Recent charges brought against an Oceanside man accused of murdering his wife prompts a closer look at how California determines whether a homicide leads to manslaughter or murder charges. It is possible for those accused of committing a homicide to provide evidence that may reduce their charges, avoiding years to life in prison and even death.
Homicide is defined as the killing of one human by another. Those accused of homicide may be charged with either manslaughter or murder depending on the circumstances surrounding the death. In California, a conviction for manslaughter versus murder can mean the difference between life and death of the person so convicted. Therefore, understanding the differences between the charges and the burden of proof on the prosecution to prove murder versus manslaughter is important for the accused.
Involuntary manslaughter charges and penalties in California
There are three types of manslaughter charges in the California criminal code: vehicular, involuntary and voluntary manslaughter. Vehicular manslaughter is treated differently than involuntary manslaughter in California and only involves deaths caused by a motorist. All other unintentional deaths that occur during the commission of a non-felony crime or are the result of reckless conduct may lead to charges of involuntary manslaughter for the accused.
To prove involuntary manslaughter, the prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant intended to commit the non-felony crime that resulted in the death or that the reckless or careless activity of the defendant caused the death. If the prosecution cannot prove either of these conditions, the charges may not stand up in court.
Successful defenses to involuntary manslaughter can include proof that the defendant’s actions were a reasonable mistake or resulted from a lack of knowledge, that he or she acted in self-defense or that the death was an accidental killing that did not involve reckless or careless conduct.
Those convicted of involuntary manslaughter charges in California face a felony conviction and two to four years in county jail or state prison. The state can consider prior criminal records when determining sentences of those convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Voluntary manslaughter charges and penalties in California
The difference between a voluntary manslaughter charge and a murder charge is the defendant’s state of mind during the death. To be guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a defendant intended to kill or severely injure the deceased, but the death must have occurred in a heat of passion or during a quarrel, without the premeditation and malice required to establish murder.
To prove voluntary manslaughter, prosecutors must prove the defendant was provoked to kill or severely injure the deceased in a quarrel or heat of passion. Events that may provoke a defendant to commit voluntary manslaughter include adultery, the murder of a family member and voluntary physical altercations between the defendant and the deceased.
The defense may build a successful case if it can prove the defendant acted in self-defense, was involuntary intoxicated during the act or was insane or lacked the mental capacity to commit the homicide.
Penalties for those convicted of voluntary manslaughter include three, six or eleven years in state prison. A defendant’s prior record may be used as evidence in the sentencing phase.
First-degree murder charges and penalties in California
Murder in the first degree is the most severe homicide charge in California. To prove first-degree murder, prosecutors must show the defendant acted maliciously, either expressly in his or her intent to commit murder or implicitly in his or her reckless disregard for the deceased’s safety. Prosecutors also must prove that the defendant acted deliberately and the homicide was premeditated.
Several special circumstances also qualify a homicide as first-degree murder. The use of weapons of mass destruction, poison, bombs or other explosive devices and armor-piercing ammunition automatically result in first-degree murder charges. Other actions also result in first-degree murder charges, including deaths that occur during the commission of a felony like rape or kidnapping, lying in wait for the deceased and torturing the deceased.
Successful defenses to first-degree murder charges include proof that killing was not premeditated or planned, that the defendant acted in self-defense or in the defense of another or that the defendant was insane or lacked the mental capacity to commit first-degree murder.
If convicted of first-degree murder, defendants face 25 years to life in prison, life in prison without the opportunity of parole and in some cases, death.
Second-degree murder charges and penalties in California
When the state cannot prove that any special circumstance contributed to the homicide that would qualify it as a first-degree murder charge, the state may charge a defendant with second-degree murder. To prove second-degree murder, the prosecutor must prove the defendant acted with malice and intent.
A successful defense to a second-degree murder charge may include proof the defendant acted in self-defense or in the defense of another person, lack of mental capacity, insanity or that the death was provoked or occurred in the heat of passion, which could reduce the charges to voluntary manslaughter.
The penalty for second-degree murder is 15 years to life in prison, and the state can consider the defendant’s prior record when determining his or her sentence. If the crime involved a drive-by shooting, the sentence is automatically increased to 20 years to life. If a peace officer was killed, the sentence automatically increases to 25 years to life in prison.
Help for the accused
Due to the severity of the possible penalties for a conviction, it is important that those accused of homicide charges hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer.