Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being (homicide) with malice aforethought. When you are charged with murder, you are likely to serve at least fifteen years to life in state prison. A murder charge in California is serious and should be taken seriously, which is why the Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm strives to defend you if you are charged with murder. The circumstances surrounding the offense are usually the source of defense or evidence the prosecution will use. At our firm, we have interacted with various prosecutors and police officers. We know what goes into a murder investigation and the applicable defenses.

Murder Overview

Homicide is the act of killing another person. Murder is a serious form of homicide that involves an intention to cause harm or kill someone (malice aforethought). Malice aforethought is what distinguishes other forms of homicide from murder.

The elements of murder under California penal code 187(a) include:

  • Unlawful killing
  • Malice aforethought, which refers to a conscious state of mind in committing an act that is dangerous to human life. Courts classify malice as implied or express. Express malice is the specific intention (premeditation) to kill someone. It occurs in instances where a person plans on the execution of the crime, avoiding apprehension and covering their tracks.

Courts deduce implied malice when:

  • The victim dies from an intentional act
  • The act is reasonably dangerous to human life
  • The defendant performed the act, with knowledge of the danger it exposes and with conscious disregard for that danger

California recognizes two forms of murder- first-degree and second-degree murder.

First-Degree Murder

First-degree murder is the unlawful killing of another person with malice aforethought, while the following circumstances exist:

  • The act involved the use of explosives, weapons of mass destruction, weapons that penetrator armor or metal, poison or a destructive device, or the perpetrator laid in wait or inflicts torture
  • By killing in a premeditated, willful and deliberate manner
  • You murdered someone while violating felony-murder laws

You may also be charged with first-degree murder with special circumstances or capital murder. Capital murder (PC 190.2) is charged when the following circumstances are present:

  • Murder for financial gain
  • Murder of more than one person
  • Murder of a peace officer, elected official, judge or juror
  • Murder of a witness
  • Murder while attempting to commit or while committing a felony
  • A murder based on racism, ethnicity or religion
  • Murder through a drive-in shooting
  • Murder for the benefit of a criminal street gang

Capital murder can be punished either by a life sentence in state prison or by the death penalty. If you are found guilty of first-degree murder, you will be facing 25 years to life in the California state prison.

In cases of murder falling under the California Laws on hate crime, the sentence increases to life, without a chance for parole. A murder based on hate crime is done against a person due to their disability, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Second-Degree Murder      

Second-degree murder is the willful killing of someone without express malice. Second-degree murder results from negligently committing an act that is dangerous to human life. For example, if you discharge a weapon in a crowded room, but someone is killed accidentally, you will be charged with second-degree murder.

The potential penalties for second-degree murder are 15 years to life in the California state prison. However, the court may increase your sentence in the presence of several aggravating factors such as:

  • A previous conviction for murder increases your sentence to life without the probability of parole
  • You committed a drive-in shooting offense to cause serious bodily harm, leading to the death of the victim. In such a case, the court will increase the sentence to 20 years to life
  • Where the victim is a peace officer, the minimum sentence increases to 25 years
  • Where the victim is a peace officer, and you intended to kill the officer, inflict great bodily injury on him or her and used a deadly weapon to kill the peace officer, then the sentence increases to life without the chance for parole.

Sentence Enhancements

California murder laws subject murder convicts to additional sentencing and penalties as follows:

  • 10, 20 or 50 years to life if the defendant used a firearm when committing the offense
  • A strike on your criminal record
  • Additional sentencing of 15 years to life (in addition to the murder sentence) for offenses committed at the direction of, for, or with a criminal street gang.
  • A fine of up to $10,000
  • Loss of firearm rights
  • Mandatory registration as a tier three sex offender for a murder that occurred when committing or attempting to commit a sex crime
  • Victim restitution
  • The survivors of the victim may bring a personal injury lawsuit against you to recover damages for wrongful death

California Felony-Murder Rule

Killing another person, while committing a California felony, creates criminal liability for first or second-degree murder. The felony-murder rule applies whether or not the death is an accident, intentional or is a part of the felony offense. You are liable under this rule if:

  • You are the one who murdered the victim
  • You aided, counseled, requested or aided the actual killer
  • You were a major participant in the commission of the felony and displayed gross indifference for human life

Since the felony-murder rule applies for both first- and second-degree murder, deciding on the level of the offense depends on the underlying felony. For a first-degree felony murder, the killing must have occurs while you were committing at least one of the following:

  • Arson
  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Carjacking
  • Train wrecking
  • Kidnapping
  • Mayhem
  • Torture
  • Sex crimes

For a second-degree felony-murder charge, you have to have been committing a felony offense that is inherently dangerous but is not specifically included in the felony offenses for a first-degree felony-murder. Inherently dangerous felonies are those that when committed, create an increased risk of causing the unlawful death of another person.

