Homicide encompasses various acts in which one individual causes another's death, whether intentional, unintentional, or due to negligence. Murder, a specific form of homicide, involves the deliberate act of taking another person's life. This constitutes a violent crime as it entails the intentional use of force to cause harm or death.

In criminal cases, especially those involving murder, prosecutors vigorously pursue convictions. However, the California legal system presumes individuals are innocent until proven guilty, a principle upheld throughout legal proceedings. Therefore, legal assistance is crucial to protect your rights during the process.

At Darwish Law, our Santa Ana attorneys are committed to fighting for your rights and ensuring a fair trial. Contact us today to discuss your case and build a strong defense.

Degrees Of Murder In California

In California, murder is a serious offense punishable under Penal Code 187 (a). You face a charge if you kill a fetus or a human being with malice aforethought.

  • Unlawful Killing

Killing someone else, whether lawfully or unlawfully, is called homicide. So, homicide consists of justifiable killings, manslaughter, and murder. The most aggravated homicide, murder, is always unlawful. The difference between murder and manslaughter is the malice element.

  • Malice Aforethought

Under California homicide law, malice is the mental state required for a conviction of murder. Malice is considered express when there is a deliberate intention to murder another person. It is implied when no considerable provocation exists or when the circumstances surrounding the killing show disregard for human life.

  • Express malice is the intent to kill. It can be shown by direct evidence, such as a confession, or by indirect evidence, such as your actions and statements before and after the killing.
  • Implied malice is a reckless disregard for human life. It can be shown by evidence that you acted in a way that was likely to cause death or serious bodily injury and that you did not care whether someone was killed or injured.

First-Degree Murder In California Law

First-degree murder involves premeditation and deliberation. For the court to convict you of first-degree murder, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you planned and thoughtfully considered the act of taking another person's life.

This element sets it apart from second-degree murder, where the killing may be impulsive or lack calculated intent. First-degree murder can also encompass certain specific circumstances that elevate the charge. These circumstances include:

  • Killings during the commission of certain felonies. If a murder occurs while you are committing certain felonies like robbery, burglary, arson, or sexual assault, it can be classified as first-degree murder.
  • Poison, Mayhem, or Torture Under PC 206. Murders involving poison, torture, or mayhem are considered heinous and fall under first-degree murder.
  • Murder for Financial Gain. If you murdered someone else for financial gain, it can be classified as first-degree murder.
  • Murder of a Witness. Killing witnesses to prevent them from testifying in a criminal trial can also lead to a first-degree murder charge.

Below are examples of first-degree murders:

  • Shooting someone in the head at close range.
  • Stabbing someone else multiple times.
  • Poisoning someone else.
  • Pushing someone else off a cliff.
  • Setting a fire in a building knowing that people are inside.
  • Killing a police officer while they are on duty.
  • Killing someone during a robbery.

Capital Murder

Capital murder, often called "first-degree murder with special circumstances," goes beyond the typical scope of first-degree murder. What sets it apart are the specific circumstances that enhance the charge to a capital offense.

These circumstances are outlined in California Penal Code 190.2 and include scenarios such as:

  • You killed multiple individuals during the same criminal act or series of acts.
  • You murdered a police officer, firefighter, federal law enforcement officer, or other peace officer.
  • You murdered someone else with a particularly cruel or depraved mindset involving torture or heinous acts.
  • You planned and waited for the victim, indicating premeditation and deliberation.
  • You murdered another person while committing certain felonies like arson, rape, carjacking, or kidnapping.

One distinctive aspect of capital murder is the potential imposition of the death penalty. In California, the death penalty remains legal, though there is a moratorium on executions.

Capital punishment is administered when a jury finds that the aggravating circumstances of the crime outweigh the mitigating factors.

Second-Degree Murder In California Law

 Second-degree murder, as defined under California Penal Code 187 PC, is distinct from first-degree murder primarily in terms of intent and premeditation.

Unlike first-degree murder, second-degree murder does not require the presence of premeditation or deliberate planning. Instead, it involves the unlawful killing of another person without premeditation but with a conscious disregard for human life.

This category typically includes acts where the offender acted impulsively, recklessly, or without careful consideration but still caused the death of another.


  • When you engage in a sudden quarrel or heat of passion and kill another person. While this may not involve premeditation, it is classified as second-degree murder due to the absence of lawful justification.
  • Second-degree murder can also arise from a felony that results in someone else's death, even if the death was unintentional. For example, if you commit a robbery that leads to the death of a bystander, you may be charged with second-degree murder.
  • In some cases, second-degree murder may involve acts displaying a depraved heart or indifference to human life. For example, firing a gun into a crowded area without intent to kill but with a reckless disregard for life could result in a second-degree murder charge.

