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California law Penal Code 187 (a) PC defines murder as ‘’the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.’’ From the look of it, this definition would appear legitimately straightforward. However, there are certain terms that need further clarification.

Unlawful killing

For instance, a homicide denotes the killing of another individual regardless of whether lawful or unlawful. I, therefore, comprises justifiable killings, murder, and manslaughter. Murder is considered the most serious kind of homicide. The difference between murder and manslaughter in California law is that it’s necessary to show that there was malice aforethought in case of murder.

Malice aforethought

For you to be considered to have acted with malice aforethought you do not need to have harbored any hatred or ill will towards the specific victim. If it can be proved that you have a wanton disregard for human life and you do something that has a high likelihood of resulting in death, you’re deemed to have acted with malice aforethought.

Penal Code 187 (a) of the California murder law states that malice could be implied or expressed. Express malice denotes that you definitely had the intention to kill the victim. Malice is implied when:

  1. It was an intentional act that resulted in the killing,
  2. The expected outcome of the act is risky to a human life
  3. The act was intentionally done with the understanding of the risk to, and with conscious contempt for human life.

California law and first-degree murder 

There are three ways you can be sentenced for first-degree murder under California law:

  • By performing the act of murder using a destructive explosive or device, ammunition mainly designed to pierce armor or metal, poison, weapon of mass destruction, by causing torment pursuant to California’s torture law Penal Code 206 PC or by lying in wait,
  • By killing in a manner that is deliberate, premeditated and willful,
  • By manner of the felony-murder rule, that is by committing a particularly reckoned felony that inevitably transforms any rationally correlated death into first-degree murder.

Capital murder

Capital murder, under California law, denotes to first-degree murder charges that are punishable by either a life sentence in a state prison with no likelihood of parole or capital punishment and in the case of California, the death penalty. Some of the situations that can transform the first-degree murder to capital murder include but are not restricted to:

  • Killing someone to gain financially,
  • Killing more than one person,
  • Killing a firefighter, police officer, judge, elected official, peace officer or prosecutor,
  • Killing a witness to stop them from testifying,
  • Killing someone while committing, trying to commit, or promptly after committing a felony that can subject an offender to the first-degree felony-murder rule

Second-degree murder in California Law

Second-degree murder like the first-degree under California Penal code 187 is willful but is not premeditated and deliberate. For example:

  • If you shot a gun into a congested place and killed somebody even though that was not your goal and
  • A person who has a past DUI conviction causing an accident that kills another individual when drunk driving.

Felony-murder rule

In California, felony-murder rule relates to first- and second-degree murder. The rule basically creates murder accountability for people or their accessories that kill someone else during the act that constitutes a dangerous felony. It’s not a requirement under the California murder law that you kill the victim in continuance of the original felony. All death that occurs as a consequence of the felony will be sufficient irrespective of whether it was accidental, negligent, or intentional. Any unanticipated deaths will have you answer to murder charges as long as there is more than a conventional chance between the place and time of the murder and the added felony.

Components of Murder

For the prosecutor to prove that you’re guilty of murder in violation of California’s murder law, they must prove the three facts below, commonly called “elements of the offense”:

  • You performed the action whose outcome was the death of another person or fetus,
  • The action was committed with malice aforethought, and
  • You had no legal justification or excuse for your actions.


Legal Defenses

Luckily, there are numerous legal defenses to a Penal Code 187 (a) murder charge that a highly skilled and experienced California criminal defense attorney can present on your behalf. Incidences of justifiable and excusable murder in California law frequently result in acquittal or dismissal. Below are some of the most common and effective defenses.

Self-defense or defense of others

If in the process of defending yourself or another person, you kill someone, California’s self-defense laws might excuse your action.  If you’re really certain that you or someone else is in impending threat of being killed, suffering great physical injury or being raped, robbed, maimed or the victim of some other brutal and aggressive crime, you might take measures of any kind that are rationally essential, including employing deadly force to stop that from taking place. However, the magnitude of force should be no more than was necessary.

Accidental killing

For one to be convicted of murder, there’s need for the prosecution to prove that there was malice aforethought. However, you may have a valid defense if you did not have the intent to kill. The prosecution must prove that when the killing occurred you did not use ordinary caution, you engaged in unlawful activity, and you had the intent to kill the person in an unlawful manner. You cannot be found guilty of murder if the prosecution cannot prove these elements. The charges could be reduced to manslaughter or dismissed altogether.

Defense on account of insanity

Not guilty by reasons of insanity plead is permitted by the California murder law.  If one can prove that they only killed since they did not understand the nature of their action or could not tell the difference between right and wrong, then they are eligible for an acquittal. Also, a person who’s insane lacks the necessary malice aforethought. Although insanity is a valid legal defense, it’s imperative to first consult with your criminal defense attorney before you can rely on the defense. The consequences of using this defense can be severe if you do not consult with a skilled attorney. If you believe this is a valid defense for your case, contact a murder lawyer at Pasadena Criminal Attorney.

