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How California Homicide and Murder Laws Work

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | May 10, 2021 | 0 Comments

Homicide is the lawful or unlawful act of the killing of someone by another person. It's the act of one person taking the life of another.

If someone dies due the actions of another person, then they could face criminal charges that will depend on the details of the case.

California Homicide and Murder Laws
Under California Law, there are different types of criminal charges related to homicide and murder.

A homicide could occur accidentally or from a negligent act even when there was no intent to cause harm. 

Under California laws, there are different types of charges a prosecutor can file, such as:

Manslaughter is defined as killing someone without premeditation. It's different from second-degree murder because there's no malicious aforethought. Manslaughter can be voluntary or involuntary. 

All of these crimes are a felony punishable by severe penalties, except for vehicular manslaughter, which is a “wobbler” that can be filed as either a misdemeanor or felony.

Murder and manslaughter are both types of homicide, but they are handled very differently under California state law.

For more detailed information, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will explain the laws below.

Penal Code 187 PC Murder

Murder is defined under California Penal Code 187 PC as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought, which means defendant had a wanton disregard for human life and their act involved a high chance it would result in death.

Murder can be charged as either first-degree or second-degree. In order to convict someone of PC 187 murder, they must be able to prove the following elements of the crime (CALCRIM 520):

  • you killed another person; and
  • you killed this person unlawfully; and
  • you had malicious aforethought, which means you intended to unlawfully kill this person at the time of the crime.

For the most serious cases of murder in California, the maximum penalty is the death penalty, or life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

The severity of the punishment you face depends on whether you are charged with capital murder, first-degree murder, or second-degree murder.

First-Degree Murder

First-degree murder is premeditated, meaning you planned the unlawful killing in advance, but no aggravating circumstances apply.

This means you could be charged with first-degree murder if you killed someone under the following circumstances: 

  • a willful, deliberate, and premediated killing,
  • lying in wait,
  • by torturing the other person,
  • felony murder rule, meaning someone was killed while in process of committing certain felony crimes,
  • use of explosive device, armor piercing ammunition, or weapon of mass destruction.

This charge can result in 25 years to life in prison. If a hate crime was involved, then the penalties could include life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A hate crime murder means it was based on the victim's race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality.

Second-Degree Murder

To be charged with PC 187 murder in the second degree, the prosecution doesn't need to show you planned the murder in any way.

Second-Degree Murder Charges in California
Second-degree murder is a willful act, but there was no advanced planning to commit the crime.

Rather, they only need to prove you intended to kill the individual at the time the crime took place.

In other words, second-degree murder is a willful act, but not deliberate with premeditation. It was an intentional act, but there was no planning ahead of time.

Second-degree murder is any type of murder that is not eligible to be charged as a first-degree murder.

For example, second-degree murder charges could be filed against someone who has a history of driving under the influence, then causes an DUI accident that kills another person (Watson murder).

You could face 15 years to life imprisonment, or much more under certain factors, such as:

  • defendant has prior murder sentence,
  • defendant killed someone shooting from a vehicle,
  • defendant killed a law enforcement officer.

Felony Murder Rule

You could also be charged with first or second-degree murder under what's known as the felony murder rule, as set out in Senate Bill 1437.

Essentially, it's felony murder if you kill someone while committing another dangerous felony, such as robbery, even if you didn't set out to kill the person.

You can only face felony murder charges if you were the actual killer, had intent to kill, aided or abetted, or were a major participant in the underlying felony crime.

A first-degree felony murder rule applies during committing PC 215 carjacking, PC 211 robbery, PC 207 kidnapping, PC 459 burglary, PC 206 torture, PC 261 rape, PC 288 lewd acts with a minor, and other sex crimes.

Anyone convicted under the old felony murder rule could file a petition for resentencing based on SB 1437.

Capital Murder

Capital murder, or “murder with special circumstances,” is an aggravated form of murder.

The list of circumstances that may elevate a first-degree murder to capital level is found in California Penal Code 190.2 PC.  

Capital murder charges can be filed under a wide range of circumstances, including:

  • killing someone for financial gain,
  • killing a witness to prevent testimony,
  • killing a police officer, firefighter, prosecutor, judge,
  • killing more than one person,
  • killing related to a hate crime,
  • killing for the benefit of a street gang.

Capital murder is the most serious of all murder charges. If you are found guilty of capital murder, you could face life imprisonment without parole, or the death penalty.

It should be noted executions have been suspended and prosecutors in Los Angeles County do not seek the death penalty.

Penal Code 192(a) PC Voluntary Manslaughter

PC 192(a) voluntary manslaughter charges can be filed when the killing of someone was willful and deliberate, but not premediated.

Penal Code 192(a) Voluntary Manslaughter
PC 192(a) voluntary manslaughter is killing someone in the heat of passion during a sudden quarrel.

Voluntary manslaughter is defined in the Penal Code 192 PC as killing someone:

  • in the heat of passion, or
  • during a sudden quarrel, or
  • based on an unreasonable but honest belief that your life was in danger.

While voluntary manslaughter is similar to first-degree murder, it does not involve malice, rather the killing was done spontaneously.

An example includes a situation where a man finds his wife in bed with another man, so in the heat of passion he kills the man.

In other words, you killed someone without any premeditation in the heat of the moment.

If convicted of voluntary manslaughter, it's punishable by three, six, or eleven years in a California state prison.  

Penal Code 192(b) PC Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is the killing someone without malice or intent to kill, but rather with the conscious disregard for human life.

California Penal Code 192(b) PC defines involuntary manslaughter is killing someone:

  • while committing a non-dangerous felony, or
  • performing a lawful act recklessly with high-degree of risk of death or great bodily injury

With involuntary manslaughter, there is again no premeditation. It means you killed somebody accidentally while you failed to exercise proper caution.

A conviction for PC 192(b) involuntary manslaughter carries a state prison sentence of two, three or four years.

It's a similar crime to vehicular manslaughter, which is killing someone while driving negligently or unlawfully.

Defenses for California Homicide Charges

There are some common defenses homicide charges which our criminal lawyers may use to plead a case, including:

Self-defense or defense of others – There may be a right to use deadly force to protect oneself from serious harm.

The right ends if the attacker stops or becomes incapacitated. California's self-defense laws allow killing under certain situations.

It means a killing is justified if you have a reasonable belief you or others are in imminent danger of being killed, suffer a great bodily injury (GBI), or being raped, robbed, or other violent forcible crime.

Castle Doctrine – In the state of California, a person can use deadly force to protect their property if under threat.

Accidental death – An accident defense can be used in a situation where the defendant had no criminal intent to cause harm and was not acting in a negligent manner.

Defenses for California Homicide Charges
Contact our law firm for a review and legal guidance.

Mistaken identity – Put simply, this defense aims to prove that the police arrested the wrong person.

Illegal search and seizure – Under the Fourth Amendment, you have the right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure.

If appropriate, we could a penal Code 1538.5 motion to suppress evidence to exclude evidence that was illegally obtained by law enforcement.

Insanity – To plead insanity, a defendant must prove they couldn't separate right from wrong at the time of the crime. The legal standard for insanity is the called the M'Naughten test.

If you have been charged with a violent crime like murder or manslaughter, it can be extremely distressing and overwhelming.

At Eisner Gorin LLP, our experienced criminal attorneys will carefully examine the evidence available to help determine which defenses may be open to you and how it may be best to plead your case. 

Our goal is to ensure you have the best possible legal representation. We might be able to negotiate with the prosecutor to avoid charges through prefiling intervention.

Our law firm has two office locations in Los Angeles County. Contact us for an immediate consultation at (877) 781-1570.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Find me on Google+ Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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