacounty.gov/sites/default/files/press/081016_Four_Men_Sentenced_to_Prison_for_2012_Long_Beach_Murder.pdf.

Homicide Crimes -- Example of a First-Degree Murder Case

South LA man receives almost 85 years in prison for murderous crime spree four years earlier

In early March 2014, Robert Ransom (thirty) embarked on a bloody crime spree during which he murdered two women and a one-year-old child, and the rape of a teenager.

It began on or about March 2nd, when Ransom shot to death Maragrite Evans in South LA. Approximately 48 hours later, he tied up Gisella Yauli (twenty-eight), doused her with gasoline, then lit her South LA home on fire, killing her and her twelve-month-old boy.

Approximately 14 days later, Ransom grabbed a sixteen-year-old girl off a local street at gunpoint, forced her into his vehicle, raped her, and splashed gas all over her. Fortunately, she somehow managed to escape just before he set her alight. He was arrested seven days later by LAPD.

In order to avoid the death penalty, in early March 2018 (almost exactly four years after the first murder), Ransom accepted a guilty plea to two counts of first-degree murder, a single count of attempted murder, and a single count of second-degree robbery. On or about April 3rd, he received eight-and-a-half decades in prison.

Ransom’s motivation for the killings was never revealed in the media, nor whether he even knew those three victims; but based on the final charge he pled out to, it appears robbery may have been one of the motives.

See: http://da.lacounty.gov/media/news/man-sentenced-murdering-two-women-attempting-kill-teen-girl.

Homicide Crimes -- Example of a First-Degree Murder Case with Special Circumstances

Three men receive life without parole for robbery-murder of liquor store employee in Highland Park

Several days before Christmas Eve 2013, Rasheen Childs (twenty-two) and Bryant Moore (twenty-one) entered a liquor store in Highland Park and walked up to the cashier. Childs then stuck a pistol in clerk Gonzalo Garcia’s (thirty-one) face and demanded money. Unfortunately, Garcia panicked and tried to flee, at which point Childs fired a single bullet, striking him in the back and mortally wounding him. Childs and Moore then ran out of the store and escaped (without actually stealing anything). Garcia later died after being transported to a local hospital.

Shortly thereafter, both men, as well as a third suspect, Eric Carter, were arrested for a long string of armed robberies they had recently committed. While awaiting trial on those charges, Childs and Moore were charged with Garcia’s murder.

In February 2016, they were tried and convicted by a jury of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of having done so in the course of an attempted robbery. As a result, on July 6, 2016, they each received sentences of life with no parole. Their sentences for several dozen robbery convictions between the two of them were obviously superfluous, but their confederate Carter received almost four decades for those robberies.

See: https://da.lacounty.gov/sites/default/files/press/070716_Pair_Sentenced_For_Fatal_Convenience_Store_Robbery.pdf.

Homicide Crimes -- Example of a Capital Murder Case

Wife’s estranged husband receives life without parole for capital murder in death of her church friend

In May 2015, Ernesto Ornelas’ (thirty-two) then-wife obtained a semi-permanent restraining order against him after a reportedly long history of domestic violence. (For some reason, her name has never been identified in the media.)

Despite separating shortly thereafter, and Ornelas’ repeatedly threatening to murder several of her male friends, the couple never actually divorced. One of these men – Miguel Evora (twenty-eight), a church friend of the wife – particularly enraged Ornelas.

On or about September 18, 2015, Ornelas gained access to her social media account and, pretending to be her, invited Evora to Ornelas’ own home in Lynwood. Later that same day, Evora arrived there and was shot and killed by Ornelas, who then chopped up his corpse and stashed the body parts in the back of the victim’s vehicle. He then dumped the vehicle in San Bernardino, which was found by authorities shortly thereafter.

The next day, Ornelas burned up his own residence in an attempt to destroy evidence of the murder. The plan failed and police discovered the victim’s blood on several half-burned items therein.

Less than three weeks later, San Bernardino PD and LASD deputies tracked down and apprehended Ornelas. At the end of March 2017, following trial, he was convicted of first-degree murder, as well as numerous other felonies, and sentenced in mid August to life without parole. Special allegations were also proven that he lain in wait and personally fired a pistol resulting in the victim’s death.

See: https://da.lacounty.gov/sites/default/files/press/081617_Man_Sentenced_to_LWOP_for_Capital_Murder_Arson_Stalking.pdf.

Homicide Crimes -- Celebrities Involved in Murder Cases

Actor Robert Blake is found not guilty of murdering his wife after a twelve-week trial in Van Nuys

In 1988, former TV star and child actor Robert Blake (the Our Gang movies, 1970s series Baretta) met Bonnie Lee Bakley, a celebrity-obsessed con-woman with multiple fraud convictions, at a nightclub in Burbank. They embarked on a long and turbulent romantic relationship, which led to a custody dispute (including a paternity test) for their child, who was born in June 2000. Bakely even threatened to file criminal charges against him for allegedly kidnapping the girl. To “settle” those disputes, Blake agreed to marry her, which he did in November 2000. (This would be her tenth marriage and his second.)

