Self Defense Under California Criminal LawsMurder or self defense? On January 29, 2014, Vanesa Zavala, a person with no criminal record, pleaded not guilty to charges of second degree murder after being arrested on January 18, 2014 when a fight outside a Santa Ana nightclub let to the beating and death of 23 year old Annie Pham.  See–.html.  It is unclear at this point why the fight and brutal beating took place other than the fact that it is alleged that Ms. Pham bumped into Zavala which led to an altercation that escalated into a more serious melee leading to the tragic death of Annie Pham.  It appears that Ms. Zavala didn’t have the specific intent to kill Ms. Pham but under California law, she is facing a life sentence if convicted of second degree murder.

Fights whether they take place in bars or outside a club are common in California whether it be Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego or, in this case, Orange County.  In most instances, person may not be seriously injured and no arrests may take place.   Often times however, persons can and are arrested for serious felonies as a result of “bar fights” including possible charges of assault, assault with a deadly weapon (ADW) and in the case of Vanesa Zavala, murder.  It is important to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney in California when arrested for either a felony or misdemeanor assault or battery so that you understand your rights and have the opportunity to defend yourself against what can be a life changing criminal prosecution. 

1.      Self-Defense in California

In California, self-defense will excuse a person from criminal liability in most cases if you can show that you reasonably believe that you or another person is in immediate and/or imminent danger of suffering a great bodily harm or injury, you use reasonable resistance and only the force necessary to defend yourself, you only use force for as long as it is necessary to defend yourself  and there is no alternative way to defend yourself against the immediate harm or danger other using force.  

Moreover, in California, you may only use a theory of self-defense to a charge of murder if you were defending yourself against a “forcible and atrocious crime.”  The definition of “forcible and atrocious” crimes for purposes of using self-defense in a murder case include defending yourself against the following crimes:  1. Murder or Manslaughter; 2. Mayhem; 3. Rape;  4. Robbery and 5. being assaulted or attacked in a way that would cause great bodily harm. 

In the case of Ms. Zavala, it will be imperative for her defense attorney to show that when she assaulted Ms Pham, that she was in imminent danger of suffering great bodily harm or injury.   If the prosecution can show that Ms. Zavala, continued to beat Ms. Pham after she was not a threat such as Ms. Pham laying on the ground, it will be hard to prevail on a theory of self-defense. 

To understand whether or not you have a viable self-defense to charges  of murder, assault and/or assault with a deadly weapon, you should immediately contact a California Criminal Defense lawyer.

2.       Imperfect Self-Defense

As indicated above, a person charged with murder or other crimes of violence may only be cleared of all criminal liability under a self-defense theory if their lawyer can prove that you reasonably believed that you faced an imminent threat and that you used reasonably force to defend yourself of that danger.   If a jury finds that your belief of an imminent threat of great bodily injury or harm was unreasonable, you still may have an imperfect self-defense which will not completely exonerate a person from criminal liability but may allow for a reduction in charges.    

Imperfect self-defense can be successfully used as a defense in a criminal prosecution for murder in California if they can show that 1.  A person actually believed that they or someone else was in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death; 2. The person had an honest belief that deadly force was necessary to defend themselves or others; and 3.  Either of the beliefs was unreasonable.

Such a defense can be successfully used in a murder case to reduce a charge from first or second degree murder to a charge under California Penal Code section 192 of voluntary manslaughter.

3.       California “Stand Your Ground Laws.”

Somewhat like the laws in Florida that were discussed in the Trayvon Martin case, California also has a “stand your ground” law that may be used by a person charged with murder, assault, adw or similar crimes.  In California, a person may use force that is reasonable to defend oneself.  Such force may be used  even if  a person has the option of escaping the threat by leaving or running away.  It is also lawful to pursue the attacker until the threat of danger has subsided or passed.   In most cases, the “stand your ground” defense is successfully used when defending yourself in attack your home or residence.  It is important to consult with an experienced California criminal defense lawyer to understand if you have a viable “stand your ground” defense.

4.       Penalties for Second Degree Murder

Under California Penal Code section 190, the penalty for second degree murder is 15 years to life in prison (25 years to life if committed against a police officer).  In a second degree murder case, the intent of malice is implied meaning that the death resulted as a result of a reckless disregard for human life as opposed to a specific intent to kill another person.  Bar fights where a person is brutally beaten without a weapon but rather just fists or feet can result in a second degree murder conviction depending on the facts of the beating.

However, if you can prove that your were acting in self-defense when killing another person, you may be completely exonerated from all criminal charges.  If you have an “imperfect self-defense” as described above you may be able to have a second degree murder charge reduced to voluntary manslaughter under California Penal Code section 192 which carries a lesser penalty of 3, 6, or 11 years in state prison as opposed to a potential life sentence.