What Does it Mean When a Murder Charge Comes with Special Circumstances?

What Does it Mean When a Murder Charge Comes with Special Circumstances? Anyone facing a murder prosecution has to understand what extraordinary circumstances are because, if a jury determines that one of them is true, they could sentence them to life in prison without the possibility of parole—or, even worse—to death. Discover more about exceptional circumstances, and feel free to meet with Chambers Law Firm criminal defense attorney Dan Chambers to go over the particulars of your case.

1789 amendment to the Constitution of the United States

The Tenth Article of the United States Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment” of persons who have been charged with a crime. This article is a part of a series that explains what must take place at criminal trials and what cannot: “Excessive bail shall not be necessary, excessive fines shall not be imposed, and harsh and unusual punishments shall not be administered.”

1972 Supreme Court decision

The United States Supreme Court used this constitutional amendment to support its decision that juries could not arbitrarily decide which defendants should receive the death penalty while sparing other defendants from receiving it. The Court ruled that it was a “cruel and unusual” means of treating defendants since juries had been passing death sentences in a largely arbitrary manner.

Law in California

After this decision, every state, including California, had to modify its sentencing guidelines so that juries could no longer arbitrarily choose to execute some defendants while not doing so for others. The rule that was ultimately implemented in California restricted juries’ authority to sentence someone to death if they were found guilty of murder due to subjective judgments. The law now states that a criminal can only be executed for first-degree murder if there were exceptional circumstances surrounding the crime.

What are special circumstances?

Each unique condition that qualifies for the California death penalty is listed in detail in Penal Code 190.2 PC. A jury must condemn the defendant to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole if they determine that at least one of the special conditions is true. Special situations examples include:

  • Murder carried out for financial gain
  • Prior murder conviction
  • Multiple murder convictions in the same case
  • Murder by bomb or destructive device
  • Murder to prevent arrest or escape
  • Murder of a police officer, federal agent, or firefighter
  • Murder of a witness
  • Murder of a prosecutor, judge, government official, or juror
  • Lying in wait (meaning the killer intended to kill the victim by hiding and taking him or her by surprise)
  • Murder because of race, religion, or nationality (i.e., a “hate” crime)
  • Murder in commission of a specified felony (to so-called “felony murder rule”)
  • Murder involving torture
  • Murder by poison
  • Drive-by shootings
  • Murder by a street gang member

Call right away

Whether there are any unusual circumstances or not, if you or a member of your family is accused of murder, you need the best legal counsel Southern California has to offer. Make a call to Chambers Law Firm at 714-760-4088 right away to arrange a no-cost case evaluation. Don’t think twice—your freedom or life may be on the line.

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