Murder is a serious crime that usually attracts harsh penalties and prison time. The California Criminal Lawyer Group has a wealth of experience defending clients accused of murder. We have prepared this article to educate you on what California's legal guidelines say about this crime, the penalties, and assessments therein, as well as how we can defend you.
What is Considered Murder Under California Law?
According to the California Penal Code 187, murder is unlawfully taking another person's life or a fetus with malicious intent. The killer must have done something that would most likely result in death, which proves they disregard human life. Murder can either be charged in the first
Murder in the First Degree
A prosecutor can charge you with first-degree murder under these circumstances:
- You used a destructive device, firearm, poison, bombs, a weapon of mass destruction (e.g., a machine gun). Lying in wait or torturing someone to death also qualifies.
- The murder was deliberate and pre-planned, for instance, walking up to someone's door and shooting them on the head.
- The killing of another while committing a felony, e.g., murder while committing robbery with violence. Such a crime falls under California’s felony murder rule.
Penalties for First Degree Murder in California
Defendants facing these charges will likely serve a sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. Exceptional circumstances could lead to life imprisonment without parole. For example, if you avoided arrest and law enforcement had to launch a search, or if you detonated a bomb.
Killing someone for financial gain or the homicide happened in the course of a felony crime also attracts life imprisonment without parole, for instance, being paid to execute a business partner so that the surviving investor can inherit the business.
Capital punishment is yet another penalty inflicted on people convicted of first-degree murder. As justified as this penalty is, there are social and economic costs of going through with this punishment. There are also cases where an innocent person is wrongly accused, and they end up on death row.
Moratorium on Capital Punishment
As of March 2019, California’s Governor suspended execution of the death penalty pending further notice, but courts can still issue it as deemed fit. Thirty states – including California – allow the death penalty and they are considering life without parole (LWOP) as the alternative. This moratorium on capital punishment means 737 inmates who were due for execution may escape the chair altogether. These inmates will still be under the death sentence but not in any imminent danger of death.
This bold suspension also halted the use of lethal injection to execute capital punishment, and it closed the execution chamber at San Quentin prison. Governor Newsom hopes California will inspire many other states to eliminate the death penalty. In 2018, Washington became the 209th state to abolish capital punishment, deeming it as unconstitutional. Over time, the US will join the ranks of other nations who have found better ways of handling murderers.
Public support for the death penalty has waned over the years due to racial disparities, not to mention the fundamental question of whether society can take a life. Governor Newsom has been an opponent of this method of dealing with wrongdoers in the community. He says the state is better than adhering to “an eye for an eye” tactics. Also, there is always the prospect of prosecuting an innocent human being which complicates the matter further.
What is “Felon with a Firearm” Law?
California's "felon with a firearm" guideline as stipulated under Penal Code 29800 states that felons who use guns to murder will lose the right to bear arms. This law also covers drug addicts, convicted felons, and people convicted of specific demeanors. Anyone in this category cannot own, buy, hold, or be found in possession of a gun for at least ten years. In extreme cases, the offender may lose this constitutional right forever. Juvenile offenders will not own or possess a firearm until they turn thirty.
If the victim manages to live for another three years plus a day since the heinous crime happened, the state assumes the resulting death was not a criminal act. The prosecutor must refute this assumption for them to charge the defendant with murder in the first-degree.
What are the Possible Defenses for Murder?
Murder is a serious charge in California, and defending a client requires strategic thinking on our part so we can challenge the prosecutor's accusations. If you are charged with murder in the first degree, there is a good chance of you serving life imprisonment without parole. This harsh sentencing would alter your life and that of your loved ones forever, and the family would never be the same again.
California Criminal Lawyer Group has excellent experience defending tons of clients facing murder charges. We have succeeded in getting the charges dropped or lessened, so you don't serve elongated sentences. As your defense attorneys, we shall explore every plausible line of defense to explain your actions and appease the jury so they can drop the charges. Getting a more lenient sentence is another welcome possibility. Here are some of the ways we can defend you in court:
Self-defense is the most common justification for taking a life. If anyone is attacked in a dark alley or inside their home, they have a right to defend themselves. You can do this by fighting back – like throwing punches, discharging a firearm, hitting them with an object, etc. If the alleged assailant dies or suffers significant harm that results in death, we can apply the self-defense strategy.
Self-defense also applies when you are protecting another person. For instance, someone can break into your home at night and try to steal your child. If you managed to overcome them, hitting them with a blunt object and they die before paramedics arrive, this is self-defense too.
Law enforcement is notorious for pressuring suspects to agree to charges before they even speak to their attorney. They will threaten the death penalty or profess to give the best deal to the person who speaks the truth. While salvaging your life is a logical instinct, do not accept any charges until you talk to an attorney.
