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How does California define first-degree murder?

Sep 19, 2022 | Violent Crimes

California has very strict guidelines for what constitutes first-degree murder. To convict you of this most serious form of homicide, the prosecutor must prove, first and foremost, that you deliberately intended to kill your alleged victim. Stated another way, the prosecutor must prove premeditation.

As explained by FindLaw, the prosecutor then must prove at least one of four possible special circumstances as described below.

Type of murder

The first special circumstance has to do with the way in which you allegedly committed the murder. Qualifying types include torturing your alleged victim or lying in wait for him or her to appear.

Type of weapon

The second special circumstance has to do with the type of weapon you allegedly used to murder your alleged victim. Qualifying weapons include the following:

  • Bomb or explosive device
  • Weapon of mass destruction
  • Poison
  • Armor-piercing ammunition
  • Firearm that you shot from a moving vehicle

Type of victim

The third special circumstance has to do with the identity of your alleged victim. Qualifying classifications include the following:

  • Judge
  • Prosecutor
  • Firefighter
  • Peace officer
  • Federal law enforcement officer

Murder during commission of a felony

The fourth special circumstance arises if you allegedly murdered your alleged victim while committing or attempting to commit a separate felony. Qualifying felonies include the following:

  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Kidnapping
  • Rape

Possible defenses

You have defenses available to you if charged with first-degree murder. Some of the most common defenses include the following:

  • Lack of premeditation on your part
  • Self-defense
  • Defense of someone else
  • Lack of mental capacity to realize the consequences of your actions, i.e., insanity


Since California suspended the death penalty, the two possible penalties if convicted of first-degree murder are a prison sentence of 25 years to life or life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.