Do Prosecutors Have to Prove Motive in a Murder Case?

Posted by Ronald D. HeddingJun 23, 2022

California Penal Code 187 PC legally defines the crime of murder as the unlawful killing of someone or a fetus with malice aforethought.

First-degree murder includes all premeditated killings along with felony murder that involves a scenario where somebody dies during a carjacking, robbery, or other types of serious crimes.

A PC 187 first-degree murder conviction carries a sentence of 25 years to life in a California state prison. If the killing involved torture or lying in wait, called a “special circumstance,” you could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Do Prosecutors Have to Prove Motive in a Murder Case?

Murder cases are very serious, and motive usually comes up as one of the topics.  But the simple answer is that they don't have to prove motive to prove somebody is guilty of murder. 

To get somebody for murder, you've got to show that they killed somebody, and they did so with malice or forethought.  In other words, they thought about it – either they planned it, or it was a spur of the moment that they reflected on and decided to kill somebody.

In cases where murder didn't involve premeditation, it will usually be charged as a second-degree murder that carries a sentence of 15 years to life in prison if convicted.

Under Penal Code 187 PC, second-degree murder is a willful act, but it is not deliberate, and there was no premeditation.  Second-degree murder is any murder that doesn't fall under the umbrella of first-degree murder. Our California criminal defense lawyers will examine this law further below.

Motive in California Murder Cases - Explained

So, motive does come up because sometimes it's a questionable crime.  In other words, the prosecutors might not have all the evidence they want, such as:

  • Maybe they don't have witnesses;
  • They don't have video;
  • They don't have fingerprints;
  • They don't have DNA, etc.

So, the motive would be a good piece of evidence that they can use to try to prove the crime.  The point is that they don't have to prove it; however, it can be used by the prosecutors to show that somebody's guilty. 

There's a jury instruction (CALCRIM 520) related to motive and how it plays into deciding whether or not somebody committed a murder. Of course, the defense could spin that around and say:

  • This person had no motive to do anything to the other person;
  • They didn't have any fight;
  • They didn't have any quarrel;
  • They don't know each other – whatever the case may be.

So, that's something you want to sit down and talk to your attorney about.

Example of Motive in Murder Cases

If you or your loved one is charged with murder, and whether or not there's a motive to commit the crime, that would undoubtedly be relevant.  I'll give you a perfect example.

Motive in Murder Cases

Let's say there's a gang shooting, and three gang members are being charged with killing another gang member, and the gang member they happen to kill is a rival gang member in their territory.

That would certainly be an argument for the prosecutors to say that's the motive for the shooting.  That's why they shot the person because they're rival gang members, and one is in another's territory, and when that happens, that's grounded in that world for them to try to hurt or kill the other person.

So, when you sit down with me to talk about your or your loved one's case and the person's charged with murder, we're certainly going to talk about whether or not there's a motive because that's one of the pieces of the puzzle that could make or break the case for the prosecutor. 

We want to know whether or not there is a motive, what it is, and whether it makes sense in the big scheme of things. 

What is Capital Murder in California?

Capital murder is often called first-degree murder with special circumstances, which include various situations, such as any of the following:

  • killing a law enforcement officer or a firefighter;
  • killing a prosecutor, judge, or elected official;
  • killing was based on their race, religion, or country of origin;
  • Killing was for the benefit of a gang or a drive-by shooting;
  • Killing a witness to prevent them from providing court testimony;
  • Killing was for financial gain;
  • Killing more than one person.

What is the Felony Murder Rule?

Felony murder means killing someone while committing a dangerous felony crime. For instance, you shoot and kill the clerk while committing a robbery at a gas station.

The felony murder rule in California was modified in 2018 by Governor Jerry Brown by signing Senate Bill 1437. Under the prior law, an accomplice could be charged with PC 187 murder while committing a felony, even if it was an accident.

The new law says that to be charged with murder, they must be the actual killer or they had the intent to kill someone.

What are Special Prosecutors for Murder Cases?

The crime of murder is the most severe crime that somebody can be charged with.  Here in Los Angeles county, they use special prosecutors to prosecute these cases. 

They also have special police units, for example, robbery/homicide, that investigate murder cases.  They've got a lot of resources.

Special Prosecutors for Murder Cases

They have more people power than a lot of the other units do, and they've got prosecutors who are specially trained, more sophisticated, and more experienced that deal with these cases, and a lot of times, they'll team up to investigate cases and strategize them and to decide:

  • who they're going to arrest,
  • who they're going to charge with murder, and
  • exactly how they're going to prosecute the case.

So, if you need the best, you or a loved one is charged with murder, pick up the phone.  Set up a meeting with Ron Hedding.  I've been doing this for 30 years.

I worked for the District Attorney's office early in my career, and I also worked for a Superior Court judge, and in the early 1990s, I decided to defend people and do everything I could to help.  The Hedding Law Firm provides a free case review by phone or uses the contact form.