If you have been accused of taking a life, you will face some of the most severe penalties the state of California can levy. A conviction is punishable by hefty fines, lengthy sentences, and sometimes the death penalty. A high-profile case can impact your reputation, career, and family. The law treats different circumstances differently, and you should start building your case defense immediately. Monterey Criminal Attorney understands a lot is at stake and can independently and thoroughly investigate the matter by collecting and analyzing evidence, engaging experts, interviewing witnesses, and reviewing police procedures.

Understanding the Different Types of Murder Charges in California

According to California Penal Code 187(a), murder is causing death to a fetus or person with malice.

The prosecution should prove three elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt before convicting you. They include the following:

  • You caused the death of another individual (or fetus)
  • You had malice aforethought
  • You killed with no justifiable excuse

Before discussing the various types of murder, here are some terms that need further explanation.

Illegal Killing

Homicide is defined as killing another individual, whether legal or illegal. A homicide consists of:

  1. Manslaughter
  2. Murder
  3. Justifiable killing

Murder is considered the most severe form of homicide and is always illegal. The main difference between murder and manslaughter is that the former should have an element of malice.

Malice Afterthought

Malice is the desire to harm someone or ill will towards another. Second and first-degree murder must have an element of malice. Malice can be implied or express.

Express malice involves purposing to murder the victim. On the other hand, implied malice occurs when:

  1. The defendant knew of potential harm to life, and they behaved with deliberate disregard for life.
  2. The killing stemmed from a deliberate act.
  3. The natural repercussions of criminal conduct are harmful to life.

     a) California First-Degree Murder

Five (5) ways lead to a conviction for this charge, including the following:

  • Inflicting torture under Penal Code 206
  • Utilizing a destructive explosive or device, metal or armor penetrating ammunition, poison, or a firearm that can cause mass destruction
  • A deliberate, willful, and planned killing
  • By lying in wait
  • Felony-murder or killing a person while engaging in certain felonies

Instances of this type of murder include:

  • Lying in wait for a person and then taking their life
  • Visiting a person at their home with the motive to kill them
  • Utilizing pipe bombs to kill

     b) Capital Murder

California’s capital murder is a form of first-degree murder. It is punishable by:

  • Death penalty (capital punishment)
  • Life imprisonment without parole

It applies to different situations listed in California Penal Code 190.2. These special scenarios make premeditated murder capital murder. They include the following:

  • Killing at least one person
  • Killing a case witness to prevent them from testifying
  • Killing with financial gain motive
  • Killing a firefighter, law enforcement agent, judge, juror, elected official, or prosecutor
  • Drive-by shooting
  • Taking a victim’s life due to their color, race, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation
  • Gang killing

     c) California Second-Degree Murder Law

California Penal Code 187 PC describes second-degree murder as a murder charge that is not considered first-degree murder. While this type of murder is willful, it is unintentional.

Perfect instances include the following:

  • When an individual with prior drunk driving offenses causes a fatal traffic crash that kills a person
  • Firing a gun and killing a person when you never intended to kill
  • Punching a small-statured and drunk individual and causing them a fall and fatal head injuries.

     d) California’s Felony Murder

Felony murder occurs when a defendant kills another while violating a severe felony. The California murder felony rule involves second and first-degree murder crimes.

Recently, changes have been made to the previous law that considered accidental killings murder when they happened when committing a California felony. The previous law also deemed accomplices subject to felony murder. It applied even when the accomplice did not plan to kill.

California’s governor amended the old law. Under California’s SB 1437, you can only be prosecuted for a felony murder charge if:

  • You were a main participant in your underlying California felony, and you recklessly engaged in conduct that created a grave risk of death to another person
  • You had the motive to take another’s life and abetted, aided, induced, commanded, counseled, requested, solicited, or helped the killer.
  • The alleged victim was a police officer on duty, and you were aware of that or ought to have been aware of that.
  • You were the killer.

It is worth noting that accidental and negligent deaths that happen while committing felonies are not felony murders unless the alleged victim was a police officer on duty.

You have an avenue for legal redress if convicted, per the previous California murder rule. You can bring a resentencing petition based on Senate Bill 1437.

First-Degree Felony Murder

This rule alludes to committing the following:

  • Robbery
  • Kidnapping
  • Arson
  • Train wrecking
  • Carjacking
  • Mayhem
  • Burglary
  • Torture
  • Certain sex offenses, including sodomy, rape, forcible penetration, oral copulation, and lewd sexual conduct with an underage minor

Second-Degree Felony Murder

California’s second-degree felony murder rule applies to felony charges that are:

  • Naturally hazardous
  • The law does not outline them in the first-degree felony murder rule.

These California felonies always result in a considerable fatal risk to human life. Since the law does not define inherently fatal felonies, courts use the second-degree felony murder rule based on the facts of the case.

Murder Conviction Punishment, Penalties, and Sentencing

The penalties for a murder conviction vary based on whether the prosecutor charged you with first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or capital murder.

First-Degree Murder

Under Penal Code Section 187 PC, this murder degree attracts twenty-five years or life imprisonment.

If the court perceives the conduct as a hate crime, the punishment would be life without parole. PC 422.55 defines hate crime murder as conduct committed due to the following alleged victim’s characteristics:

  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Nationality
  • Race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender
  • Association with an individual with any of these characteristics

Capital Murder

It is the most severe homicide criminal charge. It is punishable by the following;

  • The death penalty (achieved by injecting lethal substances intravenous or lethal gas dosages)
  • Life imprisonment without parole

Second-Degree Murder

A conviction is punishable by fifteen years or life imprisonment.

Nonetheless, some aggravating circumstances can increase your sentence. These factors include the following:

  • The accused person with a previous murder conviction will serve a life sentence without parole.
  • The defendant who fired shots from a car to cause severe injury will serve a minimum of twenty years in prison or life imprisonment.
  • If the victim was a police officer, you would spend twenty-five years or life in prison.
  • You will serve a life sentence if you take a law enforcement agent’s life and you:
  1. Killed them using a firearm or a lethal weapon
  2. Planned to kill
  3. Intended to cause the officer great physical harm

Additional Penalties

Moreover, murder law subjects accused individuals of the following:

  • Victim restitution
  • An additional ten to 25 years imprisonment if they used a gun while committing the murder
  • A strike based on the three strikes laws
  • Loss of firearm right (PC 29800)
  • A fine not exceeding $10, 000

Also, individuals sentenced for murder while committing or trying to commit the following sex crimes have a lifetime obligation to register as Tier 3 sex offenders:

  • Sodomy
  • Rape
  • Lewd conduct with a juvenile below 14
  • Forcible penetration using a strange object

Legal Strategies to Fight Your Murder Criminal Charges

There are several legal defenses to Penal Code 187(a) PC murder charges based on the case facts. Your attorney can collect and analyze circumstances surrounding the case to claim justifiable and excusable homicide to obtain favorable outcomes, like acquittal or dismissal. Some examples of legal defense include the following:

Acted in Self Defense or You Were Acting in Defense of Another

California self-defense law allows killing in specific circumstances. Killing is justifiable per homicide law, provided you reasonably believe you or another is in potential danger of:

  • Sustaining great physical injuries
  • Being killed
  • Being robbed, maimed, or potential victims of other atrocious and forcible crimes.

California follows an imperfect self-defense rule. The doctrine involves individuals killing founded on an authentic but irrational belief that they are in a pending threat.

Please note that this doctrine does not result in the dismissal of a murder charge, but the judge can lower the murder charge to involuntary manslaughter.

The Insanity Legal Defense

California permits you, the accused, to enter a not-guilty plea due to insanity. To use this defense, you should prove you killed another person because:

  • You were unable to differentiate between what is wrong and right
  • You failed to comprehend your act’s nature

Insanity excuses a murder charge and could get the charges entirely dismissed.

Accidental Killings

Another legal defense is accidental killing. It applies when you:

  • Did not act negligently
  • Had no criminal motive to cause harm
  • Was otherwise committing a legal activity when the killing happened

Unlawful Search and Seizure

While courts permit a search and seizure of the murder suspect's assets, the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposes certain limitations. Every person has legal protection from unlawful search and seizure.

When law enforcement agents cross the line, your defense attorney could request that the court exclude unlawfully obtained proof from your trial. Lawyers achieve this by filing California Penal Code 1538.5 (a motion that suppresses your evidence)

If the presiding judge grants your motion, the prosecution will not proceed, and they will dismiss the murder charge.

