What is Second Degree Murder in California?

What is Second Degree Murder in California?

A young woman and her boyfriend are attending a crowded street fair in Los Angeles County in the evening. As they stroll hand-in-hand, they suddenly hear a gunshot followed by a few more. People begin to scream and run to take cover. The young woman suddenly realizes she's in pain in her stomach -- looking down, she notices there's blood on the front of her dress. She suddenly realizes she's been shot by one of the bullets fired into the crowd. Although paramedics and police rushed her to the hospital, she sadly dies on the operating table. 

That same evening, police arrest a 21-year-old man who eyewitnesses say was the shooter. Although the young man tells his criminal defense attorney he never intended to hurt or kill anyone, his actions resulted in the young woman dying. Because of this, he faces a conviction of the LA crime of second-degree murder.

Definition of Second-Degree Murder

CA Penal Code 187 defines murder as the "unlawful killing" of another human being or a fetus with "malice aforethought." That means the defendant intended to kill or harm someone. 

Under CA Penal Code 187 there are three types of murder — first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree/manslaughter

First-degree murder is one that is premeditated and planned. Second-degree murder is still murder, but not premeditated or planned. 

In our example, the young man shot his gun into the crowd but had not intended to hurt or kill anyone specifically. Because the killing was not deliberate or premeditated, the young man’s charged with second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder. 

What Are the Penalties for Second-Degree Murder? 

As second-degree murder is a violent crime in California, it is a felony charge. If convicted, defendants charged with second-degree murder face a sentence of 15 years to life in state prison. 

If a defendant is found guilty of second-degree murder with one of the following special circumstances, they may face additional penalties: 

  • Murdering a peace officer brings a sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. 
  • If a prosecutor proves the defendant murdered a peace officer they planned to kill and/or inflict "great bodily injury" on them, the defendant faces life in prison with no possibility of parole. 
  • Prior murder convictions also result in a life prison sentence.

Additionally, California’s Three Strikes Law includes second-degree murder. That means anyone convicted of three violent crimes immediately receives a minimum sentence of 25 years to life in state prison if convicted of the third crime. And “second strikers” may have a judge sentence them to double the sentence they would normally receive for the crime committed.

How Can a Second-Degree Murder Charge Be Defended?

When defending a second-degree murder case under CA Penal Code 187, a  criminal defense lawyer has a number of options available to them: 

  • The killing was completely accidental. The defendant was not doing anything illegal at the time, nor were they acting irresponsibly. The defendant meant no hard to others. 
  • Self-defense resulted in someone being killed. The defendant protected themselves and/or others around them from another person, resulting in another person being killed. 
  • The defendant pleads guilt by reason of insanity. 
  • The defendant’s arrest was a case of mistaken identity.
  • Officers forced a false confession from the defendant. 
  • Officers gathered evidence during an illegal search and seizure, making them unusable in the case. 

Despite its name, a second-degree murder charge is a very serious offense. If you or a loved one faces a second-degree murder charge, the first thing you need to do is call an accomplished law firm like H Law Group to build you the strongest defense case possible. Schedule your free consultation online or by calling us at (213) 370-0404.


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