When you kill another individual, you commit a homicide. The circumstances surrounding the killing then determine whether the killing is murder or manslaughter. Unlawfully killing another human being or a fetus with malice aforethought is murder. Should the killing be premeditated, you will be charged with first-degree murder. Should the killing lack premeditation, the DA will pursue second-degree murder charges.
Murder convictions result in life in prison. On the other hand, defendants will be sentenced to 25 years to life upon conviction of second-degree murder.
In this article, our team addresses the various forms of murder, the possible consequences of a conviction, and the defenses you can assert in a murder case. The Michele Ferroni Pasadena Criminal Attorney Law Firm team is ready to offer legal assistance should you or a loved one be charged with murder in Pasadena.
Murder Under California Law
PC 187(a) defines murder as the illegal killing of another with malice aforethought. Penal Code 187’s definition points to critical elements, namely:
- Unlawful or illegal killing — Unjustified killing of another
- Malice aforethought — Defined as the intention to kill another human being without a legal justification or excuse. However, it does not mean that the defendant intended to kill another out of spite or ill will.
Malice is either express or implied, with express malice referring to the intention to kill. On the other hand, implied malice is evident in the following situations:
- The killing of another person resulted from an unintentional act
- A defendant’s actions’ natural outcome is dangerous to an individual’s life, and
- The culprit knew the danger his/her actions posed to another’s life and acted anyway with deliberate disregard
Though manslaughter is also a homicide, it differs from murder in that manslaughter is an unplanned, heat of passion killing or an unintended death caused by a conscious disregard for human life. Both definitions of manslaughter lack malice aforethought, a key element in murder.
Depending on the circumstances, you could face first-degree murder, capital murder, or second-degree murder charges.
a) First-Degree Murder
An individual can commit first-degree murder in five different ways.
- Deliberate, willful, and premeditated killing, for example, going to someone's house to kill an individual
- Through lying in wait, for example, waiting for an individual to arrive and shooting them as soon as he/she arrives
- Using an explosive, a weapon of mass destruction, a destructive device, poison, armor, metal piercing ammunition, or
- Felony murder, which is the killing of another while committing a violent felony
- Inflicting torture, which is a violation of Penal Code 206
b) Capital Murder
Capital murder is defined as murder in the first degree with exceptional circumstances. Penal Code 190.2 details several situations as the exceptional circumstances which would result in a defendant being charged with capital murder.
- Killing two or more victims
- Killing peace officers, firefighters, judges, prosecutors, jurors, or elected officials
- Killing for financial gain
- Killing an individual to prevent him/her from testifying
- Gang killing, a violation of PC 186.22
- Drive-by shooting, a violation of PC 26100
c) Second-Degree Murder
Murder in the second degree is the willful killing of another, though the act is unintentional and lacks premeditation. This definition is broad. Therefore, prosecutors pursue the deliberate killing of individuals that do not meet the first-degree murder threshold.
Some scenarios that fit the law’s description of second-degree murder comprise the following.
- Discharging a firearm randomly in a crowd, whether the perpetrator intends only to scare or inflict bodily harm but ends up killing another
- Viciously punching an inebriated individual and accidentally killing the victim
- While convicted of driving under the influence, you cause a crash while driving under the influence and kill another person
d) Felony Murder
California’s murder rule seeks to convict individuals who kill another individual while the perpetrator commits a violent felony like robbery.
Before Governor Jerry Brown signed the revision to California’s murder rule into law in 2018, you could be charged with felony murder if you accidentally killed another while committing a dangerous felony. Under the new law, SB 1437, you will be charged with felony murder only if:
- You intended to kill the victim and aided, abetted, induced, commanded, counseled, solicited, or assisted the actual killer,
- You were a significant player in the principal felony and acted recklessly with no regard for human life,
- You were the actual killer, or
- The deceased was an on-duty peace officer, and you were aware or should have been reasonably aware he/she was on duty.
Therefore, negligent or accidental killings will not result in felony murder charges unless the deceased is a law enforcement officer who was on duty.
Note: The DA can pursue felony murder in the first or second degree.
You would face felony murder in the first degree if the killing occurred during the execution of any of the following crimes.
- Mayhem, a PC 203 violation
- Torture, a PC 206 violation
- Kidnapping, a PC 207 violation
- Robbery, a PC 211 violation
- Carjacking, a PC 215 violation
- Train wrecking, a PC 219 violation
- Rape, a PC 261 violation
- Sodomy, a PC 286 violation
- Oral copulation with a minor, a PC 287 violation
- Lewd acts with a minor below 14 years, a PC 288 violation
- Forcible sexual penetration with a foreign device, a PC 289 violation
- Arson, a PC 451 violation
Prosecutors will introduce second-degree felony murder charges if the underlying felony is dangerous and is not listed in the first-degree murder rule. The abovementioned felonies create a significant risk of fatality. It is up to the courts to decide whether the felony warrants a felony murder charge in the second degree. Therefore, whether a murder that occurred during the commission of a felony meets the felony murder rule in the second degree varies from case to case.