But Blake never trusted her and hired a PI who discovered that she was continuing what had been a long history of conning lonely men out of money through newspaper ads. She had been convicted of related crimes in several other states, and was on probation for ID theft at the time of the murder.

On April 30, 2001, Bakely moved in to the guest house behind Blake’s Studio City ranch. Five days later, on the night before Cinco de Mayo 2001, the unhappily married couple went to dinner at a restaurant in Studio City. (At the time, he was 71 and she was 44.)

As Blake himself would later claim to police (though not at trial), they thereafter returned to his vehicle, which was parked around the corner in a dark residential neighborhood. After Bakely slid into the passenger seat, Blake suddenly realized he had left his gun behind in their booth at the restaurant. As he explained to detectives, after retrieving it and returning to the vehicle, he found Bakely dead – still in the passenger seat – from a single gunshot wound to the head.

Following an exhaustive investigation, in April 2002 (eleven months after the murder), LAPD arrested Blake, and the DA’s Office charged him with first-degree special circumstances murder (for lying in wait). They would later add additional charges for conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation of the same.

Of course, LAPD tested his gun, which was found not to have been the murder weapon – Bakely was determined to have been killed by a bullet from a .380 Walther-PPK semi-automatic pistol (better known as the “James Bond” gun). In addition, a paraffin test on Blake revealed only minuscule particles of gunpowder on his hands – too little to pinpoint him as the actual shooter.

For the next eleven months, while awaiting trial, Blake was finally released after posting $1.5 million bail. During that time, in what up to that point was inarguably the most intensively investigated homicide case in LA County in decades, prosecutors arrived at the theory that Blake had an accomplice who did the actual shooting. (No one else has ever been arrested in this matter.)

The trial finally commenced in Van Nuys in January 2005 (more than three-and-a-half years after the murder). It dragged on for a full three months, during which the prosecution and defense called a staggering seventy-four witnesses.

But the overly confident Assistant DA prosecuting the case – having obtained convictions in 47 of her prior 48 murder trials – presented a case that was based on flimsy highly circumstantial evidence and the testimony of two drug-addled former stuntmen, who both admitted that they had been plagued by such severe drug habits . Indeed, one of them had been recently hospitalized after claiming he had been followed by UFOs. Blake himself wisely did not testify on his own behalf.

After almost a week-and-a-half of deliberations, the jury returned its verdict in mid March 2005: not guilty on the murder count, not guilty on conspiracy, and 11-to-one for acquittal on the solicitation count, which the judge sua sponte (on his own accord) dismissed with prejudice.

Needless to say, the prosecutors were admittedly devastated (though they should have realized what a weak case they had at the outset). Minutes after the verdict, Blake cut off the ankle monitor he was wearing and went home to celebrate (though he had apparently spent his last dime on his defense).

The jurors were polled after the verdict and all agreed the circumstantial was simply far too tenuous, and that the former stuntmen were not believable in the least. The jurors also cited the facts that there were no eyewitnesses, no physical evidence (the murder weapon was never found), and Blake’s partial alibi held up (specifically, waiters saw him returning to his booth to retrieve his gun).

No doubt jurors were also at least somewhat swayed by the defense’s argument that any number of men whom Bakely had scammed could have murdered her out of revenge. It’s unclear how much the victim’s sordid past affected their decision, if at all.

In any event, Bakely’s three adult children eventually filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Blake, forcing him into bankruptcy in an attempt to avoid paying the $15 million judgment. At age 87, he continues to keep a low profile, apparently living somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.

See: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2005-mar-17-me-blake17-story.html. See also: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2005-mar-25-et-blake25-story.html.

The Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF)

For almost 16 years (as of October 2020), LADALF managing attorney Ninaz Saffari has defended (and continues to defend) numerous clients against every type of homicide crime: vehicular manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, second-degree murder, first-degree murder, and even capital murder.

These charges include DUI deaths with prior DUI convictions, hot-car deaths, allegedly gang-related murders, and alleged-special circumstances murders with laying in wait and multiple-victim allegations. In addition, these cases often include special allegations, such as (again) gang enhancements and personal use of a firearm resulting in death.

For example, as of the time of this writing, Ninaz is currently heading towards trial in Inglewood on a first-degree special circumstances murder with allegations of lying in wait, murder to benefit a criminal street gang, and personal use of a firearm resulting in severe injury/death. If convicted, her client faces LWOP.

Needless to say, she also has represented (and currently represents) numerous clients for attempted murder as well.