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
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
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