Taking the life of another human being is considered the worst or heinous crime in most societies. First-degree murder convictions, in particular, elicit the toughest sentences in California. Sentencing could vary significantly depending on a wide variety of factors. Each homicide case is different and comes with a unique set of circumstances. The caliber of lawyer you hire to represent you in your case could also make a vital difference in the type of sentencing your receive.
In a murder case, the prosecutor is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had “malice aforethought.” This refers to the individual’s state of mind at the time the crime was committed. The “malice” here could be “express malice,” which refers to a defendant who intended to commit the murder, or “implied malice” wherein the prosecutor alleges that the defendant acted in a reckless manner without giving thought to the safety of others.
Under California law, those accused of killing another human being unlawfully may be charged with murder in the first degree or second degree. First-degree murder charges are often alleged in the most heinous cases, those that involve premeditation or planning to kill. Under state law, there is a list of special circumstances the prosecutor must apply in order to file a first-degree murder charge. If none of those special circumstances apply, the prosecution must file a second-degree murder charge.
The special circumstances may include use of firearms, killing committed while carrying out or trying to carry out other felony crimes such as robbery or kidnapping, or premeditation (planning to carry out the killing). In California, if you are convicted of first-degree murder you could face imprisonment in a state prison for 25 years to life; life imprisonment in state prison without the possibility of parole; or the death penalty.
The sentencing for second-degree murder in California is 15 years to life in state prison. This could increase to 20 years to life if the defendant used a firearm to commit the murder. The prison term could increase to 25 years to life if the victim of the crime was a peace officer. Other factors that could influence sentencing in murder cases include whether the defendant has been previously convicted or served time for murder. If that is the case, the defendant may be sentenced to 15 years to life without the possibility of parole.
Regardless of first- or second-degree charges, there are aggravating factors that could make the punishment harsher. Some of these aggravating factors include:
- One or more prior murder convictions.
- The murder occurred during the commission of a violent crime such as rape or robbery.
- The victim was a peace officer performing his or her job.
- The murder was committed in a particularly heinous manner and the victim was tortured.
- The defendant was “lying in wait” and attacked the victim.
- Poison or explosive materials were used in the commission of the murder.
- The defendant was active in a street gang and the murder was part of the gang activity.
Any type of murder charge is extremely serious. There is the potential for a lengthy prison sentence or even the death penalty. The stakes are extremely high. If you have been charged with murder, please contact an experienced California criminal defense attorney who can help get the charges reduced or present a strong defense to obtain an acquittal.