I'm not a lawyer, but here's a list of special circumstances that can affect the penalty for murder/killing in the state of California, based on my reading of sections 187 - 199 of the California Penal code.

Special circumstances that reduce or eliminate the penalty:

  • Victim was an unborn child and the killing was a lawful abortion performed with the mother's permission
  • Extreme emotional or mental disturbance
  • Victim was a participant in homicidal conduct or consented to the homicidal act
  • The offense was committed under circumstances which the defendant reasonably believed to be a moral justification or extenuation for his or her conduct
  • Extreme duress or under the substantial domination of another person
  • The ability of the defendant to appreciate the criminality of his or her conduct or to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of law was impaired as a result of mental disease or defect, or the effects of intoxication
  • The age of the defendant at the time of the crime
  • The defendant was an accomplice to the offense and his or her participation in the commission of the offense was relatively minor
  • "Any other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime"
  • When committed by accident and misfortune, or in doing any other lawful act by lawful means, with usual and ordinary caution, and without any unlawful intent
  • When committed by accident and misfortune, in the heat of passion, upon any sudden and sufficient provocation, or upon a sudden combat, when no undue advantage is taken, nor any dangerous weapon used, and when the killing is not done in a cruel or unusual manner
  • By public officers and those acting by their command in their aid and assistance, either
    • In obedience to any judgment of a competent Court
    • When necessarily committed in overcoming actual resistance to the execution of some legal process, or in the discharge of any other legal duty
    • When necessarily committed in retaking felons who have been rescued or have escaped, or when necessarily committed in arresting persons charged with felony, and who are fleeing from justice or resisting such arrest
  • When resisting any attempt to murder any person, or to commit a felony, or to do some great bodily injury upon any person
  • When committed in defense of habitation, property, or person, against one who manifestly intends or endeavors, by violence or surprise, to commit a felony, or against one who manifestly intends and endeavors, in a violent, riotous or tumultuous manner, to enter the habitation of another for the purpose of offering violence to any person therein
  • When committed in the lawful defense of such person, or of a wife or husband, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant of such person, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony or to do some great bodily injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished; but such person, or the person in whose behalf the defense was made, if he was the assailant or engaged in mutual combat, must really and in good faith have endeavored to decline any further struggle before the homicide was committed
  • When necessarily committed in attempting, by lawful ways and means, to apprehend any person for any felony committed, or in lawfully suppressing any riot, or in lawfully keeping and preserving the peace

Special circumstances that increase the penalty:


  • Intentionally killed victim "because of the victim's disability, gender, or sexual orientation or because of the defendant's perception of the victim's disability, gender, or sexual orientation"
  • Defendant previously served a prison sentence for first or second degree murder
  • Prior criminal activity with or without a conviction, unless the defendant was actually acquitted at trial
  • Prior felony convictions
  • The murder was intentional and carried out for financial gain
  • The defendant was convicted previously of murder in the first or second degree
  • The defendant, in this proceeding, has been convicted of more than one offense of murder in the first or second degree
  • The murder was committed by means of a destructive device, bomb, or explosive planted, hidden, or concealed in any place, area, dwelling, building, or structure, and the defendant knew, or reasonably should have known, that his or her act or acts would create a great risk of death to one or more human beings
  • The murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest, or perfecting or attempting to perfect, an escape from lawful custody
  • The murder was committed by means of a destructive device, bomb, or explosive that the defendant mailed or delivered, attempted to mail or deliver, or caused to be mailed or delivered, and the defendant knew, or reasonably should have known, that his or her act or acts would create a great risk of death to one or more human beings
  • The victim was one of the following and was intentionally killed for actions taken while on duty:
    • peace officer
    • former peace officer
    • federal law enforcement officer or agent
    • firefighter
    • witness to a crime who was intentionally killed for the purpose of preventing his or her testimony in any criminal or juvenile proceeding, and the killing was not committed during the commission or attempted commission, of the crime to which he or she was a witness; or the victim was a witness to a crime and was intentionally killed in retaliation for his or her testimony in any criminal or juvenile proceeding
    • prosecutor or assistant prosecutor or a former prosecutor or assistant prosecutor of any local or state prosecutor's office in this or any other state, or of a federal prosecutor's office
    • judge or former judge of any court of record in the local, state, or federal system in this or any other state
    • juror in any court of record in the local, state, or federal system in this or any other state
    • operator or driver of a bus, taxicab, streetcar, cable car, trackless trolley, or other motor vehicle operated on land, including a vehicle operated on stationary rails or on a track or rail suspended in the air, used for the transportation of persons for hire, or the victim was a station agent or ticket agent for the entity providing such transportation, who, while engaged in the course of the performance of his or her duties was intentionally killed
  • The murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity. As used in this section, the phrase "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity" means a conscienceless or pitiless crime that is unnecessarily torturous to the victim
  • The murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in, or was an accomplice in, the commission of, attempted commission of, or the immediate flight after committing, or attempting to commit, the following felonies:
    • Robbery in violation of Section 211 or 212.5
    • Kidnapping in violation of Section 207, 209, or 209.5
    • Rape in violation of Section 261
    • Sodomy in violation of Section 286
    • The performance of a lewd or lascivious act upon the person of a child under the age of 14 years in violation of Section 288
    • Oral copulation in violation of Section 288a
    • Burglary in the first or second degree in violation of Section
      460
    • Arson in violation of subdivision (b) of Section 451
    • Train wrecking in violation of Section 219
    • Mayhem in violation of Section 203
    • Rape by instrument in violation of Section 289
    • Carjacking, as defined in Section 215
  • The murder was intentional and involved the infliction of torture
  • The defendant intentionally killed the victim by the
    administration of poison
  • The murder was intentional and perpetrated by means of discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, intentionally at another person or persons outside the vehicle with the intent to inflict death
  • The defendant intentionally killed the victim while the defendant was an active participant in a criminal street gang and the murder was carried out to further the activities of the criminal street gang

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