All states make distinctions when it comes to the unlawful killing of persons. Different sets of circumstances call for different kinds of punishments, depending on the depravity of the crime and the state of mind of the perpetrator.
California offers a typical example. Under California law, murder is defined as “the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.”
The phrase “malice aforethought” is generally defined as conscious mental determination to commit an unlawful act, though such “malice” can also be “implied” when one’s behavior is so reckless as to show an “abandoned and malignant heart”.
California has two kinds of murder: First degree murder, and second degree murder.
Beyond these two kinds of murder, California law also recognizes “manslaughter” which is defined as “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice”.
Manslaughter can be defined in three separate sub-categories: Voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and vehicular manslaughter.
Let’s explore these various categories of unlawful killing in California.
First Degree Murder: Murder in the first degree is defined in California as all murder committed by means of either –
- a destructive device or explosive,
- a weapon of mass destruction,
- knowingly using armor piercing bullets,
- lying in wait,
- any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing,
- any murder committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, arson, rape, carjacking, robbery, burglary, mayhem, kidnapping, train wrecking, or various other violent or sexually related felonies as specified in the California Penal Code,
- any murder which is perpetrated by means of discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, intentionally at another person outside of the vehicle with the intent to kill that person.
Punishment for First Degree Murder: Generally, the punishment for First Degree Murder in California is 25-years to life in prison. However, if there are “special circumstances” present which cause the murder to be more heinous, the potential punishment can be either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. A list of these “special circumstances” can be found in California Penal Code section 190.2.
Second Degree Murder: Any murder committed in California that cannot specifically be labeled as First Degree Murder is considered to be Second Degree Murder.
But remember, all forms of murder must include evidence of “malice aforethought” as defined above. Otherwise, the unlawful killing will be considered a form of manslaughter (not “murder”).
Punishment for Second Degree Murder: Generally, the punishment for Second Degree Murder in California is 15-years to life in prison. However, the punishment may be enhanced if the murder was committed with a firearm or if the defendant has been convicted of murder previously.
Forms of Manslaughter
As discussed above, all forms of manslaughter involve the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. There are three primary sub-categories of manslaughter under California law.
Voluntary Manslaughter: Manslaughter committed upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.
This usually occurs when the defendant was somehow provoked, but ended up overreacting to the provocation in a rash manner by killing the provocateur.
A typical example of voluntary manslaughter that is cited is when a spouse comes home to find another lover in the other spouse’s bed.
Punishment for Voluntary Manslaughter: Voluntary manslaughter is punishable in California by imprisonment for 3, 6, or 11 years.
Involuntary Manslaughter: Manslaughter committed during an unlawful act that isn’t a felony; or during an otherwise lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection.
Another way of describing involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing resulting from reckless behavior or criminal negligence.
However, this does not apply to any acts committed while driving a vehicle (such as a misdemeanor-level DUI). Under such circumstances, California lists it under a separate category known as “Vehicular Manslaughter”.
Punishment for Involuntary Manslaughter: Involuntary manslaughter is punishable in California by imprisonment for two, three, or four years.
Vehicular Manslaughter: Generally refers to manslaughter committed due to driving a vehicle in a grossly negligent manner, or during the commission of an unlawful act that is not a felony.
Punishment for Vehicular Manslaughter: Vehicular Manslaughter is punishable in California by imprisonment for between 2 and 10 years, depending on the circumstances, or up to one year if the incident occurred without “gross negligence”.
The Phil Spector Trial: An example of how California homicide law can be applied.
Sometimes, a court will allow a jury to consider different kinds of charges based on the same set of facts surrounding the unlawful killing of a person.
The recent murder trial of music producer Phil Spector provides a worthwhile example.
Spector was charged in the death of Lana Clarkson. Spector allegedly just met Clarkson earlier in the same evening of her death. He drove her back to his house where she was later killed by a gunshot wound after a gun was placed in her mouth.
Spector’s driver testified that Spector had said right after the incident, “I think I killed somebody.”
Other witnesses testified that Spector had threatened them in the past by pointing guns at them.
Prosecutors argued that Spector had placed the gun in Clarkson’s mouth and pulled the trigger. Spector’s defense team argued that Clarkson had committed suicide in Spector’s home.
During Spector’s first trial in California, he faced a charge of second-degree murder. This carried a sentence of 15-years-to-life, with another ten years added since a firearm was involved.
When the jury split on the case, the judge considered adding an instruction for them to consider a charge of involuntary manslaughter instead.
Since there were no witnesses to what happened at the time of Clarkson’s death beyond Spector himself, it was possible to speculate that Spector pulled the trigger, but only did so accidentally as part of a reckless joke and didn’t intend to actually harm her. Under this imagined scenario, a charge of involuntary manslaughter would fit the circumstances better than a second-degree murder charge.
Spector’s attorneys argued that there was no legal precedent for allowing the jury to consider additional or alternative charges seven days into their deliberations. The judge agreed. Since the trial had been set up only on a second-degree murder charge, the jury would have to either convict Spector on second-degree murder, or nothing.
The jury ended up being hung – and could not decide the issue of second-degree murder either way.
During Spector’s re-trial the following year, the jury was given the option of considering a verdict of either second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter in their deliberations.
They returned with a unanimous verdict of guilty on a charge of second-degree murder, in accordance with the definition under California law.
Flexibility within the confines of the law to suit different sets of facts
Each case presents its own unique set of facts that prosecutors will consider in deciding what charges to bring.
The descriptions above provide only a general overview of California law concerning unlawful killings. Many other factors can come into play which may change the nature of the charge as well as the potential punishment involved. If you find yourself in trouble, be sure to consult an experienced criminal attorney.
[Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither HandelontheLaw.com, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]
Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither the author, handelonthelaw.com, or any of its affiliates shall have any liability stemming from this article.