Beware of public defenders as they are usually overworked and don't have enough time to prepare for cases. They will more than likely advise you to take a plea deal, so the charge goes away fast. Do not fall into the trap; many suspects are stuck in the criminal justice system by being misled by defenders. These public defenders are overworked and don't always act in the best interests of their clients.
The victim's family could also be pressuring you to take responsibility for something that was not your fault. If the police or detectives coerced you, we would check to determine if the interrogative methods used were lawful or not. It is our job to have ill-gotten testimony dismissed and, therefore, not usable in court to bolster your chances of a fair trial.
Law enforcement usually relies on eyewitnesses to describe a suspect who fled the scene. An innocent person could be mistaken for the would-be assailant if they have similar physical traits. Eyewitness testimony may be unreliable due to many reasons starting with the time of day. If the crime occurred after dusk, nobody could likely see things clearly and much less from a far distance
The witness could also be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or they are biased. Racial bias is an ongoing threat where minorities are more likely to be perceived as criminals than their white counterparts. As you defense attorneys, we will question eyewitness account of the incidence and identify ways of challenging their testimony.
In many cases, defendants are apprehended for taking someone's life with indifference. For instance, two patrons start fighting at the local tavern, and they are thrown out by the manager. Such incidences are so pervasive that patrons don't usually give them a second thought. The drunk patrons continue fighting outside, and one person is hit on the head and starts bleeding profusely. If this person dies hours later, this death may be ruled accidental.
In such a scenario, your defense attorneys will argue that the deceased instigated the fight and continued pummeling into you while you attempted to walk away. You fought back because you were inebriated and then walked home without causing a raucous. Therefore, no crime was underway, and you are a law-abiding citizen in a less than ideal situation.
The next line of defense we can explore is challenging your mental capacity at the time of the murder. The insanity defense traces back to 1581 England when they declared that if a lunatic kills another person, they cannot be held accountable for their heinous actions. All states but these four (Montana, Kansas, Idaho, and Utah) allow the insanity defense
Are you of sound mind? Do you currently have any mental disorders that would undermine your thinking process? If we can prove to the court that you were mentally impaired and therefore, unable to distinguish between right and wrong, you can get a lesser sentence.
The court will have to apply measures to ascertain that what you are claiming is true. The "Model Penal Code" Test for Legal Insanity purports that an existing mental defect led you to commit the act. What's more, the mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia, bipolar disorder) prevented you from grasping the criminal nature of these acts. The irresistible impulse test contends that your mental defect made it impossible to resist the impulsive urges that triggered criminality.
Illegal Search and Seizure
Gaining entry into someone's vehicle or place of residence without a justifiable cause is wrong. The police would require a warrant signed by a judge before raiding your home or place of business. Failure to adhere to due process would be a gross infringement on your Fourth Amendment right, which protects all citizens from unlawful search and seizure.
Your defense attorney will file a motion to suppress this evidence, as per Penal Code 1538.5 and if this goes through, the prosecutor will have no case. The only recourse is to drop these frivolous charges and set you free.
California Penal Code 190.2 PC defines capital murder as first-degree murder with exceptional circumstances, and the penalties are higher. The "special circumstances" include the following:
- Taking life for financial gain such as when a business partner kills the other
- Murdering key witnesses, so they don't give testimony in court
- A murder involving street gangs as covered under Penal Code 186.22 PC
- Killing more than one person, e.g., shooting up a movie theater
- Hateful killing due to religion, race, nationality, sexuality, or ethnic group
- Homicide that happens during or right after crimes classified under "murder in the first-degree murder rule." and
- Killing one or more people during drive-by shootings.
Penalties for Capital Murder
California law, capital murder attracts the death penalty by lethal injection or administering a deadly amount of gas. As mentioned previously, California Governor Gavin Newsom put a halt on executions pending further notice. Nevertheless, courts in this jurisdiction will still issue the death penalty.
The other alternative penalty for capital murder is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Murder in the Second Degree
The state provides a comprehensive list of exceptional circumstances that qualify a homicide as a first degree. Murder charges that don't meet the above criteria are usually classified as murder in the second degree. The California Penal Code 187 stipulates that second-degree murder is willful but not pre-planned, and if convicted, you will serve 15 years in state prison.
A great example of second-degree murder is a drunken driver who claims an innocent life. In this scenario, the driver could have one or more DUI charges and still get behind the wheel (which makes their actions willful). This person did not set out to run over someone crossing an intersection or crash into another vehicle, so the murder wasn't premeditated.