The Felony-Murder Rule

The felony murder rule is a legal doctrine that expands the scope of murder charges beyond traditional intentional killings. In California, this rule applies when you commit a dangerous felony and someone dies during the commission of that felony.

Under the felony-murder rule, you can be charged with murder, even if you did not have the intent to kill. Key elements of the felony-murder rule in California include:

  • You committed a dangerous felony, including crimes like robbery, burglary, kidnapping, and arson.
  • Someone else died during the commission of the felony. This could be a victim, an accomplice, or even a bystander.
  • The death must be a direct result of the felony. If the death is unrelated to the felony, the felony-murder rule may not apply.

In 2018, this law was revised under SB 1437. You can only face charges for felony murder offense if:

  • You were the perpetrator.
  • You intended to kill and counsel, abetted, solicit, command, or request the perpetrator.
  • You are a major accomplice in the underlying felony and acted with disregard for human life.
  • Your victim was an on-duty law enforcement officer, and you are aware.

If convicted under the old felony murder rule, you could file a petition for a case resentencing.

First-Degree Felony-Murder

For an act to be classified as first-degree felony murder, it must involve inherently dangerous felonies. These felonies are crimes that, by their very nature, pose a substantial risk to human life. Examples include robbery, arson, rape, sodomy, and kidnapping.

Unlike second-degree felony murder, first-degree felony murder requires a specific intent to commit the underlying felony. This means that the individual must have had the conscious objective to engage in the dangerous felony.

Second-Degree Felony-Murder

Second-degree felony murder extends murder charges to individuals who commit certain felonies, resulting in death, even without intent to kill. Unlike first-degree felony-murder, second-degree felony-murder involves an unintentional killing. Here, you did not possess the specific intent to cause death during the commission of the underlying felony.

As with first-degree felony-murder, second-degree felony-murder requires the commission of inherently dangerous felonies. These crimes, by their nature, pose a significant risk to human life.

Another key element in second-degree felony-murder cases is establishing a causal connection between the felony and the death. It must be shown that the death resulted directly from the commission of the felony.

Elements Of Murder

Understanding the elements of murder is fundamental for you and your criminal attorney. These elements form the basis for criminal charges and defenses. These are as follows:

  • Unlawful Killing - The foundational element of murder is the unlawful killing of another human being. This means the taking of a life without legal justification or excuse.
  • Malice Aforethought - Malice aforethought is a legal term that distinguishes murder from other forms of homicide. It implies the presence of intent, either express or implied, to kill another person or to act with conscious disregard for human life.
  • Causation - Proving a direct link between your actions and the victim's death is imperative. The prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant's conduct was a substantial factor leading to the death.

Legal Defenses To Penal Code 187 PC

When facing a charge under Penal Code 187 PC, a lawyer with diverse expertise in law is well aware that a robust defense strategy can make all the difference.

Self-Defense/Defense Of Others

Self-defense is a legal principle that allows individuals to protect themselves from imminent harm. In the context of murder cases under Penal Code 187 PC, it can be a potent defense strategy when certain conditions are met.

To successfully claim self-defense, it must be established that you genuinely believed that your life or another person's life was in immediate danger. The threat you faced must be imminent, meaning that there was no reasonable opportunity to escape or seek help.

Also, the use of force in self-defense or that of others must be proportionate to the perceived threat since using excessive force can weaken this defense.

Accidental Killings

Accidental killings, as the name suggests, involve the taking of a life without the intent to cause harm or death. These tragic incidents often occur in situations where negligence, recklessness, or unforeseen circumstances play a significant role.

The core element that distinguishes accidental killings from intentional murder is the absence of intent to cause harm or kill. This lack of intent can be a pivotal point in building a defense.

In many accidental killing cases, negligence or recklessness on the part of the defendant may be a factor. This could involve actions or omissions that, while not intentional, led to the fatal outcome.

Establishing a direct causal link between your actions or negligence and death is essential. It must be demonstrated that the death would not have occurred but for the defendant's involvement.

The Insanity Defense And The M’Naghten Rule

The insanity defense is used in cases where your mental state at the time of the crime comes into question. It acknowledges that due to severe mental illness or disorders, you may not have the capacity to understand the wrongfulness of your actions or to conform your behavior to the law's requirements.

In California, as in many jurisdictions, the M'Naghten rule is a foundational standard for assessing legal insanity. This rule hinges on the defendant's ability to distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the offense. Understanding the intricacies of this rule and its application is crucial in advocating for your rights.

The burden of proving insanity rests with your defense attorney. This means that, as a skilled lawyer, you must present compelling evidence that demonstrates your mental state at the time of the crime rendered you legally insane. This can involve expert testimony from mental health professionals and a meticulous review of your medical history.

