Lying in Wait Murder in California
In the State of California, lying in wait to commit murder is a type of first-degree murder under Penal Code 189 PC. It's considered an aggravating circumstance that, when prosecutors successfully link it to a murder charge, can result in more severe sentencing.
This aggravating circumstance is often referred to as "lying in wait murder." If you're charged with first-degree murder, and prosecutors can demonstrate that you lay in wait to attack your alleged victim, you could face the death penalty.
Simply put, lying in wait refers to a type of murder where someone waits for their victim and then kills them in an ambush-style attack. Many states have this type of law that makes it a first-degree murder.
Lying in wait is an “aggravating circumstance,” which is considered a factor that makes the penalties more severe.
To convict someone of lying in wait murder, the prosecutor must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, all the crucial factors known as the “elements of the crime.”
These factors include the fact that the defendant concealed their purpose from the victim, waited and watched for an opportunity to act, made a surprise attack on the victim, and acted with a specific intent to kill them. Let's review this topic in more detail below.
What Is "Lying in Wait"?
In legal terms, "lying in wait" refers to a situation where an individual intentionally hides or waits for an opportunity to ambush their victim with the intention of causing death.
This premeditated action demonstrates a high level of malice and intent, which can significantly impact the severity of the charges and potential penalties in a murder case.
The term “concealment of purpose” is frequently used in lying in wait cases. As noted, prosecutors must prove different elements to convict someone of lying in wait murder.
One is that the defendant concealed their purpose, which can be proven by showing the perpetrator concealed their purpose of committing the murder and did so from the victim. Notably, a perpetrator can conceal their purpose even if the person killed was aware of their presence.
Why Prosecutors Aim to Demonstrate "Lying in Wait"
When prosecutors argue that a defendant has lain in wait, they seek to establish that the crime was premeditated and committed with high planning and deliberation.
This aggravating factor can elevate the charges from second-degree murder to first-degree murder, which carries a more severe sentence—including the possibility of life imprisonment without parole or even the death penalty in some jurisdictions.
Notably, at the moment, Governor Newsom has imposed a moratorium on executions in the State of California, and Los Angeles no longer pursues the death penalty in its murder cases.
Demonstrating "Lying in Wait" in Court
To apply lying in wait to your murder charge, prosecutors must prove the following four elements:
- Concealment of purpose: You concealed your intention to commit the crime from your alleged victim. In other words, the victim was unaware of your malicious intent and was therefore made vulnerable.
- Watching and waiting: You spent a substantial amount of time looking for an opportune moment to commit the crime. While no specific duration qualifies as "substantial," the period should be long enough to show that you had ample opportunity to deliberate on your actions and reconsider your plan.
- Surprise lethal attack on the victim: Once the victim arrived at the scene or became vulnerable, you launched a lethal assault without giving the victim any chance to defend themselves or escape.
- Willful intent: These actions were done specifically to enable you to commit murder.
To prove these elements, the prosecution will present evidence that supports their argument. This can include the following:
- Testimony from eyewitnesses who observed your actions before the crime took place.
- Physical evidence, such as weapons or items used to hide or conceal your presence from the victim.
- Surveillance footage or other recordings that show your actions and movements leading up to the murder.
- Expert testimony from forensic specialists, criminal profilers, or other professionals who can provide insight into your mindset and motivations.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: John has harbored a grudge against his former business partner Mark and decides to kill him as revenge. After quietly studying Mark's routine and discovering his daily route passes through an isolated alley, John hides behind a dumpster in the ally and fatally ambushes Mark with a knife as he passes by. John can be charged with lying in wait murder.
EXAMPLE 2: Enraged to discover her husband Dave's secret affair, Samantha plots to kill him on "pizza night." She waits patiently for the pizza delivery to arrive, and when Dave gets up to answer the doorbell, she quickly drops a lethal dose of arsenic into Dave's wine.
He drinks the wine and dies later that evening. Although there was no physical assault involved, Samantha's actions constitute lying in wait because she concealed her intentions and waited for an opportunity. The poison constituted the surprise attack.
EXAMPLE 3: Kyle and Kevin have a heated argument at a bar. The altercation escalates, and they are both thrown out by the bouncer. Kyle exits first and waits outside the bar in plain view with a broken bottle as a weapon to confront Kevin when he leaves.
When Kevin finally exits the bar, David immediately attacks him with the bottle, causing a severe injury and leading to Kevin's death. Although David waited for Kevin outside the bar, he did not actively conceal himself or plan an ambush. His actions were more spontaneous and visible, making it difficult to argue that he was lying in wait.
Defenses Against "Lying in Wait"
If you're charged with lying in wait murder, your criminal defense team may employ several strategies to challenge the prosecution's assertions. Some common defenses are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that there was a lack of premeditation or planning. If your actions were spontaneous or impulsive, you could not have lain in wait for the victim.
Perhaps we can challenge the concealment element. You did not actively hide or wait to ambush the victim. Maybe we can argue that there was no element of surprise. The victim was aware of your intentions and approach and had the opportunity to defend themselves.
Perhaps we argue that there was a coerced confession. Suppose your attorney can show that law enforcement used unlawful means to obtain a confession from you regarding lying in wait or committing the murder in general. In that case, that confession is not admissible in court.
You can contact our law firm for a full case review by phone or through the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California.