First Degree Murder


The unlawful killing of another human being- homicide- may either be charged as murder or manslaughter. Murder requires “malice aforethought,” which means the defendant had expressed or implied malice and that there was a deliberate intent to commit murder. Under California law, there are three ways in which a person may be convicted of first-degree murder: by committing murder, killing in a way that is willful, deliberate, and premeditated, OR by way of the felony-murder rule. The felony-murder rule is defined as committing a specifically enumerated felony that automatically turns any logically related death into first-degree murder.

Overview of California First Degree Murder Laws

The unlawful killing of a human being — homicide — may be charged as murder or manslaughter. Murder requires a showing of “malice aforethought,” which refers to the defendant’s intent or state of mind. To prove a murder, the prosecutor must show that the defendant had express or implied malice. Express malice means that the defendant deliberately intended to commit murder. Alternatively, a prosecutor may show implied malice in the defendant’s conduct that reflects an “abandoned and malignant heart.” Implied malice may arise if the defendant acted without care for another person’s safety or behaved with extreme recklessness.

California recognizes two types of murder: first degree murder and second degree murder. First degree murder is reserved for especially heinous crimes involving premeditation, deliberation or deliberate planning, and intent to kill. State laws list the special circumstances that a prosecutor must use to charge a defendant with first degree murder. If none of the special circumstances apply, the prosecutor may pursue a charge of second degree murder.

Under California’s first degree murder law, the prosecutor must show a premeditated, deliberate killing involving one of the special circumstances listed by the state laws of California. The means of killing that qualify a homicide as first degree murder include weapons of mass destruction, bombs or explosive devices, armor-piercing ammunition, poison, and firearms shot from a motor vehicle. State law also requires a charge of first degree murder when the killing occurred after the defendant’s lying in wait or torture of the victim. First degree murder also includes killings committed while carrying out or attempting another felony such as burglary, robbery, rape, kidnapping, and other specified crimes.

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

Defenses to First Degree Murder Charges

See First Degree Murder Defenses for more details.

Penalties and Sentences

In California, a conviction for first degree murder can result in one of three sentences:

  • Imprisonment in state prison for a term of 25 years to life;
  • Life imprisonment in state prison without the possibility of parole; or
  • Death.

State laws require a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or death for homicides involving special circumstances set by the California Penal Code. For example, the court must consider whether the defendant committed first degree murder while engaging in a felony or avoiding a lawful arrest, using a bomb or explosive device, or intending to kill another person for financial gain. The court must also confer a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or death if the defendant committed first degree murder of a peace officer, federal law enforcement officer, firefighter, prosecutor, or judge. State laws also allow for the most stringent forms of punishment when the murder was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity.” source