False and Forced Confessions

Law enforcement agents should comply with constitutional legal protections and never force a confession. Unlawful and compelled interrogation strategies include:

  • Threatening a suspect with the possibility of facing death penalty
  • Making threats against the accused or their loved ones
  • Providing lenient treatments in return for a coercive confession

The court could dismiss the evidence if the police forced the involuntary confession.

While law enforcement coercion is unlawful, it is common and has led to the conviction and prosecution of innocent individuals.

Mistaken Identity

Mistaken identity is a major cause of unjustified convictions. Several factors can affect an eyewitness's capability to identify the suspect, including the following:

  • Intoxication
  • Stress caused by the encounter
  • Elapsing of time
  • The accused is of another race
  • Fixation on a firearm
  • Improper suggestions by law enforcement agents

Prosecution bases many murder cases on controversial eyewitness identification. However, there are some measures defense attorneys can take:

  • Contesting the police processes in past lineups and photospreads and requesting the court to exclude the identification from admissible evidence
  • Requesting a live lineup to determine whether the eyewitness can differentiate and identify the accused.
  • Engaging witness identification experts during the trial (The professionals will describe how human memory functions to the judge/jury, helping them understand the typical mistakes).

The objective is to show that the eyewitness’s identification is untrustworthy and that there is reasonable doubt regarding the perpetrator’s identity.

Other Types of Homicide in California

There are other crimes closely associated with murder laws. Some are felonies that lead to the California felony murder rule, while others involve the illegal killing of somebody else.

Attempted Murder

Murder laws in California apply when you, the defendant:

  • Take many direct steps toward killing somebody else or a fetus
  • Intend to take that individual’s or fetus’ life

The punishment is life imprisonment without parole and heavy fines. It is also a strike.

The judge can order you to pay the victim's restitution.

Voluntary Manslaughter (PC 192(a))

The prosecution charges individuals with California Penal Code Section 192(a) for killing a person following a quarrel.

It is the same as first-degree murder. However, the variation is that the former does not entail malice, and the defendant kills spontaneously.

The punishment for voluntary manslaughter is three to 11 years of imprisonment.

Involuntary Manslaughter (Penal Code Section 192(b))

Involuntary manslaughter involves killing a person:

  • With deliberate disregard for life
  • Without a motive to kill
  • Without malice

Involuntary manslaughter is different from accidental killing. With PC 192(b), the accused, during the commission of the murder, engaged in:

  • An illegal act is not considered a felony
  • A legal act consists of a high level of possibility of serious bodily injuries or death, and the accused does not act with proper caution.

However, when the accused accidentally kills someone else, they are not breaking any law or behaving recklessly when the killing happens.

PC 192(b) does not apply to conduct while operating a car. Vehicular manslaughter law covers those.

Involuntary manslaughter has a maximum punishment of four (4) years in California state prison.

Vehicular Manslaughter

California’s vehicular manslaughter is operating a car that leads to another person’s demise when the accused:

  • Operate in an illegal manner (not constituting a California felony) without or with gross negligence
  • Driving during a legal act commission that could result in demise in an illegal way
  • Knowingly causing a car accident for material gain (Prosecutors also charge it per car insurance fraud law).

This offense is a California wobbler. A wobbler is a crime that the prosecution can file as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the case facts. A felony attracts up to 10 years in California state prison, while a misdemeanor conviction carries a year in county jail.

     a) Killing While Driving Under The Influence

If the accused has a previous fatal DUI, the prosecution would likely file the crime as follows:

  1. Gross vehicular manslaughter while drunk
  2. Vehicular manslaughter
  3. Second-degree murder per DUI murder law

Watson Murder or DUI Murder

Killing a person while drunk is considered second-degree murder. Also known as DUI murder, it happens when:

  • You kill another individual due to your intoxication
  • You cause a collision while drunk
  • The case circumstances are mainly egregious.

Typically, the law bases the driving under the influence murder charge on implied malice under second-degree murder. The prosecution is not claiming the defendant planned to kill a person. Instead, the accused person is:

  • Intentionally engaged in the fatal conduct
  • Was aware of the threat
  • Acted with deliberate disregard for life

Generally, the district attorney (D.A.) prosecutes drunk driving if the accused has a previous DUI conviction.