The prosecutor has the burden of proof to assure the court that you had express malice when committing the manslaughter or homicide. This scenario means you had deliberate intent to commit the murder. Alternatively, the prosecutor can prove that you had implied malice, which points to an "abandoned heart" where they acted recklessly.
The felony murder rule brings murder charges to persons who kill in the commission of felony crimes. It applies to first-degree and second-degree murder charges. If anyone dies as a direct relation to the said felony, the felony murder rule applies. If an older person suffers a heart attack during a grocery store robbery, then dies the next day, this crime still counts as felony murder.
Another example of this can happen when a perpetrator – Jack – enters a diner to rob the cash register. He may fire a warning shot to scare the attendant, and this causes another person to slip and fall in the kitchen. If this employee dies as a result of this slip and fall, this death will be tried as felony murder even if Jack was oblivious of this.
Such unforeseeable deaths that rise above a mere coincidence between the felony, time, and place will be charged under felony murder. In September 2018, Senate Bill 1437 revised this felony murder rule. According to the new bill, someone is liable for felony murder if:
- They are responsible for the killing,
- They assisted the murderer by hiring them, giving orders, or assisted during the crime,
- Participated in the felony (such as robbing a dinner) and they were indifferent to human life, or
- The victim was a member of law enforcement on active duty.
These amendments mean that accomplices to felonious crimes that lead to death during the act or immediately after are liable for felony murder. If you merely drove the car, we can argue that you were unaware that firearms would be involved. Therefore, there was no real danger to the customers and employees of the diner.
SB 1437 is a retroactive law, and therefore, defendants who were convicted under the previous felony murder guidelines are invited to file a petition. You can only petition under this new law if:
- You were convicted of murder the first or second degree,
- You were convicted of felony murder under a natural and credible consequences theory, or
- You would have been saved from a conviction if tried under SB 1437.
You will be required to appear at a resentencing hearing, and if things go well, the court may reduce the original sentence. Our lawyers at California Criminal Lawyer Group keep abreast of the latest changes in the penal code system so we can advise clients accordingly.
Examples of First-Degree Felony Murder Crimes
The California penal code system has a variety of criminal activity that falls under felonies, as listed below:
- Penal Code 207 PC, Kidnapping,
- Penal Code 451 PC, Arson,
- Penal Code 459 PC, Burglary,
- Penal Code 215 PC, Carjacking,
- Penal Code 203 PC, Mayhem,
- Penal Code 211 PC, Robbery, and
- Penal Code 206 PC, Torture.
Various unlawful sex-related acts qualify as felonies: rape, sodomy, forced penetration, and vulgar acts with a minor. The latter is covered under Penal Code 288, and it covers any sexual activity on a minor below 14 years for sexual gratification. These lascivious acts include touching their private parts or asking the child to move themselves sexually.
Molesting or touching a child over their clothing also comprises of a lewd act, and, therefore, punishable by law. PC 288 also covers children under 16 years, dependent people, and people who are physically or mentally handicapped. The penalties for contravening PC 288 vary as per the specific circumstances such as the age of the minor, pattern of abuse, use of force, etc.
What to Do When Arrested for Murder?
We have seen many cases where evidence was gathered through illegal search and seizure, and this infringes on the defendant's constitutional rights. If you apprehended for any murder charge, refrain from speaking to law enforcement until your attorney gets there.
Remember, the criminal justice system is congested, and the police may be quick to close the case swiftly. The officers may offer you a deal in exchange for your testimony, but things don't always go well. Contact our qualified lawyers immediately and do not sign any document.
Apart from mounting the best defense for your case, we work with DNA experts and forensic analysts to look into every aspect of your case. If you are being framed, we shall unearth this information and prove to the court that you are innocent.
Extra Penalties for Murder Charges
Murder in the first or second degree, capital murder, involuntary manslaughter, and other crimes involving death attract additional penalties. The prosecutor will impose extra punishment as follows:
- Adding a strike as per California's "Three Strikes Law,"
- Paying restitution to the victim’s families,
- A monetary fine of $10,000,
- Additional 10, 15, or 25 years in prison if the assailant used a gun, or
- Losing the right to own or carry a firearm.
Finding a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
Murder charges are a serious charge that can send you to prison for decades or even earn you the death penalty. California Criminal Lawyer Group is adept at handling many cases where clients have been accused of committing murder and reached agreeable outcomes. The best possible scenario is having the charges dropped so you can resume normalcy.
We also work tirelessly to get a reduced sentence, so you don't have to serve elongated sentences in state prison. Our legal practice prides itself on being knowledgeable in all legal matters, trial proceedings for murder cases, and how gun laws affect your case. If you are in dire need of the best legal counsel, contact us at 408-622-0204 so our legal minds can start assisting you.