January 21, 2023 By Paul Wallin

Degrees of Murder: What’s the Difference?

Murder is one of the most severe crimes in California, and the penalties for conviction often involve a lifetime in jail. However, the different degrees of murder can be confusing and complex, as your charges will often depend on the specific circumstances of your case and your intentions. Below, our attorneys explain the differences between the different degrees of murder. 

Degrees of Murder

First-Degree Murder 

First-degree murder is the most serious form of homicide. It requires an intentional murder that is willful and premeditated with malice aforethought. The element of premeditation means that the defendant must have planned the murder beforehand, but it does not require that the defendant have an extensive plan. In fact, thinking about the crime for any length of time before it occurs may be enough to establish premeditation. For example, if a man acquires a gun, hides in the yard, waits for his neighbor to get home, and then shoots his neighbor, he would likely be found guilty of first-degree murder. 

Second-Degree Murder 

The difference between first-degree and second-degree murder is that second-degree murder cannot be premeditated. This means that the defendant must have acted without a plan but with intent and understanding of his actions. Generally, all intentional or grossly reckless killings that do not fall under first-degree murder are considered to be second-degree murder. For grossly reckless killings, also known as “depraved heart murder,” the defendant must act with complete disregard for human life even if he does not intend to kill. For instance, if a man fires a gun into a crowded room and kills someone, he may be on the hook for second-degree murder since his actions demonstrate complete indifference to human life. 

Felony Murder 

The felony murder rule allows a defendant to be charged with murder if someone is killed during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony, even if the defendant is not the actual killer. This rule exists to deter members of society from engaging in dangerous behavior. Inherently dangerous crimes commonly include burglary, robbery, arson, kidnapping, and rape. For example, if a man sets fire to his neighbor’s car, which then explodes and kills a passerby, the man could be charged with felony murder even though he did not personally kill the passerby. 

Voluntary Manslaughter 

Voluntary manslaughter does not qualify as murder, but it is another form of homicide that is committed without premeditation or malice aforethought. This intentional killing occurs in the “heat of passion” resulting from provocation from the victim. In order to prove that the killing happened in the heat of passion, the defendant must show that the provocation was such that a reasonable person in similar circumstances would also lose control of their impulses. If the provocation was not substantial enough to warrant the killing, the defendant will likely be charged with second-degree murder instead. A typical example of a heat of passion killing is when a man catches his spouse in the act of adultery and kills the other man. 

Involuntary Manslaughter 

Involuntary manslaughter is generally considered to be the least serious form of homicide. It involves an unintentional killing that results from recklessness or negligence. Involuntary manslaughter does not require deliberation or even intent, so a defendant cannot use the defense that he did not intend to commit the crime. Rather, the defendant may argue that the killing was truly an accident and did not result from careless acts. An example of involuntary manslaughter would be if a mother leaves her baby in the car on a hot day and the baby dies. Although the mother did not intend to kill her child, her negligence makes her guilty of involuntary manslaughter. 

Contact Wallin & Klarich Today 

When you are facing a serious charge like murder, you need an aggressive defense attorney to fight for your freedom. With 40+ years of experience, our attorneys at Wallin & Klarich have helped thousands of clients win their murder cases or get their charges reduced to a lesser degree. We know the most effective defenses to argue on your behalf, and we will do everything in our power to help you achieve the best possible result in your case. 

With offices in Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Victorville, Torrance, West Covina, Los Angeles, and San Diego, you are sure to find an available Wallin and Klarich office near you. Discover how our team can assist you. Contact us today, toll-free at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free consultation with a skilled defense attorney.

AUTHOR: Paul Wallin

Paul Wallin is one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southern California. His vast experience, zealous advocacy for his clients and extensive knowledge of many areas of the law make Mr. Wallin a premiere Southern California attorney. Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.

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