What Prosecutors Must Prove in a Murder Case
Prosecutors bear the burden of proof. The jury can only find you guilty of murder if prosecutors prove the following as true.
- You committed an act that caused the death of another individual or fetus
- You operated with malice aforethought
- You killed the victim without a legal justification.
Defenses You Can Assert if Charged With Murder
An ideal defense strategy depends on the circumstances of the case. Upon assessing your case, your attorney will advise you on the most suitable defense likely to secure a favorable outcome.
Self-defense or in Defense of Others
187 states that murder is the illegal killing of another. The focus is on unlawful or unjustifiable killing. The law will consider killing another as a defense if the threat to you or another person warrants using justifiable force.
The killing of another is only justifiable if you or someone else is in immediate danger of death, suffering physical harm, or being a victim of rape, robbery, or other forcible or atrocious offenses. The law requires that the force used be proportionate to the perceived threat.
Furthermore, timing is critical. The response should be immediate to counter the perceived threat. Self-defense or in defense of others is not applicable when the force you use to kill another is applied long after the perceived threat does not exist.
Misidentification is not impossible in murder cases. Several factors contribute to misidentification, including:
- An eyewitness being inebriated
- Low lighting, which makes identification of a suspect impossible
- Improper suggestions by police officers
- Misidentification due to a general identifier like race
- The passage of time that compromises an eye-witness’ recollection
Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are indeed the culprit. However, the above factors create reasonable doubt. Additionally, a criminal defense attorney will use the following approaches in asserting misidentification.
- Call in an eyewitness identification expert to testify about how memory works and how it can be compromised. This approach is meant to call into question a witness’ recollection of the alleged murder and the mistakes the prosecution is likely to have made in relying on the witness’ testimony.
- Challenge the police officer’s procedures on photospreads and lineups while inferring their past to establish a pattern of unreliable identification. With this strategy, criminal defense attorneys seek to have the identification excluded from evidence.
- Demand a live lineup to verify if the witness identifies the defendant with the same parameters he/she used when pinpointing the defendant as a culprit.
The strategy adopted by a criminal defense attorney aims to create reasonable doubt.
Prosecutors must prove malice aforethought for you to be found guilty of murder. Therefore, accidental death, one that lacked the intention of killing the victim, is a valid defense.
Accidental killing as a defense is applicable if a defendant:
- Was not acting negligently — You act criminally negligent when you owe the victim a duty of care, breach the duty through negligent actions, and your negligence significantly contributes to the victim’s harm
- Lacked criminal intent to inflict injury on the victim
- You were engaged in a legal activity when the killing occurred
False and Coerced Confessions
Miranda rights require that the defendant not be questioned by police officers in a custodial interrogation until the defendant is informed of his/her right to remain silent, consult with an attorney, and have the attorney present during the interrogation.
The court will appoint an attorney for you if you do not have one. If these rights were not read to you or you were not made aware of them before interrogation by the police officer, your attorney can challenge any testimony you gave in the interrogation as illegal.
Further, police officers should not coerce a suspect into a confession. The confession should be voluntary. Coercive interrogation techniques are relied upon to force a suspect into confessing to the crime. The methods include:
- Strong-arming the suspect by threatening to push for the death penalty
- Offering lenient handling of the suspect for a confession
- Threatening the suspect’s family or loved ones
After your attorney challenges the confession as false or coerced, the judge will issue an order to have the confession excluded from evidence.
Illegal Search and Seizure
Police can search and seize all materials relating to a crime. However, the search and seizure should not violate your Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from illegal searches and seizures of their property. Further, it is a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights if the police search your property without a warrant, probable cause, or supported by an oath affirmation or your express say-so.
Criminal defense attorneys pursue PC 1538.5 motions to suppress any evidence obtained from the illegal searches. Should the judge grant the motion, the prosecutor will not proceed with the case, and the courts could drop the murder case.
You can plead not guilty because of insanity. The M’Naghten test applies when using the insanity defense. It focuses on whether a defendant knew the nature of the offense or whether he/she could distinguish what was right from wrong when committing the act. This means defendants must prove they killed the victim because:
- The defendant did not comprehend the nature of the offense, or
- The defendant could not distinguish between what was right and wrong
Penalties for Murder
If the jury is convinced of your guilt, you will be convicted of the crime charged. Each offense attracts different penalties.
a) First-Degree Murder
If convicted of murder, you will receive twenty-five years to life in prison. You will receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole should you commit the killing as a hate crime.
Hate crimes are criminal acts, in this case, murder, motivated by a bias against the victim's race, religious beliefs, gender, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation.
b) Capital Murder
Capital murder is a serious offense punishable by death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Note: Governor Gavin Newsome signed a temporary moratorium on executions on March 12, 2019, citing the risk of killing innocent individuals.
c) Second-Degree Murder
A conviction on second-degree murder charges attracts a prison sentence of fifteen years to life.
As detailed below, the penalties are likely to increase when the prosecution proves specific aggravating factors.
- Life with no possibility of parole if the defendant is serving or served a previous murder conviction.
