If a person dies as a result of someone else’s actions, the second person could be criminally charged under California law. Depending on the facts of the case, the authorities could prosecute the death as (among others):

  • First-degree murder,
  • Second-degree murder,
  • Capital murder,
  • Felony murder,
  • Attempted murder,
  • Voluntary manslaughter,
  • Involuntary manslaughter, or
  • Vehicular manslaughter.

If you or someone you know has been charged with any of the above crimes, it is important that you speak to a criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible. A conviction in any of these can be life altering, and in certain cases, can cost you your life.

In this article, we’ll break down the differences between criminal charges that can result from homicide, which is outlined in California Penal Code 187 PC.

What are first-degree murder charges in California?

We usually think of first-degree murder as the killing of one person by another that is willful, deliberate and premeditated. However, in California, it’s also possible to be charged with first-degree murder if a person:

  1. Uses an explosive device, armor-piercing ammunition, poison or weapon of mass destruction in the killing;
  2. Is implicated in torturing the person killed; or
  3. Was in the process of committing a specific felony (there is a list) when the death occurred. This is known as the “felony murder rule.”

Examples of first-degree murder

  1. After being fired at work, Tom drives across town later that afternoon and kills his boss.
  2. Mike buys “cop killer” teflon-coated bullets. While sitting in his car, he is approached by a stranger. He panics and kills the stranger with the armor-piercing round.

Penalties for first-degree murder

A conviction for first-degree murder in California carries a sentence of up to 25 years in state prison. If the murder is judged to be a hate crime — a crime based on the victim’s religion, race, gender, disability or sexual orientation — the defendant can face life in prison without parole. This means the person has to spend the rest of their life in prison, without the chance of release.

What are second-degree murder charges in California?

Second-degree murder is the killing of another person that is willful but not deliberate or premeditated. In other words, an intentional act that wasn’t planned ahead of time.

Like first-degree murder, second-degree murder has a “felony murder rule.” To be charged as second-degree murder, a death must occur during the commission that is either:

  1. “Inherently dangerous” felonies that cannot be committed without a substantial risk that someone will be killed; or
  2. Not specified in the list of first-degree felony murder charges.

Examples of second-degree murder

This can include:

  • Shooting a gun into a crowded room in the heat of the moment, killing a person.
  • “Sucker punching” a drunk person, who hits his head on the sidewalk and dies.

Penalties for second-degree murder

A conviction for second-degree murder carries a sentence of 15-years-to-life, with the potential for sentence modifications based on:

  • If the person accused of the crime has a prior criminal record.
  • If the killing was done by shooting a firearm out of a car (a “drive-by shooting”).
  • If the person killed was a law enforcement officer.

Capital murder charges in California

The death penalty is legal in California, and it can be applied for capital murder, otherwise known as “murder with special circumstances.” Capital murder applies to around 20 circumstances, including:

  • Murder for financial gain;
  • Murdering a witness to prevent them from testifying;
  • Murder of a public servant (police officer, firefighter, EMT, judge);
  • Murder in a hate crime; or
  • Murder to benefit a street gang.

A conviction for murder with special circumstances carries the potential for life in prison without parole as well as capital punishment. California carries out lethal injection executions at the prison in San Quentin but has done it rarely — only 13 times since the death penalty was reinstated by California voters in 1972.

Felony murder charges in California

The felony murder rule says that a death that occurs during the commission of a felony can result in murder charges for everyone involved in the crime — even if they weren’t directly responsible for the killing.

Felony murder can be categorized as either first degree or second degree felony murder.

To be charged with first degree felony murder, the killing must have taken place during the commission of one of the following crimes:

  • Arson
  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Rape
  • Mayhem
  • Kidnapping
  • Carjacking

Second degree felony murder is a killing that occurred while the person was committing an inherently dangerous felony or one not on the list for first degree felony murder. This can include drug crimes, certain assaults, and grand theft auto.

Examples of felony murder

This can include:

  • A bank employee is killed during a robbery.
  • A homicide that occurs during a drug deal gone bad.

Penalties for felony murder

A conviction for felony murder can result in a sentence of 15-years-to-life or 25-years-to-life, depending on whether the killing occurred during a first or second degree felony.

Attempted murder charges

Attempted murder is defined as an attempt to kill another person that, if successful, would be murder. It is important to note that an attempted murder charge can be filed even if no one was actually harmed during the crime.

Similar to other homicides, attempted murder can be categorized as either in the first or second degree under California law. First degree is defined as an attempt to murder another person using malice aforethought. This can include a murder that was carried out using a deadly weapon or that was done in a way that showed a wanton disregard for human life.

Second degree is an attempt to murder another person that doesn’t fit the definition of first degree attempted murder. This can include cases where the defendant didn’t actually intend to kill the victim but acted in a way that put the victim’s life at risk.

Penalties for attempted murder

The potential punishment for attempted murder in California depends on how the crime was committed. If it was done with premeditation and deliberation, then it can be charged as first-degree attempted murder and is punishable by 5, 7, or 9 years in prison. If there was no planning involved, then it is considered second-degree attempted murder and is punishable by 2, 3, or 4 years in prison.

Voluntary manslaughter charges in California

Voluntary manslaughter describes a situation in which the killing of a person is willful and deliberate, but not premeditated.

A common example of voluntary manslaughter: Tom comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. In the heat of the moment, he retrieves a gun from his closet and kills the man. In this case, the killing was willful and deliberate, but not premeditated.

A conviction for voluntary manslaughter carries a sentence of three, six or 11 years in state prison.

Involuntary manslaughter charges in California

Involuntary manslaughter is the killing of another person without malice or intent to kill, but rather done with the conscious disregard for human life. California law defines this as:

  • A death occurring during the commission of a non-felony unlawful act; or
  • A legal act that has a high risk for death or bodily injury, and the defendant failed to act with caution.

A conviction for involuntary manslaughter in California carries a state prison sentence of two, three or four years.

Vehicular manslaughter charges in California

It is vehicular manslaughter if a person kills another person in the act of driving, in the act of:

  • An unlawful (but non-felony) maneuver;
  • A lawful act that carries the risk for death; or
  • Knowingly causing an accident for financial gain.

Vehicular manslaughter is a “wobbler,” meaning that it can be prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor. Felony charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, while misdemeanor charges carry a maximum term of a year in state jail.

How can I fight homicide charges in California?

Each of the charges listed above is especially complicated, with decades of case law determining what can disqualify a homicide case or get the charges reduced.

If you have been charged with a homicide — from capital murder to involuntary manslaughter — working with an experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system and get a more favorable judgement for your case. From self defense, to accidental death, to insanity or illegal search/seizure, a criminal defense attorney can help you build your defense and fight the prosecution.

In more than 30 years in the courtroom, I have developed the reputation as a dogged defender of my clients who will not rest until we get the best possible judgment. Call today for your free case review — 800-834-6434.