Special Circumstances in a California Murder Case

April 21, 2023 by Seppi Esfandi in California  Criminal Defense  
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Special Circumstances in California Murder Cases

In the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, a provision prohibits the infliction of acts classified as cruel and out of the ordinary as punishment for individuals accused of criminal offenses.

The application of this constitutional amendment by the United States Supreme Court elucidated their verdict that it was unconstitutional for juries to impose the death sentence on certain defendants while exempting some without a justifiable mechanism to ascertain when it is appropriate to impose the ruling. The direction of the Court found that juries had, in an erratic fashion, been delivering death sentences, rendering this treatment for defendants unacceptable, being categorized as both cruel and unusual.

The Legislation of California

To some extent, the law about murder with special circumstances, also known as capital murder in California, was created in response to this concern. Due to this legal requirement, juries in California are not permitted to execute a person convicted of homicide based solely on a whim or out of personal animosity toward the accused offender.
On the other hand, a defendant charged with and found guilty of committing a first-degree murder with specific aggravating factors, also known as a “special circumstance,” cannot be sentenced to death under capital punishment law. Penal Code 190.2 lists the special qualifying circumstances that redefine murder as special circumstances murder.

Over time, the list of exceptional situations has changed. California voter initiatives included some items because Californians chose to do so rather than the California legislature.

On the other hand, a jury’s discovery of one of the mitigating circumstances does not automatically mean that the offender should receive the death penalty. However, this implies that they will be sentenced, which could result in life in prison without the likelihood of parole or the death penalty. Governor Gavin Newsom has temporarily stopped all executions in California.

What are Special Situations?

A jury must sentence the defendant to death or life in prison without parole if they determine that at least one of the special circumstances is true. Each unique circumstance that qualifies for the California death penalty is listed in detail in Penal Code 190.2 PC. Special circumstances examples include:

  • Murder committed with the intent to profit financially.
  • Prior murder conviction.
  • Convictions for multiple murders in the same instance.
  • Murder by a bomb or other destructive means.
  • Murder to avoid capture or to get away.
  • Killing a policeman, a federal agent, or a firefighter.
  • Killing a witness.
  • The murder of a juror, judge, prosecutor, or other government representative.
  • Lying in wait, which means the murderer planned to surprise the victim and kill them.
  • Murder motivated by racial, religious, or national origin.
  • Murder committed while committing a specific felony (per the ‘felony murder rule’).
  • A murder involving torture. For this special situation to apply, the following conditions must be met:
    1. The defendants must have intentionally killed the victim; an accident or carelessness will not suffice.
    2. For any reason (revenge, extortion, etc.), the defendant must have intended to cause the victim great bodily harm while they were still alive. );
    3. It must have been the defendant who committed a crime that would have caused the victim excruciating physical pain.
  • Murder through poison.
  • Driving-by shootings.
  • Murder by a street gang member. The components of this exceptional situation are as follows:
    1. The victim was killed on purpose by the defendant;
    2. The defendant participated actively in a criminal street gang at the time of the murder, though they did not have to be members for this to apply.
    3. The defendant was aware that the gang had a history of engaging in criminal gang activity;
    4. To advance the gang’s activities, the defendant killed the victim.

What Constitutes a Murder that is Deemed Heinous, Atrocious, or Cruel?

In California, the statutory laws recognize murdering someone through gruesome, atrocious, or cruel methods as an act of special circumstances murder, akin to capital murder. Nevertheless, the California Supreme Court has invalidated its implementation based on its unconstitutionality.

Individuals facing a murder accusation must understand exceptional circumstances, as the identification of such circumstances by a jury could result in receiving a life sentence in prison without any possibility of parole or possibly more severe consequences such as the imposition of the death penalty. If an individual or family member is encountering accusations of murder, regardless of whether it concerns any distinct situations, the main course of action would be to secure the assistance of a superb legal practitioner in California.

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December 3, 2019
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