If you are facing a murder accusation in California, defending your rights in court means defending your freedom. Depending on the circumstances of your case, the possible sentence for a conviction could range from a few years to life in prison.

Before your court date, prepare for the charges against you by understanding how California defines and penalizes these crimes.

First-degree murder

This is the most serious type of murder charge in California and can result in 25 years to life in prison. A person can receive a first-degree murder conviction in the presence of proof that he or she premeditated the murder. In addition, first-degree murder charges apply when the murder occurred in the course of committing another violent felony, such as burglary, kidnapping, arson or rape. Deaths that result from the use of an explosive device or weapon of mass destruction also constitute first-degree murder.

Second-degree murder

Murders that do not meet the legal guidelines for first-degree charges will result in second-degree murder charges. A conviction for second-degree murder in California can result in 15 years to life in prison. Twenty years is the minimum sentence when the crime involved a drive-by shooting, and the minimum prison term increases to 25 years if the victim was a peace officer.

Manslaughter charges

When a person caused another person’s death without “malice forethought,” California may impose manslaughter charges. The state recognizes three degrees of manslaughter:

  • Vehicular manslaughter, which occurs when a driver kills someone while committing a traffic offense
  • Involuntary manslaughter, which occurs due to carelessness or during a misdemeanor offense
  • Voluntary manslaughter, involving unreasonable self-defense or violence with provocation

Prison sentences for manslaughter can range from two to 11 years.

If the death occurred while defending yourself or someone else, a California judge may downgrade your charges. You can also provide evidence showing that you did not plan the murder in advance.