This has to do with what has to be shown by the prosecution and the defense as it relates to a jury trial in a murder case, particularly in Los Angeles county where a lot of murder cases are prosecuted. There are certain rules that have to be abided by if you want to try to argue as a defense attorney that the crime in your particular case was a justifiable homicide or there was some excuse for the homicide.
Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The jury instruction and the law that applies to that states in no uncertain terms that, upon a trial of a charge of Penal Code 187 murder, the killer is lawful if it was justified or excusable. The burden is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the homicide was unlawful, that is not justified or excused.
If you have a reasonable doubt that the homicide was unlawful you must find the defendant not guilty. This is what is read to juries assuming that the defense is able to put in some evidence showing that the killing was a lawful killing — that it was justified or that it was excusable.
Whether they were defending another person; whether they were defending themselves; whether the person was in the process of committing some horrible felony and that person was trying to stop them from doing that under the circumstances was acting reasonably.
So, the prosecutors always have the burden when it comes to proving a criminal case and the charge, and if they can't prove that a killing — if they're going to charge a murder charge — was unlawful and not excused and they're not going to be able to prove the person guilty and the jury is going to find the person not guilty.
So, the prosecution has the burden as far as proving every single charge in the complaint or an information in Los Angeles county.
Self-Defense or Defense of Others
On the flip side, if the defense is going to assert a self-defense or defense of others or some other justifiable homicide claim, in order to get the jury instruction to back that up — in other words, in order to get the law to back that up, the defense is going to have to put on evidence that supports that.
You can't just pull it out of your hat and make the argument without any evidence to back it up or the judge is not going to give that jury instruction. So, you've got to either get it out from one of the witnesses or through your client taking the witness stand.
There's all sorts of ways to get the evidence in that it was a self-defense, a defense of others — it was a justifiable homicide because the circumstance the person found them in. So, if you can get the facts out there then you, as a defense attorney, asks the judge, listen I got in this fact.
I've got in an argument that it was self-defense and if the jury believes these facts that were put into evidence, then my client can be found not-guilty because it would be a justifiable homicide because they were acting in self-defense at the time or they were trying to defend some other person, they were acting reasonably, and therefore, they should not be found guilty of murder.
So, this is where if the judge refused to give this particular jury instruction, appeals are granted and the appellate court says, you needed to give the jury this instruction because they needed some sort of law to latch onto in order to be able to find the person not-guilty.
Even if the trial court don't believe the testimony or don't like the testimony, if the testimony is there and the jury could believe it — who's the finder of fact in the case — then it doesn't matter. You still have to instruct them on the particular law that applies to the case.
Defense Argument Killing was Lawful
This is where battles are being had all the time. If I put on a defense in a murder case in one of the Los Angeles courts and I see that I can get a jury instruction that will support my defense — in other words, I can say to the jury, look, this is what the evidence was in the case.
You saw that there was evidence that my client was trying to defend himself at the time this killing took place, and look, there's a jury instruction that matches up with what he was doing. So, if you believe that he was defending himself at the time, the law says that if you kill somebody and it was under reasonable circumstances in defending himself, then that killing was lawful and the prosecutors cannot prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
So, when you do these murder trials, that's why in my opinion, it's so crucial that you get a criminal defense lawyer who's handled these type of cases before in the particular Los Angeles courtroom where your case is pending because they're going to know how to pick a jury.
They're going to know how to present the evidence. They're going to know how to cross-examine the witnesses in the case, and lastly, they're going to know how to argue you it in the end to convince the jury of your position.
In these close murder cases, a lot of times the people who win the case are the ones who are better prepared, make the better arguments and convince the jury that their position is the right one.