If you were convicted under the old felony-murder law, you are eligible for resentencing. The previous law, which was in effect before January 1, 2019, you could be arrested for felony-murder even when:

  • You did not intend to kill a person
  • You were not aware that a homicide happened
  • The killing was accidental

Under the new rule, you could be set free, if you were not a major participant did not abet or aid in the commission of the felony, or you were not the actual killer.

Legal Defenses

California frowns upon the malicious and unlawful killing of another person or fetus. Therefore, prosecutors can be extremely zealous when prosecuting a murder case. Due to the delicate nature of the crime, and the societal stand against murder, you need to have a criminal defense lawyer with experience in dealing with murder charges. In most cases, murder trials go on for prolonged periods and affect the quality of your life and relationships. That is why you need to hire a lawyer as soon as you are arrested in order to collect evidence and gather witnesses earlier. Here are some of the defenses for a murder charge:

1.      Self-Defense

Self-defense is the right to prevent force or violence by counteracting force or violence. Self-defense or the defense of others is a common and acceptable defense that removes you from criminal liability for the death of another person. When using this defense, you will have to prove that:

  • You had a reasonable belief that the victim exposed you or another person to the immediate threat of great bodily injury, a forcible crime such as torture, rape or robbery, or the risk of death.
  • The use of lethal force was reasonable under the circumstances

In some cases, you can use the defense of imperfect self-defense when you have an honest though unreasonable belief that you need to use deadly force to protect yourself.

When the imperfect self-defense argument, you will have to prove that:

  • The defendant’s belief could have justified the act if they were true
  • The victim displayed unlawful aggression
  • The actions of the defendant can be explained by his background and circumstances

In most cases, the defense of imperfect self-defense is used to convince the prosecution to reduce the charges to voluntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is a less serious homicide offense that carries lesser penalties than first or second-degree murder.

2.      Mistaken Identity

Misidentification by witnesses is one of the leading causes of wrongful arrest and conviction in murder charges. You might be the victim of mistaken identity from wrongful identification in circumstances such as:

  • Lineups which where a witness or the victim is supposed to pick out the offender, from a group of individuals
  • Photo arrays
  • Show ups
  • Voice line ups
  • In-court identification

Mistakes in identification can arise from several situations, including:

  • Different lighting
  • The ripple effect where wrongful identification before the trial results in wrongful identification during trial
  • Different lighting conditions
  • The witness’ familiarity with the accused
  • Racial differences (people have difficulties in identifying a person of a different race)
  • Focus on the weapon instead of the perpetrator’s face
  • Stress and other factors that can affect memory

Your lawyer can challenge the procedures used in suspect identification. Your lawyer will cross-examine the eyewitness to determine the accuracy with which he or she recalls the details of the suspect.

In some cases, the lawyer will call an expert witness who will point out the issues that could contribute to misidentification and whether they apply to your case.

3.      Insanity

Murder can arise from a mental health issue that prevents the offender from recognizing the nature and effect of the crime; neither could you differentiate right from wrong. Insanity relieves you from criminal liability, as you cannot form the intent to commit the crime.

Usually, if you intend to use insanity as a defense, you will take a “not guilty” plea because of insanity at your arraignment. Your lawyer will then build the defense case to support the insanity. The defense is based on the McNaughton test, which is used to determine whether temporal or permanent mental condition prevented the defendant from understanding that his or her actions were morally wrong.

The insanity defense does not apply to drug addictions or the use of drugs prior to committing the offense. In such cases, you can only use the voluntary or involuntary intoxication as a defense.

When you choose to use the insanity defense, you bear the burden of proving to the court that you suffer from a temporary or permanent mental condition. The court requires you to prove the likelihood that you were insane at the time of committing the crime.

Depending on how you enter a plea, you may have to go through a sanity hearing. In this hearing, your lawyer will present expert witnesses usually psychiatrists to comment on your mental state at the time of the crime. The prosecution may also present witnesses to counter the defense.

If you are successful, you will be put in a state mental hospital for rehabilitation and protection of the society. You will stay at the mental facility until the doctors confirm that you are cured, do not pose a threat to the society or would benefit from an outpatient treatment facility.

4.      Coerced Confessions

Homicide cases often put pressure on the criminal justice system, including the police as they try to place the responsibility on someone. You may be the victim of a forced or coerced confession from law enforcement or another individual.

If a law enforcement official uses:

  • Threats against you or your family
  • Threats for strict punishment
  • The promise of a lenient punishment in exchange for a confession, then he or she has violated your Miranda rights.
  • The interrogating officer continues questioning you even after you assert your Miranda rights
  • Depriving you of basic needs such as food and water

Coercion tactics used by law enforcement may lead to the admission of guilt even by an innocent person. In such cases, your lawyer will introduce a motion to suppress the evidence. To identify a forced confession, your lawyer will examine the tactics used by detectives or law enforcement. 

