Defining Murder Under California Law

According to California Penal Code 187, murder is defined as “the unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus with malice aforethought.” Although this definition may seem straightforward and simple to comprehend, there are some details that are important to note for further understanding of what actually constitutes the act of murder.

In order for a prosecutor to prove that a person is guilty of committing this act, there must be clear and cohesive evidence established in court of the following three elements:

  1. The alleged actor caused the death of another person or a fetus
  2. When the actor committed this act, he or she commissioned to do so with malice aforethought
  3. The actor committed the act of murder without a legal justification or excuse

Unlawful Killing

No other criminal charge carries heavier penalties than murder. California law classifies murder in a variety of ways, accompanied by differing severity in punishment, depending on the circumstances of the act. However, the penalty for any charge is quite serious and can include years in prison, a lifetime in prison without the possibility of parole, or even the death penalty.

First and foremost, we must discuss the distinction between murder and homicide. Although they are oftentimes used interchangeably, they have one key difference. Homicide is the killing of one person by another; there are circumstances when homicide can be legally justified. Murder, on the other hand, is maliciously intending to kill someone, which can not be justified in any way under California law.

As assumed, the law exempts the actions of licensed physicians and surgeons defined in the Business Professions Code in specific circumstances.

Malice Aforethought

When a person commits murder with malice aforethought, it doesn't necessarily mean that they feel a “hatred or ill will” towards another person. It is simply defined as a “mental state that must be formed before the act that causes death is committed.” When an individual disregards the value of human life by acting in a way that they know would most likely result in the death of another person or fetus, they are acting with malice aforethought. This state of mind can be established in court by proving either the expressed or implied proof of its existence.

First Degree Murder / Second Degree Murder

First-degree murder is one out of the two types of murder offenses acknowledged in California. In accordance to state murder law, there are several ways a defendant can be prosecuted of first-degree murder. However, before a conviction is obtained it must be proven that he or she did at least one of the following:

  • Committed a murder in a way is deliberate, willful and premeditated (this could involve bombs and other explosive devices, weapons of mass destruction, poison, and a firearm shot from a motor vehicle)
  • By committing a murder after the actor's lying in wait or torturing a pursuant (lying in wait means that the alleged actor waited for an opportunity to commit the crime)

Any murder committed that does not reflect neither of these circumstances is considered second-degree murder, which is a less serious offense than first-degree murder.

Capital Murder (CA PC §187)

Capital murder is referred in the California Penal Code as murder charges that are punishable by capital punishment (the death penalty) or a sentenced term of imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole. It is only authorized for commissions of first-degree murder that have been aggravated by specific circumstances in a case. Some specific circumstances that justify capital murder executed by the state are:

  • Murdering more than one pursuant
  • Murdering a law member of law enforcement, a firefighter, prosecutor, judge, juror, or an elected government official
  • Murdering for financial purposes
  • Discriminatory murder (hate crimes) based on race, sex, nationality, sexual orientation, religion and country of origin
  • Conducting a drive-by shooting that ends up killing somebody
  • Murdering someone for being the opposition of a street gang
  • Murdering a pursuant while commissioning, attempting to commission or after commissioning another felony

It's important to note that although capital murder is a legalized penalty in the state of California, actual executions authorized by the state are rare.

Statute of Limitations for Murder

There are no statute of limitations for Capital Murder.  There are cases where defendants are brought to trial many years after the fact.

Involuntary Manslaughter (CA PC §192(b))

A homicide can fall under the umbrella of either a manslaughter or a murder. Manslaughter refers to the unintentional killing of another person that occurs in the course of a crime that is not classified as a felony. Additionally, it is charged in situations when a person is killed as a result of the recklessness and carelessness of an actor that is partaking in activities that may not be considered illegal.

For example, let's say a woman and her husband get into a heated debate and she fires a warning shot in the air. But the bullet ricochets, strikes her husband and ultimately kills him. This woman would most likely be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Voluntary Manslaughter (CA PC §192(a))

Alternatively, voluntary manslaughter is committed when a person kills another upon a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. Under California law, these conditions are considered valid if it is proven that the accused actor was provoked, and as a result, their judgment was clouded. Therefore, in order for an act to be constituted as voluntary manslaughter, there must be no element of premeditation.

For example, let's say a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. Out of intense rage and anger, he grabs a gun kills both his wife and her suitor. (See case where Harris helped a husband in this situation) In accordance to California law, this man could potentially be charged with voluntary manslaughter.

Experienced California Murder Attorneys

If you or a loved one has been charged with either of the offenses described above, it's important you hire quality legal representation. Skilled attorney Harris B. Taback will aggressively and fervently advocate for you. Call his office at (415) 241-1400 or contact him online for a free consultation.