Facing murder charges can be frightening. Prosecutors and police officers frequently appear to have absolute authority. Nevertheless, there are a variety of strategies for defending against these allegations, and a strong defense can lead to no criminal charges or a significantly reduced sentence.

It is important to seek the counsel of a skilled criminal defense attorney in California. We have a team of competent and experienced attorneys at Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney that have both worked as criminal prosecutors and have years of experience representing people facing murder accusations.

What is Murder According to California’s Penal Code 187?

Murder in California is described as the illegal ending of the life of a fetus or a person with malice aforethought. Even though this definition appears to be clear and easy to understand, there are a few things to be aware of to better understand what defines murder.

A prosecutor must provide clear and consistent evidence before the court with the following components to demonstrate that a person is guilty of murder:

  • The alleged perpetrator led to the demise of a fetus or another individual
  • The perpetrator executed this act on purpose and with malice afterthought
  • The perpetrator murdered without any legal reason or explanation

Unlawful Killing

Murder bears the worst consequences of any criminal offense. Depending on the circumstances of the crime, California law categorizes this unlawful killing in several ways, with varying degrees of penalty. Any charge, however, carries a significant penalty that might involve the death penalty, years in jail, or a life sentence without the chance of parole.

Homicide and murder have one major distinction. Homicide is defined as the murdering of an individual by another; however, there are instances when homicide could be justifiable. Murder, however, is the act of maliciously planning to kill another person and can't be justified under California law.

Malice Afterthought

When someone kills someone else with malice aforethought, it does not always mean they have a "hate or ill intent" for that individual. It is described as a state of mind that has to be created before the commission of the action that leads to death.

When someone acts with malice aforethought, they devalue the worth of a person’s life by taking actions they know will almost certainly end in the demise of an individual or fetus. This mental state can be shown before the court by demonstrating its presence either explicitly or implicitly.

First Degree Murder

One category of murder charges recognized in California is first-degree murder. According to California’s murder laws, a person can be charged with murder in the first degree in various ways. However, it has to be shown that the defendant either:

  • Used explosives, poison, weapons of mass destruction, a firearm discharged from a vehicle to murder in an intentional, purposeful, and planned manner
  • Committed a murder or torturing someone while lying in wait. This indicates that the suspected offender waited for a chance to execute the crime

Second Degree Murder

Second-degree murder is defined as the intentional but not premeditated killing of another individual. To put it another way, it's a spontaneous act that wasn't planned. Second-degree murder is subject to the "felony murder rule." For a crime to be tried as second-degree murder, a death must occur during the commission of the offense that is:

  • “Incredibly dangerous” and can't be perpetrated without posing a significant risk of death; or
  • Not in the listing of first-degree criminal murder charges

You may face second-degree murder charges when you, for example, shoot into a room full of people in the heat of the moment.

A conviction for second-degree murder carries a penalty of 15 years to life in prison, with the possibility of sentence increments based on the following factors:

  • If the individual convicted of the crime has previously been convicted of a murder crime
  • If the murder was committed by firing a firearm from an automobile (a "drive-by shooting")
  • If the individual who was slain was a police officer

Capital Murder

This refers to murder offenses that are punished by execution or a life sentence in prison without parole. It can only be used for first-degree murders that are severe due to unique circumstances in the case. The following are some situations that give reasons for capital murder:

  • Killing multiple pursuant
  • Murdering a law enforcement officer, a fireman, a prosecutor, a judge, a jury, or a state official
  • Killing for financial reasons
  • Hate crimes that are founded on sex, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation
  • Carrying out a drive-by shoot out that results in the death of someone
  • Killing someone because they oppose a gang
  • Killing a person while committing, trying to commit, or after committing another crime

It's crucial to remember that, while capital murder charges are an authorized penalty in California, executions are uncommon.

Felony Murder Rule

Felony murder is killing while executing a serious crime. Fatally shooting a cashier when robbing a store is an example of felony murder. The felony is robbery. The murder is the killing of the cashier. It makes no difference that the thief had no intention of killing the cashier.

California's felony murder law was recently modified. Accidental kills were once considered murder if they occurred during a felony. Accomplices in felony murder were likewise punishable under the old legislation. Even though they didn't commit the murder or had no intention of doing so.

People can only be charged with felony murder under SB 1437 if they:

  • Are the actual killers
  • Had the intention of murdering. They also helped, counseled, abetted, directed, persuaded, sought, asked, or enabled the murderer
  • Were a key player in the underlying crime and they behaved with disregard for human life. The deceased was a law enforcement officer who was on duty at the time. And the accused was aware of – or should have been aware of – this

Fatalities resulting from negligence or an accident while committing a felony are no longer considered felony murder. Except if the victim was a police officer on duty. Those who were convicted of felony murder under the previous law can seek redress. They can now submit a resentencing petition under SB 1437.

First Degree Felony Murder

The first-degree felony-murder rule applies when the following crimes are committed:

  • Arson
  • Carjacking
  • Burglary
  • Robbery
  • Mayhem
  • Torture
  • Train wrecking
  • Kidnapping
  • Certain sex crimes in California, including rape, illegal acts of sodomy, illegal acts of oral copulation, forceful penetration, lewd acts with a minor

Second Degree Felony Murder

This rule applies to crimes that are:

  • Dangerous by nature, and
  • Do not apply to the first-degree felony-murder rule

These are offenses that always carry a high risk of death. There isn’t an established list of extremely dangerous offenses. As a result, judges use this rule on a case-by-case basis.

Common Defenses for Murder in California

According to the circumstances, there are a variety of legal defense tactics for PC 187 murder accusations. Claiming justifiable and excusable homicide may result in dismissal or acquittal. Here are a few common defenses for murder:

Self-defense or Defense for Others

In some circumstances, California's self-defense laws permit killing. According to California murder law, killing is allowed when persons reasonably think they or others are in immediate danger of:

  • Being murdered,
  • Experiencing severe bodily harm, or
  • Being raped, wounded, robbed, or the victim of any other heinous act

California has a doctrine known as imperfect self-defense. It applies when people kill because they have a sincere but irrational fear of immediate danger. A murder case cannot be dismissed because of imperfect self-defense. However, it has the potential to reduce murder accusations to voluntary manslaughter.

Accidental murders

Legal defense to PC 187 murder is an accident. This is what happens when the accused:

  • Had no malicious intent to harm
  • Wasn't being irresponsible, and
  • At the moment of the murder, he or she was elsewhere engaged in lawful activities

Insanity Defense

In California, defendants can enter a plea of "not guilty because of insanity." The M'Naughten test is the legal criteria for insanity. It must be established they killed exclusively for the following reasons:

  • The defendant didn't know what he or she was doing
  • They couldn't tell the difference between right and wrong

Murder is justified by insanity. It has the potential to have the accusation dropped entirely.

False and Coerced confessions

When detaining and interrogating you for murder in California, law enforcement must follow the appropriate procedure. They must make you aware of your Miranda rights and must not violate any section of the United States Constitution. They should never force you to confess. The following are examples of unlawful and coercive interrogation techniques:

  • Threatening the suspect's family or the suspect's life
  • Intimidating the suspect with the death penalty
  • Promising lenient treatment In return for a confession

There is recourse when police extract an unwilling confession from a suspect. This confession will be removed from evidence by the court. Coercion by the police is against the law. It is, however, not uncommon. Social Science research demonstrates that coercion has resulted in widespread prosecution as well as the convictions of a large number of people who were not guilty.

Unreasonable Searches and Seizures

The possessions of murder suspects can be searched and seized by the courts. However, the Fourth Amendment imposes certain restrictions. Everybody has the right to be free from searches and seizures that are not warranted.

Law enforcement sometimes crosses this line. If this happens, a criminal defense lawyer in California might file a petition with the court. They will seek for the unlawfully obtained evidence to be excluded from the trial. The prosecutor will then not be able to proceed if the court grants the petition and conceals the evidence. They may have to drop the murder charges altogether.

Mistaken Identity

According to research, the most common cause of erroneous convictions is misidentification. It results in more innocent individuals being convicted than all other reasons combined.

The capacity of an eyewitness to identify a culprit is hampered by several variables. Among these are the following:

  • The stress of the situation
  • Fixation on a weapon
  • Inebriation,
  • When the suspect is of a different race
  • The passing of time
  • The police made an incorrect suggestion

Many cases in California are based on arguable eyewitness identification. However, criminal defense attorneys have numerous options. These can include the following:

  • Requesting a live lineup to see whether the witnesses can truly recognize and distinguish the accused
  • Criticizing police procedures in past photospreads and lineups. And seeking to have the identifications eliminated from the evidence
  • Questioning an "Eyewitness Identification Expert" during the trial. The expert can clarify how memory works to the jury, and the jury would be able to observe how common errors are

The aim is to show that the identification is dubious, and therefore, that there is reasonable doubt about who the real perpetrator is.

Penalties for Murder in California

The following are the California murder penalties, which vary based on the degree of the crime:

  • Murder in the first degree
  • capital murder
  • Murder in the second degree

First Degree Murder

First-degree murder under PC 187 imposes a sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. If it was a hate crime, the punishment is (LWOP) life in prison with no possibility of parole. Hate crime murders are based on the victim's:

  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Race
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality

Capital Murder

The gravest homicide charge in California is capital murder. It is punished by:

  • The death penalty. There is an option between a lethal dosage of gas or a lethal substance that might be injected intravenously
  • You will spend the rest of your life in jail without the chance of parole

Second Degree Murder

Second-degree murder carries a sentence of 15 years to life in prison in the state of California. However, certain elements might aggravate the sentence:

  • The accused person had a previous murder sentence. He or she gets life in prison with no possibility of parole
  • The accused fired a weapon from a vehicle to cause harm. The penalty for this is 20 years to life in prison
  • The person who was murdered in this situation was a peace officer. The accused may serve 25 years to life in prison
  • The victim was a peace officer, and the defendant intended to murder the officer, inflict serious bodily harm on the officer, or Use a lethal weapon or a firearm to kill. In this scenario, the defendant faces life with no likelihood of parole in prison

Additional Penalties

Defendants in California murder cases are additionally susceptible to the following penalties:

  • If the offender uses a firearm during the murder (“in the perpetration of a felony”), he or she faces a further 10, 20, or 25 years to life in prison.
  • A strike under California's three-strikes legislation
  • If a gun is used or if the crime is gang-related, the sentence will be enhanced
  • Victim restitution
  • A maximum fine of $10,000
  • Gun rights are taken away

Individuals must also register as a three-tier sex offender for the rest of their lives if they have been found guilty of murdering while intending to commit or committing:

  • Rape
  • Sodomy
  • Acts of lewdness with a minor under the age of 14
  • Oral copulation with a child, or
  • Penetration by force with a foreign object

Other Forms of Homicide

There are plenty of offenses that are linked to California's murder statute. Some since they are felonies that result in the felony-murder rule being applied. Others because they include the unjustified killing of another person. Here's a quick rundown of what they're all about.

Attempted Murder

The statutes of California for attempted murder applies when an accused person:

  • Takes roughly one direct (but unsuccessful) action at murdering someone else (or a fetus)
  • Intends to murder that individual (or fetus)

The sentence for attempted murder is life without the chance of parole. In addition, the criminal faces compensation to the victims, large penalties, and a "strike" under California's three-strikes statute.

Voluntary Manslaughter

For murdering another person during an unexpected dispute or in the heat of the moment, prosecutors accuse persons with PC 192 voluntary manslaughter. It's comparable to murder in the first degree. Voluntary manslaughter, on the other hand, does not include malice. The killing happens spontaneously. The penalties for voluntary manslaughter are 3, 6, or 11 years in jail.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter happens when someone kills someone else involuntary:

  • Without resentment
  • Without intending to murder
  • With a conscious disdain for the lives of others

There is a distinction between involuntary manslaughter and accidental death. Involuntary manslaughter occurs when the defendant is engaging in one of the following activities at the time of the killing:

  • Illegal conduct (that does not amount to a felony), or
  • A legal action that carries a significant danger of death or serious bodily damage. Additionally, the accused does not act with the appropriate care

When an accused person kills by accident, the defendant is not breaking any laws or acting irresponsibly at the moment of the death.

Any killings that happen while driving a car are typically not considered involuntary manslaughter. Vehicular manslaughter rules apply to such situations. Involuntary manslaughter involves being sentenced to jail for 2, 3, or 4 years.

Vehicular Manslaughter

Killing someone else while driving is considered vehicular manslaughter if the defendant:

  • Drives a vehicle in an unlawful manner (but does not add up to a felony) with or without gross negligence, or
  • Drives while performing legal actions that might unlawfully result in death, or
  • Causes the accident on purpose for financial benefit (which is also punishable under California's insurance fraud statutes)

This crime is usually a wobbler case. Wobblers can be charged as misdemeanors or felonies by prosecutors. Vehicular manslaughter is prosecuted as a felony that carries a sentence of 2 to ten years in jail. Vehicle manslaughter is charged as a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.

Killing While DUI

If the accused had a previous fatal DUI, prosecutors will almost certainly charge him or her with:

  • Vehicular manslaughter,
  • Vehicular manslaughter while inebriated, or
  • second-degree murder under California's DUI murder laws

DUI Murder

Killing while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is charged as Second-degree murder. It is referred to as DUI murder or Watson murder. It happens when:

  • When someone is inebriated and causes an accident
  • Another individual is killed as a result, and
  • The conditions are very horrific

DUI murder convictions are often founded on a theory of second-degree inferred malice. The prosecutor makes no claims that the accused meant to murder someone. Rather, the accused purposefully engaged in reckless behavior. The defendant was aware of the risk. And he or she behaved with deliberate disdain for man’s life.

When an individual is convicted of DUI in California, the judge will generally read a statement called the Watson advisement. It states that:

  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can cause harm to human life
  • Prosecutors in California may prosecute the defendant with murder if he or she has a fatal DUI.

Do Families of the Murder Victim File Lawsuits?

Families of murder or manslaughter victims may sue to seek restitution. There are two sorts of lawsuits that can be filed:

  • A lawsuit for "wrongful death." This compensates the surviving family members for their losses. And/or
  • A “survival” justification for legal action. This pays the victim's estate for damages incurred before death

Families of manslaughter or murder victims may be entitled to the following:

  • Medical expenses,
  • Expenses for funerals
  • Losing of the victim's companionship and financial support (“consortium loss”), as well as punitive damages

Families can seek court-ordered victim compensation if defendants are convicted of criminal charges.

Find a Riverside Criminal Attorney Near Me

It is critical to obtain the services of our Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney as soon as possible so that we can begin investigating the allegations against you and safeguarding any evidence recovered from the crime scene. Our attorneys serving the City of Riverside have the necessary skills to defend you and any murder case against you in California. Call 951-946-6366 to make an appointment with one of our skilled attorneys. Our lawyers are always looking forward to assisting you with your legal needs.