Murder in California is governed by penal code 187. The slang “one-eight-seven” or “one-eighty-seven” is commonly used by California law enforcement to mean “murder.” Oddly, the term has also been adopted by gang members around the world to describe a murder. Section 187 defines murder as “the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.”
California law distinguishes between first degree murder and second degree murder. First degree murders include homicides that are willful, deliberate, and premeditated. Second degree murders, however, are willful, but not deliberate and premeditated. Although convictions for either first degree or second degree could result in a sentence of life without parole, the minimum sentence for second degree murder is 15 years, while the minimum sentence for first degree murder is 25 years. In addition, only first degree murder convictions are eligible for the death penalty. Under the law, the act of murder is willful as long as the perpetrator is aware that his action could result in serious bodily injury or death. If the court determines the perpetrator acted willfully, then the prosecutor has proven that the act was willful, which is a required element for both first degree and second degree murder.
For a conviction of second degree murder, the prosecution does not need to prove that the action was deliberate and premeditated. The prosecution, however, does have to prove the element of malice, which under California law, can be either express or implied. Express malice is malice that is present when the perpetrator specifically intends to kill the victim. Implied malice requires an intentional act that is inherently dangerous and done deliberately with no regard to human life. For example, the act of shooting a gun into a crowd is an example of implied malice. Although the shooter may not have a specific victim in mind, the deliberate act of shooting the gun into a crowd is sufficient to prove malice. On the other hand, if the shooter had a particular victim in mind, and aims and kills that person, then the court would find his act to be express malice.
Interestingly, the California legislature amended the murder statute in 1970 to include the unlawful killing of a fetus. Since then, courts have considered the question of when a fetus is a fetus for the purposes of section 187, and the California Supreme Court has defined a fetus as being beyond the embryonic stage of seven to eight weeks.
Statistically, murder rates in California continue to drop along with the rest of the nation. In 2010, California had 4.9 murders per 100,000 people, which indicated a steady decline since 2000. In Los Angeles, there were 314 murders reported in 2010, which was the lowest number reported in 40 years. The peak of violence occurred in 1992, when almost 1,200 murders were reported in Los Angeles.