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California First Degree Murder Laws

The unlawful killing of a human being -- homicide -- may be charged as murder or manslaughter. Murder requires a showing of "malice aforethought," which refers to the defendant's intent or state of mind. To prove a murder, the prosecutor must show that the defendant had express or implied malice. Express malice means that the defendant deliberately intended to commit murder. Alternatively, a prosecutor may show implied malice in the defendant's conduct that reflects an "abandoned and malignant heart." Implied malice may arise if the defendant acted without care for another person's safety or behaved with extreme recklessness.

First vs. Second Degree Murder

California recognizes two types of murder: first degree murder and second degree murder. First degree murder is reserved for especially heinous crimes involving premeditation, deliberation or deliberate planning, and intent to kill. State laws list the special circumstances that a prosecutor must use to charge a defendant with first degree murder. If none of the special circumstances apply, the prosecutor may pursue a charge of second degree murder.

Under California's first degree murder law, the prosecutor must show a premeditated, deliberate killing involving one of the special circumstances listed by the state laws of California. The means of killing that qualify a homicide as first degree murder include weapons of mass destruction, bombs or explosive devices, armor-piercing ammunition, poison, and firearms shot from a motor vehicle. State law also requires a charge of first degree murder when the killing occurred after the defendant's lying in wait or torture of the victim. First degree murder also includes killings committed while carrying out or attempting another felony such as burglary, robbery, rape, kidnapping, and other specified crimes.

If the victim survives three years and one day after the date when the cause of death allegedly occurred, California state laws include a presumption that the killing was not a criminal act of murder or manslaughter. The prosecutor must rebut the presumption in order to pursue a first degree murder charge.

California First Degree Murder Overview

The following chart includes information about the defenses and penalties associated with California first degree murder charges:

Statute California Penal Code Sections 187-199

See First Degree Murder Defenses for more details.

Penalties and Sentences

In California, a conviction for first degree murder can result in one of three sentences:

  • Imprisonment in state prison for a term of 25 years to life;
  • Life imprisonment in state prison without the possibility of parole; or
  • Death (though it should be noted that capital punishment is currently suspended.)

State laws require a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or death for homicides involving special circumstances set by the California Penal Code. For example, the court must consider whether the defendant:

  • committed first degree murder while engaging in a felony or
  • avoiding a lawful arrest,
  • using a bomb or explosive device, or
  • intending to kill another person for financial gain.

The court must also confer a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or death if the defendant:

  • committed first degree murder of a peace officer,
  • federal law enforcement officer,
  • firefighter,
  • prosecutor, or
  • judge.

State laws also allow for the most stringent forms of punishment when the murder was "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity." This generally refers to murders involving torture.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

Related Resources:

Charged With Murder? Get Help From a Defense Attorney Today

There are few criminal charges more serious than first degree murder, which can result in life imprisonment. Competent legal advice isn't a luxury, it is a necessity, and can make all the difference in the outcome of your case. Contact a California criminal defense attorney today, who can protect your rights and begin planning your defense right away.

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