A violent crime involving the death of another individual is a serious offense. Homicide cases are heard in the criminal justice system, and depending on the case specifics, the defendant may be punished with a life sentence without the possibility of parole in Pennsylvania.
If you or a loved one is charged with a homicide, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the differences in different murder charges to plan a serious defense. More importantly, you need a Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer to help you get the best outcome of your murder charge.
Homicide defense attorney, Derek Steenson, is experienced in murder cases and can help defend against the charges.
When facing homicide charges, timing is crucial. Call us at (215) 253-8658 for a free consultation.
What is Criminal Homicide in Pennsylvania?
Criminal homicide in Philadelphia describes the act of killing another person intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with some level of negligence. Criminal homicide in PA is split into three types of murder charges and two types of manslaughter.
These charges are punishable based on the defendant’s mental state at the time of the act. Therefore, it’s not enough for a prosecutor to show that someone was killed; they must prove the victim’s death was because of the defendant’s actions and prove intent or neglect at the time.
Categories of Homicide Charges in Pennsylvania
Criminal Homicide Charges in PA are:
- Murder – Murder can be charged as first, second, or third-degree murder
- Manslaughter – The two classifications of manslaughter are involuntary manslaughter and voluntary manslaughter
Other types of homicide charges that apply in certain circumstances include:
- Homicide while DUI
- Homicide of a Law Enforcement Officer
- Homicide by vehicle
- Drug Delivery Resulting in Death
Types of murder charges
Murder in Philadelphia is described as the intentional killing of an individual when the act wasn’t in self-defense or defending another person or when the death happened when another felony was in progress.
In Philadelphia, first-degree murder is described as the intentional killing of another individual by poison, lying in wait, or any willful, deliberate, and premeditated act. By this definition, for someone to be convicted of first-degree murder, the defendant must have murdered on purpose and thought about it in advance.
The defendant doesn’t need to have thought about the act for long or taken a serious step in planning the murder. On the contrary, some appreciable time to reflect on the killing and deciding to do it is enough to qualify it as first-degree murder.
First-degree murder charges do not apply to situations where the murder was committed rashly, on impulse, or with strong emotion, including terror, rage, panic, intoxication, or because of a mental disorder. Also, first-degree murder does not apply in situations where the defendant believes they were acting in self-defense.
A first-degree murder charge carries life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
A defendant is charged with second-degree murder if human life was taken, while committing a felony offense. By this definition, if two individuals commit a felony together, including sexual assault, burglary, or armed robbery, and one of them murders someone in the process, the other party will be charged and convicted of murder despite them not having killed anyone.
A second-degree murder conviction carries a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Third-degree murder is any other kind of murder that doesn’t fall under the first or second-degree murder categories. Third-degree murder is not intentional, premeditated, or committed during a felony.
While first and second degree murder carry a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment, the punishment for a third-degree murder criminal conviction is between 20 and 40 years in prison.
Drug delivery resulting in death
This criminal charge is similar to third-degree murder charges. With increased opioid-related deaths, individuals who’ve sold or given victims drugs are charged with drug delivery resulting in death. This homicide category targets drug dealers and drug users who gave or sold the drugs to an overdose victim who passed on.
Pennsylvania often charges these defendants with Drug Delivery Resulting in Death.
This type of homicide carries a maximum 40 years in jail. Although there are multiple strong defenses a criminal defense attorney can explore for a Drug Delivery Resulting in Death charge, not knowing or intending for the victim to overdose isn’t one.
Criminal homicide of a child or law enforcement officer
You are charged with Criminal homicide of a child or law enforcement officer when you murder:
- A child under 13 years
- A law enforcement officer on duty with full knowledge of who they were
Categories of Manslaughter Charges
Although manslaughter also involves killing someone else, it’s different from murder in that it’s either intentional or unintentional, voluntary or involuntary.
This is the intentional killing of another individual where the defendant’s reaction was rash and emotion-filled following provocation by the victim. It also counts as voluntary manslaughter when the defendant kills without lawful justification. In most cases, voluntary manslaughter doesn’t include the intention to kill but to do a different action.
A defendant is brought up on involuntary manslaughter charges when an unintentional killing results from their reckless or negligent actions. According to Philadelphia laws, reckless is when an individual decides to disregard unjustifiable and substantial risk, while negligence is when a person should know the risk and proceeds to disregard it when no reasonable person would.
Involuntary manslaughter is common in speeding or poor driving situations that lead to accidents in which a person dies. Such criminal offenses have many gray areas, and as such, you need a professional homicide attorney in Philadelphia to review your case and get the best outcome.
Involuntary manslaughter is treated as a first-degree misdemeanor unless the victim is under 12 years old and in the defendant’s care. If it’s the latter, it’s treated as a second-degree felony.
Juveniles charged with murder
A juvenile charged with murder is tried as an adult since Pennsylvania criminal courts have jurisdiction for every murder case irrespective of the defendant’s age. Although a juvenile defendant can file for a case transfer to a juvenile court, it’s not guaranteed. The criminal court will consider the evidence submitted to determine if transferring the case to a juvenile court system serves the public interest.
Police investigation and interrogation tactics
Usually, detectives and police in Philadelphia interrogate murder suspects to get the defendant to admit to the crime. Sometimes the questioning tactics are brutal, and they can cause physical and emotional stress. The defendant might take responsibility for the crime despite not having committed it to get some reprieve.
Murder trial tactics – attacking the witness
When a homicide or murder criminal case is in a trial, an experienced criminal lawyer serving Philadelphia will try to attack the prosecution’s witness’ credibility. Since most homicide cases hinge on the testimony of one/two witnesses, discrediting the witness can win the case or get the charges reduced.
Affirmative legal defenses
In homicide cases, it’s the prosecutor’s job to prove the defendant is guilty since defendants are innocent until proven guilty. But when the defendant introduces an affirmative defense, it’s their job to prove their innocence. The most common include alibi defense and self-defense.
In Philadelphia, self-defense arguments are limited to specific situations, and the defendant must prove the force used was justified.
Since a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, they can introduce evidence that creates reasonable doubt they did it. The alibi should show the defendant was somewhere else at the time of the crime.
Homicide sentencing factors for first-degree murder
You might get capital punishment if you are convicted of first-degree murder under certain aggravated circumstances. The aggravated circumstances include:
- The victim was a police officer, a public official, or a firefighter killed while on duty or because of their public position
- The defendant was paid to kill
- The victim was held hostage
- The victim was killed when the defendant was committing a felony
- The victim was a witness and was killed to prevent their testimony
- The defendant had a criminal history
- The defendant was previously convicted of voluntary manslaughter or murder
- The victim acted as a police informant
- The victim was in her third trimester of pregnancy
- The victim was a child under 12 years
Aside from the above, the homicide attorney should also make sure the court consider mitigating factors as reasons to not impose the death penalty such as:
- The defendant was under extreme emotional or mental distress, which can be proved through an expert’s testimony
- The defendant doesn’t have a violent criminal history
- The defendant had reduced mental capacity that they couldn’t understand their act was criminal
- The defendant’s age should be considered
Need a Philadelphia Homicide Attorney?
While there are various categories of murder in Pennsylvania, they all come with harsh consequences upon conviction. If you are facing a criminal homicide charge, Derek Steenson, Attorney at Law, can help.
As an experienced Criminal Lawyer Serving Philadelphia and surrounding counties, Mr. Steenson understands felony murder law, homicide laws, prison sentences and how to proceed to get you the best possible outcome. Call our law offices today at (215) 253-8658 for a free consultation.