When California courts convict a person of driving under the influence (DUI), judges generally read the Watson advisement. According to this legal statement:

  • It is hazardous to life to operate a car while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol
  • If the accused had fatal driving under the influence, the prosecution could file California murder charges.

Murder and Gang Enhancement Charges

Regarding a gang-related killing, the prosecution generally charges the following:

  • Murder
  • Gang enhancement

Gang enhancement is an accusation that the state must prove the defendant murdered for the gain of, at the discretion of, or in relation to a criminal gang.

Individuals convicted of murder and gang enhancement could face an additional fifteen years or life imprisonment.

The prosecution can violate gang enhancement by filing when the homicide involves a remote gang. It enhances the probability of sentencing and permits the prosecution to submit highly inflammatory proof that could persuade otherwise indecisive juries to find them guilty.

Aiding a Suicide

Penal Code 401 defines aiding suicide as willful:

  • Advising or encouraging a person to take their life
  • Assisting someone to take their life

The difference between murder and abetting suicide can be unclear. PC 401 is offering an individual a way to take their life, while murder is killing a person at their plea.

Violation of PC 401 is a California felony with a punishment of three years in state prison.

The Alleged Victim’s Family Can Bring a Lawsuit

Families of manslaughter or murder victims can seek compensation through the following forms of lawsuits:

  • A survival action that compensates the deceased’s estate for losses incurred before death.
  • A wrongful death claim that compensates the survivors for the incurred losses

The deceased’s family does not require a homicide conviction to sue for compensation. Families can take legal action even when:

  • The accused is acquitted
  • The prosecutor never presses charges

Families of manslaughter or murder victims can recover the following damages:

  • Funeral expenses
  • Medical bills
  • Punitive damages
  • Loss of financial support and companionship

The family could pursue victim restitution if a defendant is found guilty of criminal charges.

Common Mistakes to Avoid While Facing Murder Charges

It is normal to be concerned about the likelihood of a murder conviction following your arrest. However, most people do not worry about their future. Although you are innocent until proven guilty, you should avoid making specific mistakes to increase your chances of obtaining a favorable case outcome.

Talking to Police Officers Without Your Criminal Defense Attorney

When the arresting police officers read you Miranda Warning and advise you of your right to remain silent, you should take it seriously. You are responsible for answering questions concerning your identification details, but you should not give them information about your alleged criminal charge.

The police are not your friends. They can use whatever you tell them against you in court. Therefore, exercising your entitlement is in your best interests.

Also, allow your defense attorney to handle all communications with the prosecution team. Police use several tricks to collect information, and without legal assistance, you can inadvertently offer incriminating statements.


While you have the right to represent yourself in court, you must be familiar with the California judicial process. To obtain the most favorable case outcomes, you need a criminal defense lawyer who has previously handled similar cases by your side.

Missing Your Court Hearings

You should not deliberately miss or forget your court date. If you are out on bail, the judge could forfeit your entire bail amount and issue your arrest warrant, which could hurt the case.

Overlooking the Importance of Expert Witnesses

Typically, murder cases involve complicated expert testimonies and forensic evidence. Expert witnesses can leverage their expertise to build your defense. Monterey Criminal Attorney has access to a network of professionals who can review proof, provide specialized insights, and offer testimony that might be instrumental in supporting your criminal case.

Avoiding Posting on Social Media

Posting about your criminal charges or discussing the details on social media can hurt your case. The prosecution team can use your post to build their case against you. Therefore, you should avoid sharing or discussing the case with anyone apart from your lawyer; the prosecutor can misconstrue even innocent posts.

Find a Skilled Violent Crime Defense Attorney Near Me

There are various types of criminal murder existing under California statutes, ranging from less severe to the most aggravating. All these criminal charges carry life-altering penalties and collateral consequences. If you have been accused of murder, you should hire an experienced defense attorney before your arrest. Monterey Criminal Attorney can bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to fight for your rights, freedom, future, and life. We can handle all your communication, be with you throughout your investigation, and collect and analyze your case defense evidence to build a strong defense. Please contact our legal team at 831-574-1791 to schedule your initial, no-obligation consultation.