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California Penal Code 189 PC - Degrees Of Murder


Los Angeles Criminal Defense LawyerUnder Penal Code 187 PC in California, murder is legally defined as the intentional killing of another person with “malice aforethought.” However, there are various circumstances that help determine whether a defendant will be charged with first-degree or second-degree murder.

The penalties for these murder degrees can vary significantly. The complete definitions and distinctions between the degrees of murder are outlined in Penal Code 189 PC.

In California, there are two recognized degrees of murder: first-degree and second-degree. Acts of killing that do not meet the criteria of “malice aforethought” are categorized under different offenses such as voluntary, involuntary, or vehicular manslaughter (Penal Code 192 PC) instead of being considered as lower degrees of murder.

A first-degree murder conviction under PC 187 in California carries a sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. However, if the murder involved elements such as torture or lying in wait, classified as “special circumstances,” the individual may face a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole.

In order to pursue a charge of PC 187 murder, prosecutors are required to provide evidence that the accused intentionally caused the death of another person with both malice and forethought, indicating that the act was thought about and planned. On the other hand, second-degree murder is still an intentional act, but it lacks the element of deliberation and premeditation.

189 PC. (a) All murder that is perpetrated by means of a destructive device or explosive, a weapon of mass destruction, knowing use of ammunition designed primarily to penetrate metal or armor, poison, lying in wait, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing, or that is committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, arson, rape, carjacking, robbery, burglary, mayhem, kidnapping, train wrecking, or any act punishable under Section 206, 286, 287, 288, or 289, or former Section 288a, or murder that is perpetrated by means of discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, intentionally at another person outside of the vehicle with the intent to inflict death, is murder of the first degree.

(b) All other kinds of murders are of the second degree.

(c) As used in this section, the following definitions apply:

(1) “Destructive device” has the same meaning as in Section 16460.

(2) “Explosive” has the same meaning as in Section 12000 of the Health and Safety Code.

(3) “Weapon of mass destruction” means any item defined in Section 11417.

(d) To prove the killing was “deliberate and premeditated,” it is not necessary to prove the defendant maturely and meaningfully reflected upon the gravity of the defendant’s act.

(e) A participant in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of a felony listed in subdivision (a) in which a death occurs is liable for murder only if one of the following is proven:

(1) The person was the actual killer.

(2) The person was not the actual killer, but, with the intent to kill, aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested, or assisted the actual killer in the commission of murder in the first degree.

(3) The person was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life, as described in subdivision (d) of Section 190.2.

(f) Subdivision (e) does not apply to a defendant when the victim is a peace officer who was killed while in the course of the peace officer’s duties, where the defendant knew or reasonably should have known that the victim was a peace officer engaged in the performance of the peace officer’s duties.



In California, first-degree murder is the most serious charge an individual can be accused of. It is characterized by an illegal killing with premeditated malice aforethought, committed in a specific manner, or during the commission of specified felony offenses.


According to California Penal Code 189 PC, first-degree murder can be classified into five categories:

  • Killing using explosives, weapons of mass destruction, metal-penetrating ammunition, or poison.
  • Killing after lying in wait.
  • Killing by inflicting torture under the provisions of 206 PC.
  • Willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing.
  • Felony-murder, which involves intentionally or unintentionally killing someone while engaged in certain specified felonies, such as arson, robbery, burglary, carjacking, train wrecking, kidnapping, mayhem, torture, and certain California sex crimes including rape, sodomy, forced oral copulation, sexual penetration, or lewd acts with a minor.


Under PC 189, any killings with malice aforethought that do not meet the requirements for first-degree murder are categorized as second-degree murder. Unlike first-degree murder, second-degree murder is not necessarily premeditated or deliberate; rather, it is the result of extreme recklessness, which distinguishes it as more serious and severe than a manslaughter charge. In this scenario, the defendant behaves recklessly in a manner where any reasonable person would understand that it could likely lead to death.


