California Murder Laws

california murder lawsMurder laws can be unique for each state and California is no different.  This blogpost will provide an overview of California murder laws.

California Penal Code 187 defines murder as the unlawful killing of a human being or fetus with malice aforethought.  Malice aforethought means a wanton disregard for human life that involves a high degree of probability that the act will cause death.

Like many states, California classifies murder into different “degrees”.  First degree murder in California is for the most serious murder crimes.  These include premeditation and deliberate planning or intent to kill. If a prosecutor finds a crime with special circumstances, like planning, a prosecutor can charge a person with first degree murder.

To charge for first degree murder, the prosecutor has to show the crime was premeditated and deliberate.  They also must present the special circumstances which can include murder with a weapons of mass destruction, explosive devices, poison, or shooting a firearm from a motor vehicle.  California prosecutors can also charge a person with first degree murder if a person was lying in wait or to torture a victim.

Punishment for first degree murder includes prison for 25 years to life.  It could also include life imprisonment without the ability of parole.  California still allows death as a punishment however the death penalty is currently suspended in California.

Any murder that cannot fall into first degree will be charged as a second degree murder.  Second degree murder typically imposes 15 years to life in prison. Second degree murder is willful but not deliberate and premeditated. An example of second degree murder could include shooting a gun into a crowded room and killing someone, even if that wasn’t the intention.

California also uses the felony murder rule.  The felony murder rule can be applied to both first and second degree murder.  A person can be convicted of felony murder if a person kills another person, without the intent to kill, while committing an underlying felony.

An example of the felony murder rule:

George decides to rob a gas station.  He enters the gas station and points a gun at the cashier, demanding money.  The cashier hesitates out of fright to George’s demands and George fires a shot to the side to scare the cashier.  Unbeknownst to George, the bullet hits a patron hiding behind a shelf and kills the patron. George did not intend to kill the patron, he only wanted to scare the cashier.  However, under California’s felony murder rule, George would be liable for murder.  He was committing the underlying felony of armed robbery when the victim died.

On September 30, 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 1437.  The law states that a person only faces felony murder liability if he or she

  • Was the actual killer,
  • With the intent to kill, aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested, or assisted the actual killer, or
  • Was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.

If the victim was a peace officer acting in the course of duty, and the defendant knew or should have known this, the older version of felony murder applies.  People in California who have been convicted of felony murder under the old rule can file a petition for resentencing based on the new standards.

California specifically lists specific first degree crimes can be included as an underlying felony for felony murder.  A second degree murder under the felony murder rule attaches to felonies that are inherently dangerous and not specifically included under the first degree murder rule.

Click here for information on California sex crime laws.