Penal Code 190.2 PC - Special Circumstances Murder in California
In criminal law, not all murder cases are treated equally. In California, Penal Code 190.2 PC outlines specific factors that elevate a murder charge to a more severe level due to special circumstances.
In other words, this statute explains the situations where someone can be liable for murder with special circumstances, aggravated forms of murder.
In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that issuing the death penalty to a “random handful” of people convicted of murder violates their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
Thus, the law in California on special circumstances murder exists to deal with this issue. Because of PC 190.2, juries can't impose the death penalty, also called capital punishment, on somebody guilty of PC 187 murder because they don't like the defendant.
Instead, a murder defendant can only be sentenced to death in cases of a first-degree murder conviction and if the murder involved a “special circumstance,” listed in Penal Code 190.2 PC, including the murder of a police officer.
Notably, even if a jury finds that one of the special circumstances is true, it does not mean the convicted defendant will automatically get the death penalty. However, it does mean they will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or death.
If you have been charged with murder and the prosecution can prove that one of these special circumstances applies to your case, a conviction may result in life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—or possibly (in theory), the death penalty.
Understanding Special Circumstances Murder
Murder, under California law, is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought, defined under Penal Code 187 PC.
Special circumstances murder is a category of murder that involves certain aggravating factors which escalate the severity of the crime and subject the defendant to harsher penalties.
These aggravating factors are enumerated in PC 190.2(a) and differentiate a special circumstances murder from a typical murder case. The rationale behind treating special circumstances murder cases differently lies in the gravity of such offenses.
Depending on the nature of the aggravating factor, a special circumstances murder may be considered much more heinous than a typical manslaughter or murder and, therefore, should be punished more severely.
Legal Ramifications and Sentencing Guidelines
When you're accused of special circumstances murder, you face the prospect of significantly harsher penalties than those associated with a standard murder charge.
Under California law, a person convicted of first-degree murder without special circumstances faces a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
However, if special circumstances are present, the defendant may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) or even the death penalty.
The Role of the Jury in Special Circumstance Murder Cases
Since the penalties for special circumstance murder are far more severe than general murder penalties, the jury plays a more in-depth role in these cases. Specifically, they are involved in the trial's guilt and penalty phases.
The Guilt Phase
The mere allegation of special circumstances does not automatically result in an LWOP or death sentence. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the special circumstances exist and are sufficient to warrant the enhanced penalty.
During this trial phase, the jury must determine unanimously, and beyond a reasonable doubt, not only that you are guilty of murder but that special circumstances also exist.
Suppose the jurors turn in a guilty verdict but cannot conclude unanimously that special circumstances apply. In that case, you will be sentenced according to standard guidelines for murder instead of the enhanced penalties.
The Penalty Phase
If the jury finds special circumstances exist, the trial moves to the penalty phase. This is a separate proceeding where the jury decides whether to impose the death penalty or life without parole.
Both the prosecution and the defense may present additional evidence and arguments during this phase, which may include aggravating factors (e.g., prior criminal history, the heinous nature of the crime) and mitigating factors (e.g., your age, any mental health issues, lack of a criminal record). The jury then weighs these factors and determines the appropriate sentence.
What Constitutes Special Circumstances?
PC 190.2(a) enumerates specific situations that qualify as special circumstances that elevate a murder charge.
This list is a moving target as the courts and legislators add or remove certain circumstances from time to time. Below are some current examples of what may constitute special circumstances:
- The murder was committed for financial gain.
- The victim was a peace officer, federal law enforcement officer, or firefighter.
- The victim witnessed a crime and was killed to silence them.
- The victim was a judge, prosecutor, juror, or government official killed in retaliation or to prevent them from performing their duties.
- The defendant has one or more prior murder convictions.
- The defendant is convicted of multiple murders as part of the same trial, at least one of which is first-degree murder.
- The murder was committed by a bomb or destructive device;
- The murder was to prevent arrest or escape;
- The murder was committed by lying in wait.
- The murder was committed via poison.
- The murder involved torturing the victim.
- The murder was carried out as part of a hate crime.
- The murder of a witness;
- The murder was because of race, religion, or nationality;
- The murder was in the commission of a felony;
- A murder committed in a drive-by shooting;
- A murder committed by a street gang member
- The murder was committed in the course of committing, attempting to commit, or immediately after committing specific felonies such as robbery, kidnapping, rape, or arson.
Note that if the murder was carried out to obtain some type of financial benefit listed above is special circumstances murder, but all of the following factors must apply:
- The murder was intentional;
- It was carried out for financial gain; and
- If the murder was a felony murder where the crime was robbery, the defendant must have expected that the financial gain was a result of the death.
Further, a first-degree murder conviction will become a special circumstances murder if the defendant was previously convicted of first or second-degree murder in California or anywhere else.
The Moratorium on Executions in California
In March 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions in the state. While this decision does not abolish the death penalty, it effectively suspends any pending executions during his tenure in office.
As a result, defendants who are convicted of special circumstances murder and sentenced to death will not face execution until or unless the moratorium is lifted.
Los Angeles No Longer Seeks the Death Penalty
As of December 2020, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office no longer seeks the death penalty in special circumstances murder cases.
If you're convicted of special circumstances murder in this county, the default sentence is life without parole.
Suppose you or a family member has been charged with Penal Code 190.2 PC special circumstances murder. In that case, you will need experienced legal representation to develop a strategy to have the best chance of a successful outcome.
You can contact us for a case review by phone or using the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, CA.