Author: Mariya Melkonyan | Published: May 22, 2023 | Category: California

Degrees of Homicide in California

Homicide is the act of taking another person’s life. It’s one of the most serious crimes under California law. In this article, we’ll delve into all three degrees of homicide under California law, the punishments for each, and possible defenses that an expert defense attorney can use.

Most people think homicide and murder are the same thing. But, in legal terms, they aren’t.

Homicide is a broad term that includes both legal and illegal killings. Killing someone else might not be considered a crime — during war or law-enforcement operations, for example. Murder, on the other hand, is a homicide that’s always illegal.

California Penal Code sections 187-199 define the murder laws in the state and divides them into three degrees:

Table of Contents
    • First-degree murder is the most serious form of homicide. It is defined as the intentional killing of another person with malice aforethought. In other words, with premeditation and deliberate intention.
    • Second-degree murder is an intentional killing that does not involve premeditation.
    • Third-degree murder or manslaughter is a killing in a less culpable way than murder, either in the heat of passion or by accident.

    First, Second & Third Degrees

    First-Degree Murder in California

    If someone is charged with first-degree murder, it means they’re accused of planning it in advance and acting with the intent to kill.

    Section 187 of the California Penal Code defines first-degree murder as an intentional and premeditated killing. This section also sets out the requirements for conviction. For example, proving that the defendant acted with deliberate malice, had the intent to kill, and planned it in advance.

    In addition to intentional and premeditated killings, other murders may be classified as first-degree. For instance, if someone kills another person while committing a felony such as rape, arson, robbery, or kidnapping, it might be classified as first-degree murder.

    A conviction for first-degree murder in California can result in one of three sentences:

    • Imprisonment in state prison for a minimum of 25 years
    • Life imprisonment in state prison without parole
    • Death penalty (Note: Capital punishment remains suspended in California since 2019, following an official moratorium ordered by Governor Gavin Newsom)

    Defense strategies against various degrees of homicide like first-degree murder charges include:

    • Challenging the prosecution’s evidence
    • Arguing self-defense or the defense of others
    • Arguing that the killing was accidental or not premeditated

    An experienced defense attorney, such as Ms. Melkonyan, may also challenge the admissibility of evidence obtained through illegal means, such as unlawful searches or confessions obtained under coercion or duress (i.e., threat, violence, or constraint).

    What Is Considered Second-Degree Murder in California?

    Second-degree murder is defined under California law as the intentional killing of another person without premeditation or deliberation. In other words, the accused acted intentionally but didn’t plan or premeditate the killing.

    For example, a person who gets into a heated argument with someone and impulsively pulls out a gun and shoots them could be charged with second-degree murder.

    These charges can also be brought against someone who only intended to harm the victim but ended up killing them instead. If a person dies later on from serious injuries caused by someone else, that also constitutes second-degree murder.

    Defense strategies against second-degree murder charges in California include arguing that the defendant:

    • Acted in self-defense
    • Was under threat or emotional distress

    What Is Third-Degree Murder in California?

    Third-degree murder or manslaughter is less severe than murder.

    Manslaughter is the involuntary killing of another person without malice. It means the defendant didn’t intend to kill or act with a conscious disregard for human life.

    Defense strategies against manslaughter charges in California include arguing that:

    • The killing was an accident
    • The defendant acted in self-defense or the defense of others
    • The defendant didn’t act with criminal negligence

    In California, third-degree murder, or manslaughter, is further divided into three sections:

    Voluntary manslaughter
    Involuntary manslaughter
    Vehicular manslaughter

    Voluntary Manslaughter: Penal Code 192(a)

    Voluntary manslaughter is defined under California Penal Code Section 192(a) as “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice, but with the intent to kill or in the heat of passion.”

    In other words, the accused did mean to kill the victim but didn’t plan it in advance.

    Let’s say a person finds their spouse in bed with someone else and kills them in a fit of rage — that would be considered voluntary manslaughter.

    In California, the punishment for this crime is imprisonment for three, six, or eleven years in state prison. The accused can also:

    • Be fined up to $10,000
    • Be required to do community service or mandatory counseling
    • Lose the right to own firearms.

    Involuntary Manslaughter Penal Code 192(b)

    Involuntary manslaughter is defined under the California Penal Code Section 192(b) as “the killing of another person without malice but as a result of an unlawful act or criminal negligence.”

    This means that the killing was unintentional, but it occurred while the defendant was engaged in an unlawful act or failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent the death of another person.

    Here’s an example of involuntary manslaughter: someone accidentally kills another person while playing with a gun.

    In California, the punishment for involuntary manslaughter is imprisonment for up to four years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

    Vehicular Manslaughter Penal Code 192(c)

    As the name suggests, vehicular manslaughter is an involuntary killing caused by someone driving a vehicle. It can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case.

    For example, if a driver kills someone while driving recklessly or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they’ll be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

    In California, the punishment for vehicular manslaughter can range from probation and a fine of $1,000 to imprisonment for up to six years in state prison, depending on the circumstance of the case.

    California’s Fetal Homicide Law

    California’s fetal homicide law covers premeditated, intentional, and unlawful feticides.
    Under this law, a person who illicitly kills a fetus can be charged with murder, manslaughter, or other related offenses. This includes situations where a person commits a violent act against a pregnant woman, causing the death of the fetus.

    It’s important to note that California’s fetal homicide law doesn’t apply to legal abortions.

    Defending Against California’s Homicide Laws

    Legally speaking, murder charges are as serious as it gets. No one expects the average person to know or even understand the various degree of homicide laws as it pertains to the state of California.

    Make sure to have competent legal representation if you’re charged with homicide. It can be the difference between getting a lengthy (or even life) sentence or walking away with a misdemeanor and a fine.

    Only an experienced defense attorney can provide you with the guidance and support you need to navigate California’s complex legal processes and get the best possible outcome.

    With 27 years of combined prosecutorial experience as Deputy District Attorneys and impeccable felony jury trial records, Mariya Melkonyan and her team are well-equipped to help you through these tough times.

    Call (424) 901-3131 for a free consultation today.

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