Charged with Murder

Charged With Murder?

If you or anyone you know is being investigated for or charged with a murder, you need a qualified, experienced lawyer–preferably one that has actually taken murder cases to trial. Not maybe in the future sometime, or tomorrow: you need a lawyer right away. A California Penal Code section 187(PC 187 or murder) case usually draws the highest bail amounts, gets a lot of police and District Attorney resources/effort directed at the case, and generates the most severe punishments if convicted.

Murder cases are among the most factually and legally complicated cases lawyers handle. Whether the issue is the relationship between Murder with Special Circumstances, 1st or 2nd-degree Murder, or whether the case is really a Voluntary or Involuntary Manslaughter, these cases can be difficult just figuring out the charges themselves. When you add in understanding defenses like Third-Party Culpability, Self-Defense, Voluntary Intoxication or Home Defense (The Castle Doctrine), the need for a lawyer that has worked these cases before is critically important.  The lawyer you choose to handle a murder case might just be the difference between spending the rest of your life in prison, or seeing your family and home again on “the outside” one day.

In San Diego County, when someone is arrested and booked by the Sheriff for a PC187, there will be “no bail” set by the jail. This means the defendant accused with murder can’t get out or have a bail set until their first court appearance, which is usually a few days after booking.  Bail is usually set at the first court hearing, although a Murder with Special Circumstances charge (PC190.2) sometimes results in no bail being set. Bail in murder cases is always very high, at least at the very start of the case. One to three million dollars bail is not at all unusual. 

Indeed, any bail that’s set below a million dollars is unusual for a murder case.  A bondsman in California will likely be looking for around 10% of the bail (and real property or some other valuable collateral for the rest) as their fee for posting bail. Most people charged with murder remain in jail until their case is resolved either through a trial, settlement, or dismissal; attorneys fees and bail are expensive when the stakes are this high. 

Murder cases are important to both the police and prosecutors. When someone loses their life as a result of criminal conduct, the government puts a lot of time and energy into both solving and prosecuting the case. Police Departments put their most experienced detectives into their homicide units.  Law enforcement and the government have a lot of forensic and administrative support in doing their job. They take their job seriously and will continue to investigate until they have built a case they can send to the prosecutor that gives them the best chance of conviction. It is rare that a “weak” murder case is sent to the DA. But just because a homicide is filed does not mean it can’t be defended.  It just means that it is going to have to be defended and it’s not going away quickly.

These cases are often in the public eye, drawing media and community interest. DA’s have built their careers on public “high profile” murder cases. Because of that public interest, DA’s work murder cases hard and devote a lot of time and money to supporting their case. A defense lawyer is going to need to thoroughly investigate a case, matching the DA in workload and using scientific and other forensic experts to defend the case. And, they are going to need to know how to do that. 

The murder statutes are straightforward to read, but applying them in criminal cases can be complicated. Deciding whether a case should be defended, for example, as a 2nd Degree Murder or a Manslaughter, or has an affirmative defense, or should go for a complete acquittal, is probably the most important thing a lawyer can decide in a murder case. This is why it is so important the lawyer you hire to defend a murder case has actually been in a position to make these decisions before. It is never a good place to be in as a criminal defendant where your lawyer is making decisions on a murder case when they have never tried a murder case before. Or worse, never handled one before. 

The punishments for murder cover a range of time.  The maximum punishment is the death penalty or life without parole (Special Circumstances Murder.) First Degree Murder has a punishment of  25 years-life in prison.  2nd Degree has a punishment of 15 years-life in prison. One big problem is the extra time (enhancements) added for using a weapon, particularly a gun.  A murder with a gun can increase punishments to as high as 50 years-life, making it likely a person convicted of murder with a gun will be in prison for at least 30 years before becoming parole eligible. And, there is no guarantee they will ever become parole eligible.

The punishments associated with murder charges give the DA a great deal of leverage in deciding how to charge a murder case and, more importantly, what they want to offer in order to settle it. Settlements in murder cases, if an offer is even made, are usually quite high and favor the DA. The only way to get a reduced offer or charge, or even a rare dismissal, is to attack and degrade the prosecution’s case through investigation, use of expert witnesses, and in-court litigation. This is what an experienced lawyer will do for you. 

The Law Offices of David R. Silldorf has had extensive trial experience with murder and manslaughter cases. A recent case involved one of our clients facing 50 years to life in prison after being charged with first-degree murder with a firearm. The prosecutor’s theory was that our client had shot an unarmed man two times, in the chest and neck, after a minor argument in the doorway of the client’s home. The body and shell casings were found outside the home. 

The prosecutor believed the client had premeditated and deliberated a murder, and then carried it out because he was romantically interested in the dead man’s girlfriend. There was no disagreement that our client had shot the other man.  The case involved issues of murder, manslaughter and self-defense. After extensive investigation, using expert witnesses in firearms and ballistics, and creating a 3D-computer model of the event, our client was acquitted of both first and second degree murder charges, which would have led to the most serious prison exposure as discussed above.  Ultimately, he was convicted at trial of manslaughter with a reduced firearm charge, receiving a non-life term.  Our client will see his family and home again one day soon.  

If you or someone you know is charged with manslaughter or murder, it is critically important you retain a law firm that has actually tried murder and manslaughter cases to a jury.  There is no substitute for actual experience when it comes to cases that are this serious, this important, and will result in life-long consequences.

Gary Gibson

Gary Gibson

Gary Gibson is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served in the Special Operations Unit and as a Naval Intelligence Officer. He worked in the San Diego County Department of the Public Defender from 1991 to 2016 where he provided over 250 hours of varied legal training to department attorneys and investigators. He has participated in over 100 criminal trials, including 18 homicides. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at the California Western School of Law.

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