Express Malice in California Murder Cases
Under California law, Penal Code 187 PC murder is defined as "the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought." The most crucial element in proving this type of crime is malice aforethought, which is a deliberate intent to cause harm or death to another human being.
The term "express malice" is a legal concept used to describe the role of willful intent in murder. If you've been charged with murder, prosecutors may specifically try to establish that you acted with express malice (as opposed to implied malice) in committing the crime. They will likely obtain a more severe sentence against you if they can establish express malice.
Simply put, express malice is a form of malice aforethought and a mental state that makes a perpetrator liable for murder in California. A killer acts with express malice when they harbor a specific intent to kill the victim.
Penal Code 188(a)(1) PC says, “Malice is express when there is manifested a deliberate intention to unlawfully take away the life of a fellow creature….”
(2) Malice is implied when no considerable provocation appears or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”
Express malice can be related to a situation where someone is willing to commit intentional murder. In other words, killing someone was on purpose, such as repeatedly stabbing somebody during a fight or deliberately poisoning someone.
“Deliberate” and “premeditated” are not the same as express malice. They are the required mental state required for PC 187 first-degree murder in California because they prove more than just sudden intent to kill someone.
First-degree murder carries more severe penalties than a second-degree murder conviction, including a minimum sentence of 25 years in California state prison.
The case circumstances, physical evidence, and witness statements often prove malice aforethought. A prosecutor will attempt to prove the defendant intentionally killed the victim. Let's review this state law further below.
What Is Malice Aforethought and the Types of Malice?
Malice aforethought is a legal concept that comprises a deliberate intent to cause harm or death to another human being.
Malice aforethought refers to the intent to cause death or serious bodily harm to another person. In other words, it is the mental state required for an act to be considered murder.
Two types of malice are recognized under California law: express malice and implied malice.
- Express malice is when a person deliberately and intentionally causes the death of another person. For example, when a husband inserts a deadly amount of poison into his wife's drink or a man walks into a house with a loaded gun and fires it at another person's head.
- Implied malice is when a person consciously disregards human life, knowing their actions could lead to death or serious bodily harm. For example, suppose a man locks his partner out of the house in bitterly cold temperatures wearing only pajamas, and the partner dies of exposure. In that case, the man may not have deliberately killed his partner, but it could be implied malice because he should have known death was possible.
The distinction between these two types of malice is crucial, as it determines the severity of the charges and potential penalties in a murder case.
Why Would Prosecutors Seek to Prove Express Malice in Murder Cases?
In a California murder case, the prosecution's primary goal is to establish all the legal elements that make up the crime of murder, including malice aforethought.
Under Penal Code 189 PC, one form of first-degree murder includes a "willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing."
By proving express malice, prosecutors can demonstrate willfulness; by also proving that your actions were deliberate and premeditated, they can significantly increase their chances of securing a conviction on first-degree murder, which can result in 25 years to life imprisonment, as opposed to second-degree murder, which is 15 to life).
Establishing express malice requires demonstrating an unequivocal intent to commit the crime. To do this, prosecutors typically draw from the following sources of evidence and information:
- Witness testimony includes statements from witnesses who observed the defendant's actions or heard them make incriminating statements can be crucial in establishing express malice. Witnesses may testify about the defendant's threats, admissions of intent to kill, or any other behavior demonstrating a deliberate purpose to cause death.
- Physical evidence can include any objects or materials indicating premeditation or intent to kill. For example, evidence of planning, like handwritten notes detailing the murder plan, can be used to establish express malice.
- Forensic evidence is crime scene analysis, autopsy reports, and other forensic evidence that can help demonstrate the defendant's actions and intent in murder. For example, multiple gunshot or stab wounds inflicted on the victim versus one or two wounds can indicate a clear intent to cause death or serious bodily harm.
- Defendant's statements and behavior are your own words and actions, either before or after the crime, and can provide insight into your state of mind and intent. Incriminating statements made to friends, family, or law enforcement officers and behavior that suggest planning or premeditation can be used to establish express malice.
What Are the Common Defenses Against Express Malice?
Disproving express malice is a crucial defense strategy to combat murder charges or reduce the risk of an extended prison sentence if you are convicted. Some common defenses used to refute express malice are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue self-defense. Your attorney may say that you killed the victim in self-defense, meaning that you reasonably believed they were in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm and had no choice but to use deadly force to protect yourself.
Perhaps we can argue that there was a provocation. The defense may claim that the victim provoked you, causing you to act in the heat of passion rather than with specific intent to kill. If successful, this defense can reduce the charge from murder to manslaughter.
Perhaps we can argue there was a mistake of fact or accident. Your attorney may present evidence that you did not intend to kill the victim but instead caused their death by mistake or accident. Therefore, there could not have been malice aforethought.
Perhaps we can argue that the police violated your constitutional rights by coercing a confession. Maybe we can file a Penal Code 1538.5 motion to suppress evidence.
You can contact our law firm by phone or via the contact form to review the case details. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.