Not every homicide is murder. In fact, not every homicide is even considered a criminal act. Homicide is the death of one human being at the hands of another, but there are circumstances under California law when taking someone’s life is legally justified.
If you found yourself facing a charge of first-degree or second-degree murder, your defense would have to fall under one of the legally recognized justifications (or another defense such as mistaken identity or accidental harm).
What Does the Law Consider a Justifiable Homicide?
There is a handful of “justifiable homicide” scenarios when first-degree murder charges would not apply despite using lethal force that ended someone’s life. Those justifications include:
- Commission of duty – Law enforcement officers, prison guards, and other public officers sometimes end up in a situation where their only choice is to use deadly force against an assailant or suspect. As long as the use of legal force was not unreasonable, murder charges against peace officers rarely stick.
- Self-defense -- Perhaps the most popularly known reason is self-defense, which means that you used reasonable force to defend yourself and it resulted in the death of the other person. If you did not instigate the incident and felt your life was in jeopardy, this may be a viable defense against murder or manslaughter.
- Defense of another – The law also recognizes defending the life of another person as justification for homicide. If does not have to be a family member. It could be anyone, as long as you reasonably believed the person’s life was in danger and that lethal force was the only way to save their life.
- Castle doctrine – California law justifies lethal force against intruders attempting to forcibly enter your home to commit a robbery or violent crime. However, it is not a justification to kill trespassers or thieves who pose no imminent threat to your safety.
Even a clear case of justifiable homicide will still require fitting into one of these categories. A police officer may try to assure you that you had the right to do what you did, especially in your own home, but that does not mean that you will not still face scrutiny by investigators and prosecutors. As you can imagine, many people have attempted to use one of the above defenses when the circumstances and evidence say something else.
Your Rights Under the Law
Jaded police and skeptical prosecutors may not immediately believe that you have a legal justification for the killing of someone else. You should never rely only on what you know to be the truth. Always exercise your right to remain silent and to talk to an attorney. This is a scenario where anything you say – even while declaring your innocence -- could be used against you.
Even innocent people need a legal advocate, especially when facing penalties as harsh as the punishment for first-degree murder.