If you have been charged with the death of another person, it is essential that you retain an experienced San Diego homicide attorney as quickly as possible.
The penalties for a California murder are harsh, up to and including the death penalty and you need an experienced attorney as soon as possible.
There are many “levels” of murder in the state of California, including:
- Capital Murder, or Murder with Special Circumstances—First degree murder charges which are punishable in the state of California by the death penalty or life in prison without parole are charged as capital murder.
The list of special circumstances which makes the difference between first-degree murder and capital murder are detailed under California Penal Code 190.2, and include the following:
- Murder with a motive of financial gain;
- Mass murders, or murders of more than one victim;
- The murder of a judge, elected official, prosecutor, juror, police officer or fire fighter;
- The murder of a witness who is set to testify against the defendant;
- The murder of a person based on country of origin, nationality, color, race or religion;
- The murder of a person to benefit a criminal street gang;
- The murder of a person in a “drive-by” shooting, or
- The murder of another person during the commission of any felony which:
- First Degree Murder—Charged under California Penal Code 187(a), first degree murder can be further split into three categories: 1) deliberate, premeditated killing of another human being, 2) lying in wait to inflict torture and kill or kill a person with a destructive device, explosive weapon, poison or ammunition, and 3) felony murder.
- Second Degree Murder—similar to first degree murder, however the element of premeditation is not necessary.
Essentially, all murders which fail to qualify as a first-degree murder will fall into the second-degree murder category and will be charged under California Penal Code 187(b).
A second-degree murder could be the result of a fight, or the heat of passion.
If a person commits a felony which is inherently a danger to human life, and a person dies during that crime, then the person committing the felony could also be charged with second-degree murder.
- Felony Murder—Felony murder charges cover those individuals (or their accomplices) who kill a person while committing a dangerous felony, whether it was intentional, an accident, or the result of negligence.
This means the death does not need to be foreseeable to fall under the umbrella of felony murder, however there must be a connection between the underlying felony crime and the time and place of the murder.
Felony murder can apply to first-degree (felony arson, burglary, kidnapping, robbery or rape) or second-degree murder (other inherently dangerous felonies).
- Voluntary Manslaughter—Under California Penal Code 192(a), voluntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another human being which occurs in the heat of the moment, and is not committed with malice.
Even if there was intent to kill the victim, the difference between voluntary manslaughter and murder is that there was not sufficient time to form “malice aforethought.”
This means there must not have been sufficient time between the time you were provoked and the time of the victim’s death to rise to the level of premeditated murder rather than voluntary manslaughter.
If the court finds there was sufficient provocation to have caused another reasonable person in the same circumstances to react in a similar fashion your attorney could have your charges reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter—a difference between eleven years in prison or life in prison.
- Involuntary Manslaughter—Under California Penal Code 192(b), involuntary manslaughter occurs when a person is unlawfully killed, however the person who killed the victim had no malice toward the victim, and the death was entirely unintentional.
In fact, you could have committed a lawful act which involved a high risk of death but you did so without the proper level of caution.
- Vehicular Manslaughter—When a driver drives in an unlawful manner which does not reach the level of a felony, drives during the commission of a lawful act which could result in death, or knowingly causes an auto accident for financial gain, he or she can be prosecuted under California vehicular manslaughter laws.
Vehicular manslaughter is a “wobbler” offense, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the crime and your prior criminal history.
- Watson Murder—If an intoxicated driver kills another person, and the circumstances are particularly egregious, he or she may be charged with a DUI or “Watson” murder.
This murder charge is generally reserved for situations in which the defendant has a prior conviction for DUI, and acknowledges how dangerous it is to others to drive while intoxicated.
- Attempted Murder—An unsuccessful attempt to kill another human being could result in attempted murder charges.
California Penalties for the Different Levels of Homicide
A conviction for capital murder is punishable by the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
For a conviction of first-degree murder, you could be sentenced to 25 years to life in a California state prison, although if your crime was considered a hate crime, you may face life without parole.
A conviction for second-degree murder can result in fifteen years to life in a California state prison, however if you have previously served a sentence for murder, you killed the victim in a “drive-by” shooting or the victim was a police officer, you will likely serve life in prison without parole.
In fact, any time a gun is used in the commission of a crime, you are likely to receive an enhanced sentence, adding 10, 20, 25 years or life to the sentence. Further penalties for the above murder convictions include:
- Under California’s Three Strikes Law, you will receive a strike on your record;
- You may have to pay victim restitution;
- You could pay up to $10,000 in fines;
- You will lose your right to own or possess a firearm, and
- You will face additional sentencing enhancements if the offense is gang-related.
If you are convicted of attempted murder, you could face a life sentence but with the possibility of parole as well as a “strike,” substantial fines and victim restitution.
If convicted of voluntary manslaughter, you could be sentenced to three, six or eleven years in a California state prison.
A conviction for involuntary manslaughter could result in a sentence of two, three or four years in a California state prison.
A conviction for felony vehicular manslaughter could result in a sentence of two-ten years in a California state prison while a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter conviction could result in up to one year in a San Diego county jail.
Potential Defenses for San Diego Homicide Crimes
Because every case of murder is different, with different facts, motivations and evidence, the defense your San Diego criminal defense attorney will employ on your behalf will be based on your specific circumstances.
There are, however, certain “standard” defenses to the crime of murder, which may be applicable in your situation. Some of these include:
- You were defending yourself of others (you believed you were in imminent danger of death or great bodily injury), therefore your conduct may be excused;
- You had no criminal intent and were not acting in a negligent manner, therefore the killing was accidental;
- You did not understand the nature of the act of killing another human being, or you were unable to distinguish between right and wrong (insanity defense);
- Your confession was coerced by the police, perhaps through the use of illegal or coercive interrogation methods, through threats, or from offers of lenient treatment in exchange for a confession;
- The evidence used to charge you with murder was obtained illegally, i.e., illegal search and seizure, or
- You were mistakenly identified (the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions).