In general terms, murder means taking the life of another person. However, the specific crime with which a defendant can be charged varies significantly because under California law there are a number of degrees of murder ranging from attempted murder to first degree murder. California law actually has three broad categories of murder, each with multiple sub-categories.
Murder in the first degree involves the premeditated killing of another person. Under certain circumstances, the prosecution may seek the death penalty for a first-degree murder. You can be convicted of first-degree murder if:
You committed a murder:
using a destructive weapon or explosive, a weapon of mass destruction, ammunition primarily designed to penetrate metal or armor, or poison; or by lying in wait for someone or inflicting torture by a killing that was willful, deliberate, and premeditated; or if someone dies while you are committing certain felonies (described under the Felony Murder Rule).
A capital murder is one in which the prosecution may seek either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole and can be charged whenever there is a murder with special circumstances such as:
- a murder involving more than one victim
- murdering someone for financial gain
- murdering a police officer, firefighter, prosecutor, judge, juror, or elected official
- murdering a person because of their race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin
- murdering someone while discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle
- murdering someone for the benefit of a gang
- murdering a witness to prevent them from testifying
- certain felony murder situation
Generally, a second-degree murder is a murder in which the killing was willful but not deliberate and premeditated. This could include actions such as shooting a gun into a crown or driving while under the influence and causing a death.
Felony Murder Rule
Under California law the felony murder rule can apply to both first and second degree murders. Essentially, the crime sets up liability for deaths which happen during the commission of a dangerous felony. The murder need not be intentional, even a negligent or unforeseeable death may qualify.
The first-degree felony murder rule only attaches to specific underlying felonies which are:
- Train Wrecking
- Sex Crimes such as rape, forced oral copulation, forced penetration, and lewd acts with a minor
The second-degree felony murder rule can attach to any underlying felony which is both inherently dangerous and not specifically listed under the first-degree rules (see above).
The general elements of any murder are:
- Committing an act that results in the death of another person or a fetus
- Committing that act with malice aforethought, and
- That the killing was without lawful excuse or justification.
Getting Legal Advice
As you can see from the above material, a murder charge under California law can involve a lot of complex factors and the penalties differ substantially. If you have been charged with any type of murder you are strongly advised to seek legal counsel immediately to protect your rights.