Since the prosecution’s case is probably built around the confession, suppressing the evidence weakens their case and increases the chances of a lesser charge or dismissal of the charges.

5.      Illegal Search and Seizure

Evidence obtained from an illegal search or seizure and links you to a crime, cannot be used in court to prosecute you as it violates your constitutional rights. Your lawyer will introduce a motion to suppress any evidence obtained through an illegal search and seizure to prevent it from being used against you.

6.      Accident

The prosecution has to prove that you killed a person with malice aforethought. However, if the death of someone resulted from an accident, and you did not intend to kill the victim, you can use accidental killing as a defense.

7.      Manslaughter

Manslaughter is a plea defense used to reduce the charges to either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. You can also use this defense if the circumstances of the crime do not amount to murder.

You can use this as a defense if:

  • The killing occurred without the use of a deadly weapon
  • The manner of killing was neither cruel nor unusual
  • You did not commit the act with an intent to kill or with disregard for human life

Having your charges reduced to manslaughter means, you will face a shorter incarceration time and may be released early on parole.

8.      False Accusations

It is not uncommon to be arrested for murder based on a false accusation or wrongful arrest. False accusations may arise out of anger, jealousy, revenge, or malice. You can dispute false allegation by showing that you were at a different place than the murder victim by providing an alibi.

In addition, your lawyer can cross-examine the person or individuals who reported you as the murderer. If successful, your lawyer may get a retraction of the false accusation and dismissal of your charges.

9.      Insufficient Evidence

The prosecution should present sufficient evidence to prove every element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the evidence does not fulfill this standard, then it is insufficient to convict you. Depending on the evidence the prosecution has, your charges may be reduced to lesser forms of homicide such as voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

10.  Tainted Forensic Evidence

Forensic evidence is one of the most reliable tests used in determining the murderer. It may include reconstruction of the crime scene, DNA testing of samples at the crime scene, and physical evidence at the crime scene.

While these activities may create a sense of what might have happened, they may be inaccurate. In other cases, forensic fraud may happen where individuals tamper with the evidence or fail to follow the right procedures when handling or examining it. Such errors can result in the wrongful arrest of another person.

If you believe the forensic evidence was flawed, your lawyer can challenge the evidence by calling upon the forensic experts and retesting some of the samples.

11.  Police Misconduct

Police misconduct could result in a murder charge. Some of the actions police engage in include:

  • Planting evidence
  • False testimony or reports
  • Excessive use of force

If your lawyer can identify elements of police misconduct, he or she may successfully challenge the case against you. The evidence obtained from police misconduct may not be used against you in court, leading to the dismissal or reduction of the charges against you.

Effect of a Murder Charge Reduction

A murder charge can result in a life sentencing, and in some cases, without the chance for parole. Lifetime incarceration interrupts your life and prevents you from leading a life you wanted. It separates you from your family and taints your reputation in your community. Many murder defense lawyers try to reduce murder charges to manslaughter charges.

Manslaughter is a less serious offense with less stigma than murder. It involves the unlawful killing of another person without malice aforethought. The two types of manslaughter recognized in California include:

1.      Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when the perpetrator is strongly provoked and kills the victim in response to the provocation. Voluntary manslaughter is common in crimes of passion or those resulting from extreme anger triggered in the perpetrator triggered by the actions of the victim.

2.      Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of another person resulting from a negligent act. The distinguishing element that results in a conviction for involuntary manslaughter is acting with a conscious disregard for human life.

When your lawyer manages to have your charges reduced to either form of manslaughter, you face significantly lower penalties. For voluntary manslaughter, you will be incarcerated for between three to eleven years in state prison or two, three, or four years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter. You can also secure an early release from prison through parole.

Murder in California is considered a serious felony, meaning that it is not eligible for a plea bargain. Therefore, any charge reduction usually happens during the defense process when the defense attorney challenges the prosecution’s case.

For example, if the defense can show that the defendant lacked the required intent to kill the victim, the defendant will be charged with manslaughter.

However, the exception is plea bargaining before the defendant is arraigned. This means that you or your loved one should contact an attorney as soon as you are arrested for murder. Early communication with an attorney could save you the stigma and challenge of going through a murder trial.

Find a Orange County Criminal Attorney Near Me

If you are facing charges for murder, you need to hire an attorney to represent you. Murder charges have serious consequences and can result in lifetime incarceration. Many factors go into murder charges, and the stigma surrounding the offense does not help. Most people tend to feel hopeless if they are facing a murder charge, even when the evidence seems overwhelmingly against them. At the Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we bring you and your loved one’s peace of mind, by listening to your version of the offense and developing the defense from that point. We also examine the prosecution’s witnesses; identify alibis and instances of misconduct by police or forensic analysts. Our goal is to ensure that you get the best possible outcome. Call us at 714-740-7848 for a free consultation.