Attempted Murder Case Law in California

Attempted murder requires the specific intent to kill and the commission of a direct but ineffectual act toward accomplishing the intended killing. A defendant's intent is rarely susceptible of direct proof, and may be inferred from the facts and circumstances surrounding the offense. A direct threat to kill, followed by unequivocal actions, provides a particularly strong set of circumstances. (People v. Felix (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 1618, 1624-1625.) A direct step requires more than merely planning or preparing to commit murder or obtaining or arranging for something needed to commit murder. A direct step is one that goes beyond planning or preparation and shows that a person is putting his or her plan into action and indicates a definite and unambiguous intent to kill. A direct step is a direct movement toward the commission of the crime after preparations are made and is an immediate step that puts the plan into motion so that the plan would have been completed if circumstances outside the plan had not interrupted the attempt. (People v. Lawrence (2009) 177 Cal.App.4th 547, 556.) In People v. Superior Court (Decker) (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1, the defendant was charged with the attempted murder of his sister and his friend. According to evidence introduced at the preliminary hearing, Decker did not want to kill the two women himself so he sought the services of a hired assassin. Decker located a person he thought was an assassin. He furnished the assassin with a description of his sister, her home, vehicle, and workplace, and also furnished specific information about her daily habits. He advised the assassin to kill his sister's girlfriend, if necessary, to avoid leaving a witness behind. Decker and the assassin, agreed on the means to commit the murder, the method of payment, and the price. They agreed that Decker would pay a $ 5,000 cash down payment. Before Decker handed over the down payment, the assassin asked whether Decker was certain he wanted to go through with the murders. Decker said, "'I am absolutely, positively, 100 percent sure, that I want to go through with it. I've never been so sure of anything in my entire life.'" Decker's words were recorded because he was talking with an undercover police detective posing as a hired assassin. Decker conceded this evidence was sufficient to hold him to answer to the charge of solicitation for murder. However, he argued the evidence was insufficient to support a charge of attempted murder. The superior court dismissed the attempted murder charges, the First District Court of Appeal disagreed and ordered reinstatement of those charges, and the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the appellate court. (Id. at pp. 4-5.) The uncontradicted evidence showed that Decker had the specific intent to kill his sister. He expressed to a gunsmith acquaintance and the undercover detective his desire to have her killed. He researched how to find a hired assassin. He spent months accumulating cash in small denominations to provide a down payment to a hired assassin. He worked out a method for paying the balance to the assassin. Decker knew the layout of his sister's condominium and knew how one might enter it surreptitiously. He tested the level of surveillance in the vicinity of his sister's home. He chronicled his sister's daily routine at home and work. He offered the undercover detective recommendations on how his sister should be killed and the necessary materials for inflicting death. (Decker, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 7-8.) The Supreme Court observed: "The controversy in this case ... is whether there was also a direct but ineffectual act toward accomplishing the intended killings. For an attempt, the overt act must go beyond mere preparation and show that the killer is putting his or her plan into action; it need not be the last proximate or ultimate step toward commission of the crime or crimes (People v. Kipp (1998) 18 Cal.4th 349, 376), nor need it satisfy any element of the crime (People v. Dillon (1983) 34 Cal.3d 441, 454). However, as we have explained, 'between preparation for the attempt and the attempt itself, there is a wide difference. The preparation consists in devising or arranging the means or measures necessary for the commission of the offense; the attempt is the direct movement toward the commission after the preparations are made.' (People v. Murray (1859) 14 Cal. 159; see also People v. Anderson (1934) 1 Cal.2d 687, 689-690.) '"It is sufficient if it is the first or some subsequent act directed towards that end after the preparations are made."' (People v. Memro (1985) 38 Cal.3d 658, 698.) "As simple as it is to state the terminology for the law of attempt, it is not always clear in practice how to apply it.... Indeed, we have ourselves observed that 'none of the various "tests" used by the courts can possibly distinguish all preparations from all attempts.' (People v. Memro, supra, 38 Cal.3d at p. 699.) "Although a definitive test has proved elusive, we have long recognized that 'whenever the design of a person to commit crime is clearly shown, slight acts in furtherance of the design will constitute an attempt.' " (Decker, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 8.) Viewing the entirety of Decker's conduct in light of his clearly expressed intent, the Supreme Court found sufficient evidence under the "slight-acts rule" (Decker, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 9) to hold him to answer to the charges of attempted murder of his sister and her girlfriend. At the time Decker handed the detective the down payment on the murder, Decker's intention was clear, and it was equally clear that he was actually putting his plan into action. Decker had secured an agreement with the undercover detective to murder the sister and, if necessary, her friend. He provided the detective with all the information necessary to commit the crime and had given the detective the $ 5,000 down payment. Decker understood that "'it's done'" (ibid.) once the detective left with the money. These facts would lead a reasonable person to believe a crime is about to be consummated absent an intervening force. Although Decker did not personally point a gun at his sister, he did aim at her an armed professional who had agreed to commit the murder. Decker effectively did all that he needed to do to ensure that his sister and her friend would be executed. (Id. at pp. 8-9, 14.)