False And Coerced Confessions

Confessions are often seen as solid evidence in criminal cases. However, not all confessions are truthful. False confessions can occur for various reasons, including coercion, duress, mental health issues, or the desire to protect someone else.

Police interrogation tactics can sometimes veer into the territory of coercion, leading individuals to confess to crimes they did not commit. Your lawyer can investigate whether the confession was obtained through undue pressure, intimidation, or promises of leniency.

In cases involving false or coerced confessions, expert witnesses can play a pivotal role. Psychologists, for instance, can testify about the psychological pressures that may have led to a false confession. Your ability to leverage expert testimony and evidence can be instrumental in challenging the validity of a confession.

Illegal Search And Seizure

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement. When evidence is obtained through illegal search and seizure, it can be deemed inadmissible in court.

Your defense attorney could scrutinize the validity of search warrants, examining whether they were issued based on probable cause and executed correctly.

Mistaken Identification

Mistaken identification is a legal defense that can be used to exonerate a defendant who has been wrongfully accused of a crime. It is a beneficial defense in murder cases, where the stakes are high, and the consequences of a wrongful conviction are severe.

You can use this defense to fight your murder charges if you can establish that the eyewitness testimony identifying you as the perpetrator was unreliable. There are a number of factors that can contribute to mistaken identification, including:

  • Perceptual errors - Eyewitnesses can misperceive the physical appearance of the perpetrator, especially if the crime was committed under stressful circumstances.
  • Memory decay - Over time, eyewitness memories can fade and become distorted.
  • Suggestive questioning - Eyewitnesses can be influenced by the way law enforcement officers question them.
  • Cross-racial identification - Eyewitnesses are more likely to misidentify perpetrators of a different race than their own.

If you can show that one or more of these factors contributed to the eyewitness testimony identifying you as the perpetrator, the jury may find that the testimony is unreliable and acquit you.

In addition to the factors listed above, there are a number of specific defenses that can be used to challenge eyewitness testimony in murder cases. For example, you may argue that the eyewitness had a poor view of the actual perpetrator, that the eyewitness was distracted at the time of the crime, or that the eyewitness was biased against the defendant.

The success of a mistaken identification defense in a murder case will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of the case. However, if a defendant can present credible evidence that the eyewitness testimony identifying them as the perpetrator was unreliable, the jury may find the defendant not guilty.

Sentencing, Penalties, and Punishment For Murder In California

The punishment for murder in California depends on the degree of murder, the special circumstances, and your criminal history.

First-Degree Murder

Under PC 187, a first-degree murder attracts 25 years to life imprisonment. If charged with a hate crime, you could face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Hate crime murder involves the victim's disability, nationality, sexual orientation, race, or religion.

Capital Murder

The consequences of a capital murder conviction are among the most severe in the criminal justice system. Upon conviction, you could face the death penalty by lethal injection or dose of gas.

However, in 2019, the government halted the executions, fearing that innocent people could face executions, and many minors faced the impacts.

Second-Degree Murder

In California, second-degree murder is punishable by 15 years to life imprisonment. Factors that could enhance this sentence are:

  • Serving a prior murder sentence. You face a sentence of life without parole.
  • You shot from an automobile intending to cause serious injury to someone else. You could face a prison term of 20 years to life imprisonment.
  • The victim was an officer on duty. Your sentence is to be 25 years to life.
  • You intended to cause severe bodily injury or kill the officer using a deadly weapon.

Additional Punishment

Upon conviction of murder, you could be subject to other consequences, such as:

  • Compensating the victim's family for certain losses resulting from the crime. These losses can include funeral expenses, medical bills, and even the deceased's future earnings.
  • Fines not exceeding $10,000.
  • Losing your right to own a gun per California PC 29800.
  • Your sentence could be enhanced if the crime was gang-related or you used a weapon.
  • Having a “strike” on your record per California strikes law.
  • Sex offender registration (tier three) upon conviction for murder while attempting to commit a sex offense, for example:
  • Forcible penetration with a foreign object.
  • Oral copulation with a minor.
  • Lewd acts with a child under 14.
  • Sodomy.
  • Rape.

Find a Defense Attorney Near Me

 When facing charges for a violent crime, the odds are that you could face a lengthy prison sentence or life imprisonment. Violent crimes, especially murder, are prosecuted harshly in California because they involve loss of life and serious felonies.

If facing murder charges in Santa Ana, you want to hire a defense lawyer after you face arrest. At Darwish Law, we understand the California justice system and can help you have your murder charges lowered or dismissed. Contact us at 714-887-4810 for a case review and counsel today.