Fabricated and forced confessions

The police are not only expected to follow the correct Miranda procedure, they are also prohibited from using bullying methods to force a suspect to confess. Such unlawful and forcible interrogation tactics include threatening a suspect or their family, proposing more compassionate treatment on condition that they confess or frightening the suspect with the death penalty. In the event that the police used forcible methods to extract an unintentional confession, the court can choose to exclude it from evidence.

Although coercion by police is obviously unlawful, it’s not uncommon at all, evidence from social science research shows that coercion has contributed to extensive incidences of false confession, and the unjust conviction of many people who were otherwise innocent. In murder cases involving a confession or admission in a California Penal code 187, it’s crucial for the defense lawyer to analyze the interrogative tactics the police used.  If your lawyer can persuade the court that the confession was unlawfully acquired the confession or admission has a high likelihood of being thrown out of court and possibly the whole murder case.

Illegal search/seizure in the collection of evidence

In California, search and seizure rules put restrictions on police’s power to search your property and person. If the police did not use the correct process and acquired proof in violation of your Fourth Amendment right to be at liberty from irrational searches and seizures, your attorney can request the court to exclude the evidence from your hearing using Penal Code 1538.5 that allows for a motion to suppress evidence. If the magistrate allows your motion and suppresses the evidence, it'll be very hard for the prosecution to continue and it might result in the dismissal of the murder charges. For instance, if it was an illegally taken photograph that was eventually used to identify the suspect; the court can rule that the identification and the photograph should be excluded from evidence.

Erroneous identification

Various factors might undermine an eyewitness's capability to recall and appropriately ascertain a suspect. This could include stress due to the encounter, fascination on a weapon, inebriation, the passage of time, inappropriate police suggestions and the race of the suspect. In cases where the prosecution is founded on doubtful eyewitness identification, in a California murder case, there are numerous measures the criminal attorney can take. Some of them include:

  • Asking for a live lineup to establish whether the eyewitness can really differentiate and recognize the defendant,
  • Questioning the police methods in past lineups and photo spreads,
  • Pursuing to have the identification excluded from the evidence,
  • Presenting an Eyewitness Identification Expert at the trial to enlighten the jury on how recollection processes work and how often even well-meaning eyewitnesses can make a mistake.

Also, this can be a valid defense if you can provide evidence to show that you were somewhere else when the alleged crime occurred.

Sentencing, Penalties, and Punishment

Your potential sentence will vary greatly depending on whether you have been convicted of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or capital murder.

First-degree murder

Penal Code 187 conviction for first-degree murder attracts a 25 years-to-life sentence in the state prison. But if your first-degree conviction was a result of a hate crime, for example, a crime committed on account of religion, race, disability, gender, nationality or sexual orientation, you’ll get life imprisonment without the likelihood of parole or an early release.

Capital murder

Under California murder law, capital murder is the most serious charge. If your case involved any of the special conditions that promote a first-degree murder to capital murder, you have the possibility of being executed. Capital murder is penalized by either a state prison life sentence or the death penalty.

Second-degree murder

If you’re convicted of second-degree murder under California Penal Code 187, you’re likely to get 15 years-to-life in the state prison. But, there are certain conditions that may increase your probable sentence. These are:

  • If you’ve in the past served a sentence for a murder conviction, your second-degree murder sentence will escalate to life imprisonment without parole,
  • If the victim was killed by you shooting a firearm out of a vehicle with the intention to cause grave injury, then your sentence increases to 20 years-to-life, and
  • Your punishment escalates to 25 years-to-life if you killed a peace officer, it'll further increase to life without the likelihood of parole if you particularly planned to cause great physical injury on the officer or you used a deadly weapon or firearm to kill the officer.

Extra penalties

Apart from the prison terms discussed above, California murder law exposes you to an extra ten, twenty or twenty-five years to life imprisonment if the respondent individually used a firearm in the process of committing the murder. A “strike” on your criminal history according to California’s three strikes law, extra sentencing augmentations if the crime is gang-related victim compensation or a gun is used, a fine not exceeding US$10,000, and the loss of the right to possess or own a firearm as stipulated in Penal Code 29800 PC California’s felony with a firearm law. These serious consequences prove why it’s crucial to retain a knowledgeable California criminal lawyer.  It’s important to note that you must be cataloged for life as a level three sex offender if you’re convicted of murder while committing or endeavoring to commit a sodomy, rape, and oral copulation, aggressive penetration with a foreign object or lewd acts with a child under fourteen years of age.

The Need for a Skilled Criminal Defense Lawyer

In murder cases, the prosecution will employ all their influence and resources to get a conviction.  Without the help of a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer, defendants face grave and devastating challenges. Any slip-up in the procedure from pre-trial inquiries, investigations, preliminary hearing, negotiations, motions, trial or sentencing can have severe, lifelong impacts to the defendant. When you’ve been charged with murder, it might appear like the prosecutor has the advantage. Having a knowledgeable and accomplished criminal attorney is vital. The correct advocate can make the playing field level, guarding your constitutional rights and looking for the best possible outcome.  If you or your loved one has been charged with murder, contact  Pasadena Criminal Lawyer at the earliest stage possible. Call us at 626-689-2277 for a free consultation.

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