Murder is the most serious charge an individual can face anywhere but in California, murder charges can be especially complicated. Many other criminal defense attorneys have virtually no experience with trials, let alone murder cases. Murder cases will take longer to go to trial than other charges and murder charges in Los Angeles and Orange County go to trial at a much higher percentage than other charges. The reason for that is simple to understand: the stakes are often too high for an agreement to be reached between the prosecution and defense. I have personal experience with murder charges at every step of the criminal justice process. Every murder case is different but some common issues often arise during a case.
DEGREES OF MURDER
First Degree Murder
First degree murder is the most serious murder charge possible in California. First degree murder can be proven in several different ways. The first and most common theory generally requires premeditation, deliberation, and an intent to kill. The second is if the murder is committed using an explosive or destructive device, poison, or armor piercing ammunition. The third is if the murder was committed after “lying in wait” or using torture. The final and most surprising to some defendants in Los Angeles is through the “felony murder” doctrine. A felony murder occurs when a defendant commits a felony and during the commission of a felony, a logically related death takes place. Here are some examples that illustrate each of these paths to first degree murder.
· A Hermosa Beach defendant is accused of first degree murder of their wife. The Hermosa Beach Police Department finds the wife deceased due to a gunshot wound to the head. Further investigation reveals text messages from the defendant to a girlfriend that state where and when they plan on shooting their wife. Additional information shows that an insurance policy was taken out against the wife one week before her death and naming the defendant as the beneficiary. In this circumstance, prosecutors are likely to file first degree murder charges at the Torrance Courthouse. The charges will be based on the evidence of premeditation, deliberation, and intent to kill.
· A Compton defendant is accused of first degree murder. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department investigates and submits evidence that the defendant was angry at his former employer and set off a small bomb in his former boss’s office. Prosecutors are likely to file first degree murder charges in the Compton Courthouse based on the use of an explosive device.
· A West Los Angeles defendant is accused of first degree murder of an ex-girlfriend. The Los Angeles Police Department finds evidence that the defendant hid in bushes by the ex-girlfriend’s apartment to wait for her return home. The defendant is likely to be charged with first degree murder charges against the defendant because he was “lying in wait” for the victim.
· Two Inglewood defendants are accused of first degree murder and armed robbery. The Inglewood Police Department claims that both defendants were involved in an armed robbery of a store. During the robbery, an employee of the store pulled out a knife and was then shot by one defendant while the other waited in the getaway car. In this situation, it is likely that both individuals will be charged with murder due to the felony murder doctrine. Because a death can logically be possible during a robbery and both individuals were assisting with the robbery, both are likely to be charged with first degree murder and ultimately prosecuted in the Torrance Courthouse.
Second Degree Murder
Second degree murder in Los Angeles is the most common murder charge to be filed as it is simply any murder that does not meet the criteria for first degree murder. Some examples of second degree murder include the following scenarios.
· A Long Beach defendant is accused of second degree murder after an altercation outside of a bar where he suddenly pulled out his gun and fired into a crowd. Due to a lack of evidence showing any of the first degree murder qualifications, second degree murder is the most likely charge to be filed in the Long Beach Courthouse.
· A Manhattan Beach DUI defendant who has previously been convicted of DUI is arrested and charged by the Manhattan Beach Police Department with DUI and murder after crashing their car into another vehicle and killing the other driver. This is known as a “Watson murder” (typically charged anytime an individual previously convicted of DUI later kills another person while driving under the influence) and will be filed as a second degree murder in the Torrance Courthouse.
LEGAL DEFENSES TO MURDER
Murder charges in Los Angeles and Orange County require a vigorous defense and an attorney who has knowledge of the correct strategy to employ depending on the specific case. Some defenses may result in an acquittal while others will reduce charges from murder to manslaughter. Below are some examples of defenses available to a criminal defense attorney.
Self Defense or Defense of Others
Self defense or defense of others can be a complete defense to a murder charge in California. If you reasonably believe that you or someone else is in danger of being killed or greatly harmed, then you may legally respond with deadly force. The most important word to consider in that sentence is reasonable. The law will not allow you to use this claim as a complete defense if your actions were unreasonable or out of proportion.
· An Irvine defendant is accused of second degree murder after shooting another individual at a bar. Further investigation by a defense attorney produces several witnesses who state that they saw the other individual coming at the defendant with a knife before he was shot. A skilled criminal defense attorney can prevail on a claim of self defense.
Imperfect Self Defense or Defense of Others
Imperfect self defense or defense of others occurs when a defendant unreasonably but actually believes that deadly force was necessary to defend themselves or others. This is often a defense that arises when a defendant is under the influence or has simply acted outside the scope of what a typical reasonable person would do. An imperfect self defense claim will lower a murder charge to a manslaughter charge.
· A Redondo Beach defendant is accused of killing his roommate. Multiple witnesses come forward saying that the defendant has a severe drug problem and has been hallucinating for days prior to the incident. An officer testifies that the defendant appeared to be irrational and was talking about the victim attacking him. In this situation, an imperfect self defense may apply if a full self defense claim is unsuccessful.
An insanity defense to murder in Los Angeles is risky because a defendant is basically admitting that they killed another person but that they are not guilty by reason of insanity. In California, a murder defendant trying to use an insanity defense would have to show that the defendant was “not guilty by reason of insanity” because they did not understand the nature of their actions OR could not distinguish between right and wrong.
· A veteran living in Long Beach and returning from combat kills his roommate because he believes him to be an enemy fighter. Medical examination reveals that the individual suffers from extreme mental illness. An experience California criminal defense attorney can prevail on a not guilty by reason of insanity defense.
Improper Search or Seizure
The Constitution and California courts requires law enforcement to follow certain guidelines in their investigation. If an improper search occurred, then a court may ban evidence obtained in that search from being used in a prosecution.
· Officers enter a Los Angeles suspect’s house and find a gun underneath his bed. The officers failed to obtain a search warrant prior to entering the house and were not given permission to do so. The gun is later matched to a shooting and used as evidence to charge the suspect. Because the officers conducted an illegal search, an experienced criminal attorney may convince a judge to prohibit the prosecution from using the gun as evidence at trial.
Mistaken identification is a tragedy as it results in innocent people in jail while the guilty walk free. But a skilled criminal defense attorney can uncover the mistakes that have been made. Rigorous questioning of witnesses and officers can reveal faulty lineups, improper or coercive statements by law enforcement, and memories that are simply incorrect. Eyewitness identification expert witnesses can also be helpful to educate the court and jurors about how often witnesses misidentify suspects.
· An eyewitness identifies a suspect as having committed a murder in Gardena. Upon questioning by an experienced criminal defense lawyer, the witness admits that they were only shown one potential suspect by officers. An expert witness also testifies that since the witness is of a different race than the suspect and because the witness was under stress, there is a strong possibility they incorrectly identified the murderer. Often, a skilled defense attorney can use this testimony to successfully obtain an acquittal.
TRIAL ON MURDER CHARGES
Murder is one of the few charges where a trial is very likely to happen. Attorneys who do not have the necessary skill and experience will collapse under the pressure of a murder trial. These charges are literally a time when the life of a defendant is on the line. I have the experience after years as a former prosecutor in Los Angeles and Orange County to fight these cases at every step of the way. Please contact me immediately so that I can learn more about you or your loved one’s specific case.