To begin with, not all homicides are crimes. Homicides include all killings of humans. Many homicides, such as murder and manslaughter, violate criminal laws. Others, such as killing committed in justified self-defense, are not criminal. Illegal killings range from manslaughter to murder, with multiple degrees of each representing the gravity of the crime.
First Degree Murder
Penal Code section 187(a)
First Degree Murder is the most serious criminal homicide. Typically, First Degree Murder is both intentional and premeditated. Premeditated can mean anything from a long time plan to kill the victim, to a shorter term plan. The intent of the accused murderer does not need to be focused on the actual victim. If someone planned on killing one victim, but by accident kills someone else, the murder is still intentional and premeditated meaning a first degree charge.
First Degree Murder is punishable by Life in state prison with being eligible for parole after 25 years.
Second Degree Murder
Penal Code section 187(a)
Second Degree Murder is homicide with the Intent to Kill without premeditation. One can be guilty of Second Degree Murder if one of the circumstances necessary for First Degree Murder is not established by the evidence, but an Intent to Kill is.
Second Degree Murder can also be established as a reduction from First Degree is the actor was provoked by the victim. This provocation can also reduce Murder to Manslaughter.
Second Degree Murder is punishable by Life in state prison with being eligible for parole after 15 years.
Felony Murder Rule
Penal Code section 189
The Felony Murder Rule allows a perpetrator to be charged with murder if he, or a fellow perpetrator, kills another person while committing certain felonies even if the killing was a complete accident.
First Degree Felony Murder applies when a murder is committed during the commission of one of the following felonies: arson, rape and other sexual crimes, carjacking, robbery, burglary, mayhem, kidnapping, train wrecking, and any homicide committed by intentionally firing a gun from a motor vehicle at a person outside of the motor vehicle with the intention to cause death.
Second Degree Felony Murder applies when a murder is committed during the commission of a felony that is “inherently dangerous to human life” and not listed above.
Penal Code section 192(a)
A homicide that results from an unlawful act that has the natural consequence of causing the death of another person, and the perpetrator knew of the risk and disregarded that risk is Voluntary Manslaughter.
A homicide that would otherwise be Murder is reduced to Voluntary Manslaughter if the perpetrator killed someone because of a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. The provocation related to the sudden quarrel or heat of passion is judged sufficient based on the anticipated reaction of a person of average disposition and whether they would have reacted with from passion rather than from judgment.
Voluntary Manslaughter is punishable by three, six, or eleven years in state prison.
Penal Code section 192(b)
A homicide that results from an unlawful act that creates a high risk of death of injury to another, and a reasonable person would have known that acting in that way would create such a risk is Involuntary Manslaughter.
A death that results from a failure to perform a legal duty to protect the victim due to criminal negligence is Involuntary Manslaughter.
Involuntary Manslaughter is punishable by two, three, or four years in state prison.
Penal Code section 192(c)
A death that results from an unlawful act of a perpetrator while that person is driving a vehicle is Vehicular Manslaughter. The circumstances of the death and the actions of the driver can be Gross Vehicular Manslaughter or Misdemeanor Vehicle Manslaughter.
Gross Vehicular Manslaughter is punishable by two, four, or six years in state prison.
Possible Defenses to Homicide
With every homicide charge, there are numerous defenses that can be employed to defend against or reduce the charges brought against a defendant. An experienced attorney should be able to utilize every aspect of the law to help you with these serious charges.
Penal Code section 197
When a homicide occurs as a result of actions taken to protect one’s own life, it is possible that the actor can escape legal consequences for the killing. The general requirements for a self-defense claim are (1) the actor was not in a place they were prohibited from entering, (2) the actor was not the aggressor or instigator, and (3) the actor had a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm that required the use of force.
Common Law Rule
A homicide that would otherwise be Murder is reduced to Voluntary Manslaughter if the perpetrator killed a person because they were acting in self-defense. The difference between Self-Defense and Imperfect Self-Defense is the reasonableness under which the perpetrator acted. If the belief in the need to use self-defense is reasonable, that is Self-Defense. If the belief in the need to use self-defense is unreasonable, that is Imperfect Self-Defense.
Penal Code sections 22 & 26
There are numerous defenses relating to any Impairment of the perpetrator that can have an effect of criminal charges. If the perpetrator was Unconscious, then they cannot be found guilty of the crime alleged.
Involuntary Intoxication, or the unknowing ingestion of an intoxicating substance, can negate the mental state or intent required for a crime alleged.
Voluntary Intoxication can negate the specific intent or knowledge required for a crime alleged. Thus, resulting in the dismissal or reduction of specific intent crimes.
Penal Code section 28
Mental defenses can attack malice aforethought, premeditation and deliberation, unreasonable self-defense, and felony murder. Although the absence of a required mental state is usually referred to as a “defense”, when a mental state other than general criminal intent is an element of a crime, the government must prove that the defendant acted with the required mental state.
Presenting evidence concerning a defendant’s mental state is done through a combination of witness observations, anecdotal information and circumstantial evidence. This information can also be evaluated and presented through the testimony of a mental health expert witness.