In California, like in most states, there is first degree murder and second degree murder. While they both involve an intentional killing, one is more serious than the other, especially when it comes to sentencing.
To put it in context, California groups all crimes that involve taking a human life under the title of homicide.
Within that category is both manslaughter and murder, which can both be subdivided into several categories. Focusing on murder, the difference between first and second degree rests primarily on one thing: intent.
Most crimes hinge on intent; if the person meant to cause the harm and planned it, the punishment is more serious than if it happens out of other circumstances.
Under California law, murder always includes intentional killing. But first degree is much more serious than second degree.
First degree murder means a killing that was both intentional and premeditated, meaning planned.
How much planning is required? If at any point before it happened, the person planned or knew that his actions would cause death or serious injury and still continued, that's considered premeditation. Even one minute is enough to qualify.
For murders that are intentional but that aren't premeditated, the charge is generally second degree murder. That means a murder where the person intended to kill or knew his actions would cause death or serious injury, but that it wasn't planned beforehand.
Because first-degree murder is a more serious charge, the potential sentence is also longer. First degree murder in California is a capital offense.
By contrast, the maximum penalty for second-degree murder is life in prison without parole.
But just because the death sentence isn't on the line, doesn't mean the charge should be taken less seriously. In fact, any criminal charge can potentially affect your freedom so it's a good idea to get a lawyer on your side.