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Special Circumstances Murder

Penal Code 190.2 PC - Special Circumstances Murder Cases

California Penal Code 190.2 PC is the statute explaining when someone can be held accountable for murder with special circumstances, known as “capital murder.” Simply put, this is an aggravated type of murder that carries life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty if convicted.

California Penal Code 190.2 PC - Special Circumstances Murder Cases
A "special circumstances" murder is an aggravated form of murder carrying more severe penalties.

Under California law, a murder defendant can only be sentenced to death (capital punishment) if they are convicted of first-degree murder and if it involved a “special circumstance,” which is included in PC 190.2. However, there is a temporary moratorium on all executions in California. Los Angeles County prosecutors will not seek the death penalty in any of its murder or other violent cases.

Like most states, California does not treat all Penal Code 187 PC murder cases equally. Some special circumstances will elevate the case to a more severe level with increased penalties. PC 190.2 has a lengthy description of situations where somebody could be held liable for murder with special circumstances.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1972 (Furman v. Georgia) that ordering the death penalty to random defendants convicted of murder violates their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Instead, defendants can only be sentenced to capital punishment in cases of a first-degree murder conviction and if when it involves a listed special circumstance, such as the murder of a police officer.

Even in cases where a jury finds that one of the special circumstances does apply, it does not automatically mean a defendant will get the death penalty; rather, life in prison without the possibility of parole or death.

What is Special Circumstances Murder?

Penal Code 187 PC murder in California is defined as the "unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought." A special circumstances murder involves aggravating factors that escalate the severity of the crime to more severe penalties. 

As noted, a California special circumstances murder (capital murder) is an aggravated form of PC 187 PC first-degree murder. The primary difference from a standard murder case is the severity of the penalties. For example,

  • A standard first-degree murder conviction in California carries 25 years to life in state prison,
  • A special circumstances murder carries life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) or the death penalty.

Penal Code 190.2(a) PC differentiates a special circumstances murder from a typical murder case based on the severity and reason for the crime. This means convicted murder defendants are facing the possibility of much harsher penalties.

What is the Role of the Jury? 

Since special circumstance murder has more severe penalties, the jury plays a vital role as they are involved in the guilt and penalty phases.

As noted, an allegation of special circumstances does not automatically result in a life without parole or death sentence. The prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the special circumstances exist to justify an enhanced penalty. 

During the trial, a jury must determine unanimously that a defendant is not only guilty of murder but also that special circumstances exist.

If a jury decides guilty of the murder but is unable to conclude special circumstances apply unanimously, the defendant would be sentenced based on the standard murder guidelines instead of the enhanced penalties.

Penalty Phase

Suppose the jury concludes that special circumstances exist. In that case, the trial will move to the penalty phase, a separate proceeding where they determine whether to impose the death penalty or life without parole. 

At this phase, the prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer can present additional evidence and make oral arguments.  The prosecution will typically focus on aggravating factors, such as the severity of the crime and prior criminal record.

The defense will typically focus on mitigating factors, such as mental health issues and a lack of a criminal record. When the hearing is completed, the jury will consider these factors and determine an appropriate sentence.

What Types of Murder Qualify for Special Circumstances?

California Penal Code 190.2(a) PC lists the often-changing specific situations that would qualify as special circumstances to elevate a murder charge. It should be noted that the courts and legislators sometimes modify this list. Some examples of what might constitute special circumstances include the following:

  • The murder was to obtain a financial benefit.
  • The defendant has a prior murder conviction.
  • The defendant murdered multiple people in the same trial.
  • The victim was a state or federal peace officer or firefighter.
  • The victim was a judge, prosecutor, or juror killed in retaliation or to prevent them from performing their duties.
  • The victim was a witness who was killed to silence them.
  • A bomb or destructive device was used to commit murder.
  • The murder was committed to prevent arrest or escape.
  • The murder was committed by lying in wait.
  • The murder was committed using poison.
  • The murder involved the torture of the victim.
  • The murder was part of a hate crime based on race or religion.
  • The murder was committed in the commission of a felony.
  • A murder was in a drive-by shooting.
  • A street gang member committed a murder.
  • The murder was committed (or attempted) during specific felony crimes such as robbery, rape, arson, kidnapping.

Notably, a first-degree murder conviction becomes a special circumstances murder if you were previously convicted of first or second-degree murder in California or anywhere else.

What is Murder for Financial Gain?

Numerous situations could qualify as financial gain to elevate a standard murder into a capital murder. Perhaps it was a “murder-for-hire” or one drug dealer killing another to get rid of competition. However, for special circumstances to apply in a murder for financial gain, all the following factors must apply:   

  • The murder was an intentional act,
  • It was committed for financial benefit and  
  • If the murder was a felony murder where the crime was robbery, you must have expected that the financial gain was a result of the death.

Is There a Moratorium on Executions in California?

Yes. California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions in March 2019. This decision does not abolish the death penalty but suspends any pending executions. This means that defendants convicted of special circumstances murder and sentenced to death will not face execution unless the moratorium is lifted.

Likewise, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office will no longer seek the death penalty in special circumstances murder cases since December 2020. Anyone convicted of special circumstances murder will receive a sentence of life without parole by default. 

Suppose you or a family member has been charged with Penal Code 190.2 PC special circumstances murder. In that case, you will need an experienced California criminal defense lawyer to have the best chance of a favorable outcome. Contact our law firm for a free case evaluation. Cron, Israels & Stark has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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