In California, there are several statutes that prohibit and provide harsh penalties for unlawfully taking the life of another human being or fetus under different circumstances. Murder is a “strike”, a serious and violent felony, and the sentence for each type of murder may be enhanced by allegations related to gang, and aggravated conditions, such as if the killing was a hate crime against a person due to race, religion, ethnicity, nationality or gender. Also, there is no time limit or statute of limitations (PC 799) in which a murder case can be filed and prosecuted against someone.
First degree murder (PC 187) requires malice, pre-meditation and killing another human being. Second degree murder also requires malice, but premeditation and deliberation are not required elements. Voluntary Manslaughter (PC 192(a)) is a spontaneous killing, usually in the heat of passion or a fight, without malice. Involuntary manslaughter (PC 192(b)) requires no malice and no intent to kill, but involves conscious disregard for life. Vehicular manslaughter (PC 191.5) involves killing someone while driving a motor vehicle, and may be charged as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the egregiousness of the driving behavior that resulted in someone’s death. A Watson murder is a very serious type of vehicular manslaughter, caused by someone who is driving while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both, and thus the driver is considered to have known of the danger of driving under the influence, intentionally done so and thereby acted with conscious disregard for human life.
There are certain legal defenses, justifications and recent law changes that affect current murder prosecutions in California. These changes may provide a means to petition for resentencing in previous convictions.
Defenses include self defense and defense of others, which justifies killing to protect oneself or others against a reasonable belief that they are in imminent danger of being killed, suffering great bodily injury, rape, robbery or another atrocious crime. California also has an imperfect self defense which reduces murder to voluntary manslaughter when someone is killed based on an honest, but unreasonable belief they are in imminent danger. Accidental killing is a defense to murder if there was no intent to do harm, the person was engaged in lawful behavior and was not acting negligently when someone was accidentally killed. There is also an insanity defense to murder if the person can prove that they did not understand the nature of the act they were doing and could not distinguish between right and wrong. This requires forensic psychiatric or psychological expert opinion and testimony. There may also be defenses related to illegally obtained evidence, illegally obtained confessions, mistaken identification and police misconduct. Defense investigators and experts in DNA, blood splatter, crime scene analysis, weapons, ballistics, pathology, cell phone logistics and police policy and procedure are essential to a complete defense to murder charges.
There have been changes in capital murder cases and felony murder cases. Capital murder cases are the most serious, aggravated murder cases which are punishable by the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Los Angeles prosecutors are no longer seeking the death penalty as of 2021 and the election of George Gascon as Los Angeles County District Attorney. In 2019, Governor Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions due to the risks of executing innocent people, and the racial disparity in these cases. The felony murder rule, which permits conviction for murder if someone is killed during the commission of a dangerous felony, whether the killing was accidental, done by an accomplice, and the individual had no intent to kill or join in the act of killing. In 2018, then Governor Brown revised the felony murder rule (SB 1437), which applies to first and second degree murder. Now, someone can be charged with felony murder only if they were the actual killer, intended to kill and aide, counseled, commanded or solicited the killing by another, were a major participant in the felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life, or the victim was known to be an on duty law enforcement officer.