Guide to Murder Charges & Penalties

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Los Angeles Murder Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one are charged with murder, you will need the services of an experienced Los Angeles murder defense attorney. Conviction on murder charges can sometimes lead to a jail sentence of life imprisonment. Even sentences on lesser charges can mean a decade or more in jail. Sentence enhancements, such as committing a murder with a gun, may mean consecutive sentences.

Yet, there are many defenses to murder charges. An experienced Los Angeles murder defense lawyer can poke holes in the prosecution’s case. This can lead to reduced charges or even acquittal at trial. California Penal Code §187 PC describes murder in California. Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus with malice aforethought.

What is Malice Aforethought?

There are two types of malice aforethought:

Express Malice

Express malice is the state of mind of a person who acted intending to kill the victim and, in fact, kills that victim.

Implied Malice

Implied malice is a different state of mind. A person acting with implied malice does not intend to kill someone. However, that person intends to act. The person knows that the action he is about to take is probably dangerous to human life.

At the time he takes this action, he does

Lastly, he took this action in conscious disregard of human life.

The classic example of a person acting with implied malice is someone with prior drunk driving convictions. That person gets drunk and gets into a car. He knows he should drive under the influence of alcohol. He knows he is a danger to himself and other drivers/passengers. Nevertheless, he does not care.

He gets in an accident that kills another driver. He has acted with implied malice. The police can charge him with murder.

There are Degrees of Murder in California

Penal Code §187 PC defines two degrees of murder:

First-degree murder

First-degree murder is charged when the accused murderer

  • Tortures the victim;
  • Lies in wait for the victim;
  • Uses a device, weapon of mass destruction, poison or armor-piercing ammunition;
  • Acts willfully and in a deliberate and premeditated manner; or
  • Murders the victim while committing another felony, known as felony-murder (to be discussed below).

First-degree murder with special circumstances

First-degree murder with special circumstances, also known as capital murder, occurs when there are “special circumstances” involved with the murder. Those circumstances include, but are not limited to, multiple murder victims, killing a police officer, firefighter, judge, etc., being a gang-related killing or a killing as part of a hate crime.

Second-degree murder

Second-degree murder is murder that is committed without deliberation or premeditation; it is any murder not considered a first-degree murder.

Basically, prosecutors will charge a person with a second-degree murder if think they cannot get a conviction on first-degree murder charges.


Felony-murder refers to a situation in which a murder occurs while another felony is being committed (or attempted to be committed). This would include rape, robbery, carjacking, etc.

California’s felony-murder law changed in 2018. Previously, if the victim died, even accidentally or unintentionally, the persons committing the underlying felony could be charged with felony-murder.

Additionally, any accomplices to the underlying felony could be charged, even if they were not part of the murder or did not intend to kill anyone.

Now, in order to be convicted of felony-murder, a person has to

  • Be the killer;
  • Aid and abet the actual killer intending to kill the victim;
  • Be a major participant in the underlying felony; or
  • The victim was an on-duty peace officer.

First-degree felony-murder

A first-degree felony-murder occurs when the victim is killed during a specific set of underlying felonies (Penal Code §189(a) PC lists the specific felonies underlying a first-degree felony-murder charge).

Second-degree felony-murder

A second-degree felony murder is charged when the underlying felony is inherently dangerous but not included in the list of felonies in Penal Code §189(a) PC.

Penalties for Murder Convictions

Conviction of first-degree murder results in a 25 years-to-life state prison sentence. If the murder was a hate crime, the judge will sentence the defendant to life without the possibility of parole.

A capital murder conviction carries a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. It also carries the death penalty. However, in March 2019, Governor Newsome imposed a temporary moratorium on executions.

For second -degree murders, the penalty is 15 years-to-life in state prison.

However, the prison sentence can be enhanced if certain “aggravating” factors are present. These include firing a gun from a car, having a prior murder conviction or killing a peace officer.

Attempted Murder

Under Penal Code §664/187(a) PC an attempted murder occurs when a person intends to kill the victim and takes a “direct step” towards killing the victim (who does not die).

What is a direct step?

Under Penal Code §664/187(a), a direct step is more than thinking about killing someone or planning to kill someone. Even buying the gun or knife with which you intend to kill the victim is not enough.

Rather, you have to fire a shot at or stab the victim, intending to kill the victim. Aiming at the victim’s leg, intending to only wound him, is not attempted murder.

Penalties for attempted murder

Attempted first-degree murder carries a life in state prison sentence. Conviction of attempted second-degree murder means up to nine years in state prison.

Conviction of second-degree attempted murder means up to nine years in state prison.

Defenses to Murder Charges

Experienced Los Angeles murder defense attorneys have several defenses to raise in murder cases.

Mistaken identity

Eyewitness testimony identifying supposed criminals is inherently unreliable. A knowledgeable Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer will subject eyewitness testimony to detailed cross-examination.


Everyone may protect themselves or others if they are being attacked. Persons can kill their attacker if they are reasonably in fear of being killed or suffering serious bodily injury. Moreover, California recognizes the “stand your ground” and the “castle doctrine” defenses.


If the victim died in accidental circumstances, there is no crime. Remember, the prosecutor has the burden of proving that the defendant intended to kill the victim beyond a reasonable doubt. Experienced Los Angeles murder lawyers will hold the prosecutor to that standard.


Insanity is a recognized defense to a murder charge.

Los Angeles Murder Defense Attorneys Lawyers

Persons facing charges of murder or attempted murder should immediately contact experienced Los Angeles murder defense attorneys. Daniel Perlman and Matthew Cohen are experienced Los Angeles criminal lawyers at Perlman & Cohen. Throughout the years, they have represented clients in murder and attempted murder cases in Los Angeles courts. Perlman & Cohen will stand by you as they investigate, collect all relevant evidence and find witnesses who can help mount a defense to the murder/attempted murder charges. In appropriate cases, they will negotiate a plea to lesser charges. Otherwise, they will prepare the case for trial and make prosecutors prove their murder/attempted murder case beyond reasonable doubt. Call them at (310) 299-0062 to set up a free consultation.

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