- 20 years to life if the defendant fired a gun from a car and he/she intended to inflict serious bodily harm
- 25 years to life if the deceased is a peace officer
- Life without the possibility of parole if the victim was a peace officer and the defendant:
- Intended to kill the peace officer
- Intended to cause great physical harm to the victim, or
- Killed the officer using a gun or a deadly weapon
Convictions also attract additional penalties depending on the circumstances established by the prosecution.
- A strike under California’s Three Strikes law
- A further ten, twenty, or twenty-five years to life in prison if you used a gun in the murder — This provision also incorporates the use of a firearm in committing a felony under the felony murder rule
- A fine of up to $10,000
- Victim restitution
- Losing gun rights — PC 29800 restricts individuals convicted of a felony from owning, possessing, or purchasing a firearm. A violation of this law is punishable by three years behind bars.
If the underlying offense committed when the victim was killed is a sex crime, the defendant must register as a third-tier sex offender. The sex crimes the defendant attempted to commit or committed include rape, sodomy, oral copulation with minors, lewd conduct with a child below 14 years of age, and forcible penetration using a foreign object.
Other Categories of Homicide
All homicide cases have one common element: the victim's demise or an attempt to kill the victim. It is upon the prosecution to prove their case. Only then can you be found guilty of the charges.
Let us look at the other forms of homicide.
a) Attempted Murder
An attempt to kill another violates PC 664/187(a). According to this law, an individual is guilty of attempted murder when he/she intends to kill another and takes a direct step to kill the victim but fails to do so.
The DA must prove the following elements:
- You took one direct step, though ineffective, to kill an individual or fetus
- You intended to kill the individual
A direct step goes beyond simple planning. It is an action that puts your plans to end another’s life in motion. It is easy to conclude that, were it not for your actions not being interfered with, the murder would have occurred. The following actions are examples of direct action:
- Paying an assassin to kill your intended victim
- Stabbing an individual in the chest
- Pointing and shooting a firearm at another
Attempted murder also considers the kill zone theory. A defendant is guilty under PC 664/187(a) if they inadvertently kill another while trying to kill a particular target. The defendant does not need to have known that the victim was in the kill zone.
Prosecutors pursue attempted murder in the first or second degree.
You will be charged with first-degree murder if you deliberately act with premeditation. If so proven, a conviction leads to life in prison with the possibility of parole. If the victim was a peace officer, you would serve a mandatory 15 years before you are eligible for parole.
Attempted murder in the second degree is any attempt on an individual’s life that does not fall in the first-dgeree. A conviction carries a sentence of 5, 7, or 9 years in prison.
Convictions also result in a strike on your record, parting with $10,000 in fines, paying restitution fees, and losing gun rights.
Manslaughter is a lesser homicide offense compared to murder. The offense, a violation of PC 192, is defined as the unlawful killing of another without malice aforethought. There are two forms of manslaughter, namely:
- Voluntary manslaughter, also known as the "heat of passion” killing — Occurs when an individual kills another when strongly provoked. Voluntary manslaughter is similar to first-degree murder but lacks malice. The killing is accomplished in the heat of the moment.
Convictions are punishable by 3, 6, or 11 years in prison.
- Involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of another due to criminal negligence or reckless conduct. You will face involuntary manslaughter charges if you kill another without malice, a lack of intent to kill the victim, but with a conscious disregard for human life.
You will face 2, 3, or 4 years in prison if convicted.
You commit vehicular manslaughter when you kill another individual while:
- Driving illegally, with or without gross negligence
- Driving while involved in a lawful act that causes death in an illegal manner
- Knowingly causing a crash for financial gain
You can be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor for vehicular manslaughter. Misdemeanors result in years in jail, while felonies are punishable by prison sentences of 2 to 10 years.
Watson murder is also referred to as a DUI murder. An individual is guilty of DUI murder when he/she:
- Causes a crash while he/she was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- The accident kills another, and
- The situations are especially grave
When you kill another while intoxicated, you commit murder in the second degree. It is based on implied malice. This means that when charging you with DUI murder, the prosecution does not assert that you intended to kill another. However, by driving drunk, you deliberately engaged in a dangerous act. The prosecution will allege you knew the dangers your actions posed and acted consciously with disregard for human life.
The D.A. pursues Watson murder charges if the crash follows a prior driving under the influence (DUI) conviction. However, this is not a requirement. Courts have also upheld DUI murders even without prior DUI convictions.
Should the D.A. pursue the charge while inferring to prior DUI convictions, he/she will point to a Watson advisement that states:
It is dangerous to an individual’s life to operate a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol/drugs.
Should the defendant cause a fatal DUI crash, prosecutors could pursue murder charges.
Find a Pasadena Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
The Michele Ferroni Pasadena Criminal Attorney Law Firm has an in-depth understanding of murder as prosecuted under California law. We use our experience, team of attorneys, private investigators, and expert witnesses to defend our Pasadena clients facing murder charges. Murder charges are severe and thus require expertise and adequate time to develop a winning strategy. We commit to employing our resources to defend you against the murder charges. Contact us at 626-628-0564 for a free and confidential case assessment.