A Variety of Charges Are Possible in Killings : Law: Suspects arrested on suspicion of murder may actually be charged with a lesser crime, such as manslaughter.


In deciding what charges to file against Marlon Brando’s son, prosecutors can choose from an array, ranging from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter, legal experts say.

“They all begin as murder (charges) on homicide cases,” said William Kunstler, the attorney retained to represent Christian Brando, who was arrested Thursday in the slaying of his half sister’s Tahitian boyfriend. “This is clearly not going to end up as a murder case.”

Kunstler explained that the charges could be modified as the investigation continues. “At this point, it’s a convenience for them (prosecutors) to charge him with murder,” he said. “It’s easier for a prosecutor to go down (in the hierarchy of charges) than go up. . . . If there was a struggle for the gun and the gun went off, for example, I don’t know if there would be any liability at all.”

The attorney said that from the facts he has been able to gather so far, “it might be self-defense. . . . I understand there may have been a struggle over the gun, and some beating going on of Marlon’s daughter.”


Kunstler also raised questions about whether the 32-year-old suspect’s rights had been violated by police who questioned him without an attorney present. He also said there are questions about young Brando’s mental condition at the time of the shooting. Police said the suspect may have been drinking.

Depending on the facts that emerge from the investigation, legal experts say, Christian Brando ultimately could face one of the following charges:

- First-degree murder is the deliberate, premeditated killing of a person with malice, either express or implied. Or killing in the course of a robbery or other felony. Or killing by poison, lying in wait or torture. Criminals like the Hillside Strangler and Night Stalker fall within this category. The penalty is 25 years to life in prison.

If so-called special circumstances, such as murder for financial gain, apply, the penalty is death or life in prison without possibility of parole.

- Second-degree murder, which carries a penalty of 15 years to life, is “your typical garden-variety-type murder” without premeditation, veteran Los Angeles County prosecutor Steven Kay said. For example, a jury found former gang leader Virgil Byars guilty last month of second-degree murder in a case involving two drive-by shootings. The prosecution had argued for a first-degree conviction; the defense had hoped for manslaughter if not acquittal.

- Voluntary manslaughter is killing during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. The classic example of this, Kay said, is the husband who finds his wife in bed with another man and kills them both. “But,” noted Kay, “if he hid in the closet to surprise them, as happened in a recent case, that’s not manslaughter.”

San Francisco Supervisor Dan White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the 1978 killings of the mayor and another supervisor.

Voluntary manslaughter carries a sentence of three, six or 11 years in prison.

- Involuntary manslaughter, which carries a sentence of two, three or four years, is the inadvertent killing of a person during a dangerous activity.

Sometimes what begins as murder ends up as manslaughter. In the 1987 case of Ricky Kyle, for example, the defendant was charged with murder but found guilty by the jury of the reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter in the Bel-Air shooting death of his Texas tycoon father. Jurors said they believed that he fired the gun in self-defense, while he and his father were searching for a burglar.

A homicide may be found justifiable if it is committed in self-defense or in defense of another person. Kunstler has suggested that this may be the tack he takes if Brando is charged. Arraignment is scheduled today.

Kay and other prosecutors say celebrities or their kin are treated no differently from ordinary suspects.

But defense attorneys say they are handled with extra care--and often treated more severely than ordinary defendants.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, celebrities were treated more favorably,” noted defense attorney Gerald Chaleff says. “But today, police and prosecutors appear to go more by the rules (with celebrities) than with someone not in the public eye.”