John Smith, a 35-year-old resident of Los Angeles, California, found himself in a dire situation when he was charged with murder under California Penal Code 189. The case involved the death of his neighbor, Mr. Johnson, during a heated argument that took place on the evening of July 15, 2022.

According to the prosecution, the altercation escalated quickly when John allegedly retrieved a firearm from his house and fatally shot Mr. Johnson multiple times. The prosecution argued that John acted with malice aforethought, intending to cause serious harm or death to Mr. Johnson.

Under California Penal Code 189, there are three degrees of murder: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and felony murder. In this case, the prosecution initially charged John with first-degree murder, arguing that he acted willfully, deliberately, and with premeditation.


The penalties for murder in California can be severe, potentially resulting in life imprisonment. However, the minimum sentences for each category differ significantly.


For first-degree murder, the standard sentence is 25 years to life in state prison. However, if the murder is determined to be a hate crime, the sentence increases to life without the possibility of parole.

In the case of second-degree murder, the penalty is 15 years to life in state prison. However, several aggravating circumstances can enhance this sentence. For instance:

  • If the murder is committed through a drive-by shooting, the sentence becomes 20 years to life.
  • If the murder is gang-related, additional gang crime enhancements under Penal Code 186.22 PC may apply.
  • Prior murder convictions can lead to an escalated sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
  • If the victim is a peace officer, the sentence is heightened to 25 years to life.


When facing murder charges under Penal Code 189, common defense strategies may involve arguing:

  • Self-defense or defense of others: Claiming that the defendant believed their safety or the safety of others was in immediate danger, and their actions were a reasonable response under those circumstances.
  • Innocent accident: Asserting that the incident resulting in the death was an unintentional and unforeseen accident, rather than a deliberate act.
  • False accusation: Arguing that the defendant has been wrongly accused of committing the murder and presenting evidence to support their innocence.

Typical pieces of evidence utilized in these defense strategies may include eyewitness testimonies, video surveillance footage, and forensic evidence to challenge the prosecution’s version of events and establish a reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt.


  • Penal Code § 187 PC – Murder
  • Penal Code § 188 PC – Malice Aforethought
  • Penal Code § 190 PC – Penalties for Murder
  • Penal Code § 192 PC – Manslaughter
  • Penal Code § 192(a) PC – Voluntary Manslaughter
  • Penal Code § 192(b) PC – Involuntary Manslaughter
  • Penal Code § 192(c) PC – Vehicular Manslaughter
  • Penal Code § 193 PC – Manslaughter Penalties
  • Penal Code § 197 PC – Justifiable Homicide
  • Penal Code § 198.5 PC – Home Protection; Use of Deadly Force
  • Penal Code § 26100 PC – Drive-By Shooting
  • Penal Code § 451 PC – Arson
  • Penal Code § 18715 PC – Use of Destructive Device or Explosive to Murder


If you are facing serious charges such as murder, it is crucial to seek immediate assistance from a skilled defense team.

At Tabibnia Law Firm in Los Angeles, California, Criminal defense lawyer Cyrus Tabibnia can thoroughly analyze the evidence in your case to determine potential defense strategies.

Cyrus may also engage in negotiations with the prosecutor to potentially prevent formal charges through pre-filing intervention, known as a “DA reject.”

Tabibnia Law Firm handles murder cases throughout California and offers case evaluations either by phone or by filling out the contact form on their website. You can also reach them at 866-713-2159 for assistance.


Cyrus Tabibnia

Cyrus Tabibnia

Cyrus Tabibnia, also known as Shahrooz Tabibnia, is a criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles, California. With a law degree from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, he has been practicing law since 2005 and holds license #237348. With over 18 years of experience, Cyrus specializes in various misdemeanor and felony criminal Law including Domestic Violence, Theft Crime, Sex crime, DUI & DWI, Personal Injury, Employment Law, and Cannabis & Marijuana Drugs Law. Being bilingual in English, Persian, and Spanish enables him to effectively communicate with a diverse range of clients. From 2014 to 2018, he served as a board member of the Iranian American Bar Association. An expungement attorney in Los Angeles who can assist you in clearing your criminal record in the state of California.

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