Prosecutors in California file first- or second-degree murder charges against individuals who are accused of killing another human being with malice aforethought. When deciding whether a first- or second-degree murder charge is warranted, prosecutors look at the facts of the case to see if the killing was premeditated. If prosecutors determine that the suspect intended to kill the victim but did not put a plan into place to carry out the crime, they will file a second-degree murder charge.
Second-degree murder penalties
The penalties for second-degree murder are severe. Section 190 of the California Penal Code sets the prison term for murder in the second degree at 15 years to life. This increases to 20 years to life if the defendant shot the victim from a motor vehicle and 25 years to life if the victim was a police officer. If the defendant had previously been sentenced for either first- or second-degree murder, they can be sentenced to life in a state prison without the possibility of parole.
The felony murder rule
California’s felony murder rule states that second-degree murder charges can only be filed when the death occurred during the commission of a felony that is inherently dangerous. The rule was revised in 2018 to prevent prosecutors from filing murder charges against individuals who participated in a felony such as a bank robbery but did not take part in a killing. Lawmakers chose to make the change retroactive, which means an individual incarcerated under the old felony murder rule can petition the court for a sentence reduction.
Cases involving violent crimes like murder can be challenging for prosecutors because juries are reluctant to send defendants to prison for decades unless they are presented with overwhelming evidence. Experienced criminal defense attorneys could point this out during plea negotiations and urge prosecutors to reduce murder charges in return for a guilty plea. Attorneys may choose not to pursue a negotiated settlement when their clients maintain their innocence or the facts suggest that they acted in self-defense or in the heat of the moment.