Widely regarded as the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles offers a pleasant climate, iconic landmarks, a wide variety of world-class art and culture museums, and 75 miles of coastline for the nation’s best swimming and surfing. Since the 1980s, the City of Angels has also become well-known for high crime rates, particularly violent crimes such as assault, robbery, rape, and murder. There were 2,202 homicides in the state of California during 2020, representing a 31.1% increase from the 1,679 homicides reported in 2019. Of these crimes, 677 homicides were committed in Los Angeles County alone, or 6.7 homicides per 100,000 residents, and this year is already set to outpace recent years with a substantial spike in shootings and gang violence.
Homicide is one of the most serious crimes you can be accused of committing, and a conviction can put you in prison for the rest of your life. The only way to ensure you can protect your rights and create a formidable defense against these charges is to hire a criminal defense attorney who specializes in murder and manslaughter cases. Learn more about the most common forms of homicide in Los Angeles by reviewing the information below, then contact The Law Office of Stein & Markus today to discuss your case.
Common Forms of Homicide
According to California law, the criminal act of killing another person is classified as either murder or manslaughter based on the circumstances of the offense. Murder is the charge when someone kills another person with malice and intention. Manslaughter is the charge when someone is killed unintentionally or without planning. Unlawful killing refers to killing another person without a lawful excuse or justification and in violation of criminal law. Malice aforethought refers to exhibiting wanton disregard for human life and the commission of an act with a high degree of probability of resulting in the victim’s death. In other words, proving malice in a murder case requires demonstrating the following components of the offense:
- The homicide occurred due to an intentional act
- The natural consequences of the actions pose a danger to human life
- The defendant knew about this danger
- The defendant acted with a deliberate disregard for human life
Forms of Murder
The primary forms of murder are first-degree murder, capital murder, felony murder, second-degree murder, and DUI murder.
- First-Degree Murder
First-degree murder is a premeditated form of murder with malice aforethought and is punishable by 25 years to life in prison. It involves the defendant doing one of the following:
- Capital Murder
Capital murder, also known as first-degree murder with special circumstances, is a form of first-degree murder with aggravating factors that enhance the punishment to life in prison without the possibility of parole or capital punishment (the death penalty) via a lethal dose of gas or intravenous injection of a lethal substance. There are over 20 different situations in which a defendant could be charged with capital murder, some of which include:
- Murder for financial gain
- Murder of more than one victim
- Murder of a police officer, prosecutor, judge, juror, firefighter, public servant, or elected official
- Murder of a witness to prevent them from providing testimony in a case
- Murder as a hate crime based on the victim’s race, color, nationality, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or religion
- Drive-by shootings
- Murder committed in association with a criminal street gang, at the direction of a gang,for the benefit of a gang(gang enhancements can add an additional 15 years to life in prison to a defendant’s sentence on top of the penalty for murder)
In 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a temporary moratorium on capital punishment due to its disproportionate impact on minorities, and prosecutors in Los Angeles County are no longer seeking capital punishment in first-degree murder cases.
- Felony Murder
Felony murder can be applied when a defendant murders another person during the commission of a dangerous felony. This crime is proven by demonstrating one of the following:
- The defendant was the killer.
- The defendant had the intention to kill and somehow assisted the actual killer.
- The defendant majorly participated in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.
- The victim was an off-duty police officer and the defendant either knew this or should have known this.
Negligent or accidental deaths that result during the commission of a felony do not count as felony murder. The felony murder rule can be applied to either first-degree murder or second-degree murder. First-degree felony murder involves murder while committing arson, robbery, burglary, carjacking, train wrecking, kidnapping, mayhem, torture, and sex crimes such as rape, unlawful acts of sodomy, unlawful acts of oral copulation, forcible acts of penetration, and lewd acts with a minor. Second-degree felony murder is charged when the felony is not inherently dangerous and not included in the first-degree felony murder rule.
- Second-Degree Murder
Second-degree murder is also willful and committed with malice aforethought but does not involve deliberation or premeditation on the part of the defendant. Generally, any murder offense that is not classified as first-degree, capital, or felony murder is charged as second-degree murder. This crime is punishable by 15 years to life in prison, but certain aggravating factors can enhance the penalty:
- If the defendant previously served a murder sentence, they can receive life in prison with no possibility of parole.
- If the defendant shot from a vehicle intending to cause serious bodily injury, they can receive 20 years to life in prison.
- If the victim was a peace officer, the defendant can receive 25 years to life in prison.
- If the victim was a peace officer and the defendant intended to kill them, inflict great bodily harm, or killed them with a firearm or other deadly weapon, the defendant can receive life in prison with no possibility of parole.
- DUI Murder
DUI murder, also referred to as “Watson murder,” is a form of second-degree murder in which the defendant kills another person while intoxicated. This crime occurs when the defendant operates a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other controlled substances, causes an accident, kills another person because of the accident, and the circumstances of the crime are particularly egregious.Typically, the defendant can be charged with DUI murder if they have a prior DUI conviction on their criminal record, but the prosecution can also choose to press DUI murder charges in other situations, such as driving with a BAC of 0.24% or higher, excessively speeding, racing with other drivers, or driving a vehicle while knowing it contains faulty or malfunctioning parts or equipment that prevent them from safely operating the vehicle.
- Voluntary Manslaughter
Voluntary manslaughter is the killing of another person willfully and deliberately, but this crime is committed spontaneously during an unexpected dispute rather than with premeditation. This crime is punishable by a prison sentence of three, six, or eleven years.
- Involuntary Manslaughter
Involuntarily manslaughter is the act of killing someone without planning, intent, or malicious thoughts but rather without regard for human life. Proving involuntarily manslaughter requires showing that, at the time of the killing, the defendant either engaged in an unlawful yet non-felony act, or they engaged in a lawful act that was likely to result in another person dying or sustaining great bodily injury and failing to act with the appropriate level of caution. This crime is punishable by a prison sentence of two, three, or four years.
- Vehicular Manslaughter
Vehicular manslaughter is the killing of another person while the defendant is operating a vehicle. Proving vehicular manslaughter requires demonstrating that the defendant did engaged with one element below:
- Drove in an unlawful yet non-felony manner, regardless of the presence of gross negligence
- Drove during the commission of a lawful act that could result in death
- Knowingly caused an accident for financial gain
This crime is considered a wobbler offense, meaning prosecutors can charge it as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the specific circumstances of the crime. If charged as a misdemeanor, then vehicular manslaughter is punishable by up to a year in jail, while felony vehicular manslaughter is punishable by a prison sentence of two to ten years.
Protect Your Rights and Your Freedom
If you have been charged with murder or manslaughter or suspect you are under investigation for one of these crimes, contact The Law Office of Stein & Markus immediately. Our firm of expert criminal defense attorneys has over seven decades of combined experience navigating California’s complex legal system. Firm co-founder Joseph A. Markus spent the first 30 years of his career as a criminal prosecutor for Los Angeles County, giving him valuable insight into the tactics prosecutors utilize to prepare homicide cases and how to build the most formidable defense against these charges.
Contact Stein & Markus today to schedule a consultation. Murder and manslaughter are some of the most serious criminal charges you can face, but you have the best chance of fighting against these charges by retaining the services of an experienced homicide defense attorney. We offer dedicated, compassionate, and comprehensive legal services to help you develop a powerful defense and achieve a favorable outcome in your case.
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Forms of Manslaughter
Because it does not involve malice aforethought, manslaughter is a less serious form of homicide that typically carries less severe penalties. This offense can be charged as voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, or vehicular manslaughter.