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California Second Degree Murder Laws

Overview of California Second Degree Murder Laws

A prosecutor may charge homicide, the unlawful killing of a human being, as murder or manslaughter. Murder requires proof of "malice aforethought," which refers to the defendant's intent or state of mind. In a murder case, California state laws require the prosecutor to prove that the defendant exhibited express or implied malice. Express malice means that the defendant deliberately chose to commit murder. Alternatively, the prosecutor may show implied malice in the defendant's conduct that reflects an "abandoned and malignant heart." Implied malice may arise if the defendant meant to create the circumstances that resulted in the killing of another person. When a criminal case lacks malice, the prosecutor will likely need to pursue manslaughter charges instead of murder charges.

Murder in California may be prosecuted in the first degree or second degree. First degree murder is the more serious of the two charges. The legal definition of first degree murder affects the definition of second degree murder -- state law defines second degree murder as all murders that do not qualify as first degree murder.

California state laws list a number of special circumstances that qualify a homicide as first degree murder. The circumstances of first degree murder include a killing committed during the commission of one of the felonies specified by state law or the use of a designated means of killing such as a weapon of mass destruction or an explosive device. All homicides that do not meet the definition of first degree murder will be charged as second degree murder unless the prosecutor chooses to pursue a charge of manslaughter.

If the victim does not die within three years and one year after the date when the cause of death allegedly occurred, California state laws include a presumption that the homicide was not a criminal act of murder or manslaughter. The prosecutor must rebut the presumption in order to pursue a second degree murder charge.

Defenses to Second Degree Murder Charges

See Second Degree Murder Defenses for more details.

Penalties and Sentences

California state laws set the term of imprisonment for second degree murder as 15 years to life in state prison. The term increases to 20 years to life if the defendant killed the victim while shooting a firearm from a motor vehicle. In addition, the term may increase to 25 years to life if the victim of the crime was a peace officer.

State laws also allow the court to consider whether the defendant has a prior criminal record. If the defendant has previously served time in prison for murder, the possible sentence for second degree murder may range between 15 years to life in state prison and life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

California Second Degree Murder Law: Statute

California Penal Code Sections 187-199

Note: State laws are constantly changing -- please contact a California criminal defense attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

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