Pennsylvania Homicide Attorney
Undoubtedly, homicide is one of the most severe crimes you can face, with the potential for catastrophic consequences that will strip you of your freedom, liberty, and dignity. Yes, homicides are typically prosecuted with zeal. But if the prosecutor charges you with such a crime, remember that all is not lost. Getting accused of this crime is not the same as being found guilty, as the prosecutor must prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt for a jury to convict you. It may help to remember that nothing is ever black and white—and just because you face this criminal accusation does not mean you are guilty. However, since so much is at stake, it is imperative to seek legal advice from an experienced, skilled, and aggressive Pennsylvania homicide attorney immediately.
Pennsylvania Homicide: Elements and Evidence
First and foremost, it is crucial to understand what constitutes criminal homicide.
Criminal homicide is defined as the intentional, knowing, reckless, or extremely negligent killing of another person. In most states, homicide is a general term that encompasses several crimes.
In Pennsylvania, criminal homicide is divided into five categories: three degrees of murder and two types of manslaughter. Which level of crime the prosecutor charges you with hinges on your alleged mental state during the homicide.
Generally, to prove homicide charges, the Commonwealth must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
A person died,
They died because of the accused’s actions, and
Depending on the specific crime charged, the accused intended to kill or acted with a disregard for human life.
The prosecutor will use an array of evidence to try and prove their case against you, including, but not limited to, the following:
Physical evidence such as a weapon or fingerprints,
Expert testimony, and
The strength of the Commonwealth’s case depends on the type and amount of evidence they have. A good defense attorney will know how to cast as much doubt as possible on the prosecutor’s evidence.
Murder vs. Manslaughter
Homicide is divided into two general types: murder and manslaughter. Upon arrest, you may not immediately know what crime you will ultimately be charged with.
In Pennsylvania, murder is an intentional killing when the defendant was not acting in self-defense or the defense of another or where the death occurred during the commission of a felony. You can be charged with first, second, or third-degree murder in Pennsylvania.
Murder in the first degree is the most severe homicide offense. Under Pennsylvania law, an individual who causes the death of another with deliberate premeditation and intent to kill is guilty of first-degree murder.
To be convicted of first-degree murder, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant purposefully killed another person and that they thought out the killing in advance. The thought process does not have to be lengthy, nor does the killing have to be well-planned. But there must have been some time when the defendant could have reflected on committing the killing and still decided to proceed.
A charge of first-degree murder is inappropriate in situations where the accused killed a person in haste, under a strong impulse, or because of strong emotions such as rage or terror. It also would not be the appropriate charge when the defendant believed they were acting in self-defense. A knowledgeable and experienced murder defense attorney will help create a strong defense to any homicide charge.
Under the Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines, a conviction for first-degree murder requires the sentencing judge to impose a life sentence without parole. Practically speaking, this means upon a guilty jury verdict, your case will likely proceed right to sentencing unless the Commonwealth is seeking the death penalty. A separate hearing must occur for death row cases.
The main difference between first and second-degree murder is the element of intent to kill. Second-degree murder is also called “felony murder” because the killing is committed during the commission of a violent felony such as burglary, rape, drug trafficking, carjacking, kidnapping, or armed robbery. Notice that the only intent necessary is the intent to commit the felony. But, if in the commission of that felony someone gets killed, then the perpetrators can be charged with felony murder.
To be charged with felony murder, you do not need to be the principal or ringleader of the crime. Merely being an accomplice to a felony where someone dies during the commission of the crime is sufficient to be charged with second-degree felony murder.
An example of second-degree or felony murder is if two individuals commit an armed robbery, but only person A has a gun. If person A ends up shooting and killing someone during the commission of that robbery, person B can still face felony murder charges even if they never had the gun in their hand.
As with first-degree murder, the penalty for a second-degree murder conviction will be life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Pennsylvania is one of only three states with a murder in the third-degree charge.
Murder in the third degree is the least severe murder charge and is generally all other murder that does not equate to a first or second-degree charge. In other words, it is a murder that was not premeditated, nor did it happen during the commission of a felony. An example of third-degree murder would be when the perpetrator gave or sold a controlled substance to another who then overdosed and died (though these actions could also constitute the crime of Drug Delivery Resulting in Death).
Third-degree murder is also a first-degree felony offense. A conviction is generally punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
Even though it is the least severe murder charge, a conviction will likely result in a lengthy prison sentence. As it is still a murder charge, the sentencing guidelines recommend a minimum sentence of at least 6 years for a first offense. Of course, it is still far better to be convicted of third-degree murder than first-degree murder because there is no automatic life sentence. It is imperative to have a homicide lawyer on your side to help you minimize incarceration and other penalties.
There are additional homicide charges that may only apply in specific situations. These include:
Homicide by DUI (driving under the influence),
Homicide by watercraft (e.g., boat),
Homicide of a law enforcement officer, and
Drug delivery resulting in death.
The level of these charges varies depending on the circumstances. Consulting an experienced lawyer will help you sort out what charges and potential penalties you might be looking at when accused of any of these offenses.
Manslaughter is generally a significantly lesser crime than murder. As in most states, Pennsylvania law recognizes two types of manslaughter crimes: voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.
In Pennsylvania, voluntary manslaughter is killing out of an intense and sudden passion caused by severe provocation. The classic example of voluntary manslaughter is a person walking in on their spouse cheating and killing their lover in the heat of passion.
Voluntary manslaughter is generally a first-degree felony and is punishable by:
Up to a $25,000 fine, and
Up to 20 years in prison.
If you have two prior violent crime convictions, the sentence will likely be a minimum of 25 years.
A defendant is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when they cause the death of another person by acting in a manner that is either reckless or grossly negligent. To convict a person of this crime, the prosecutor must prove a reasonable person in similar circumstances would have perceived the risk and chosen to act differently.
An example of involuntary manslaughter is causing an accident and killing someone because you were texting and driving. You did not intend to kill anyone—or even cause an accident—but your wrongful actions led to the death.
You need a skilled homicide lawyer, even if you face involuntary manslaughter charges. The penalties are still steep and will undoubtedly impact the rest of your life.
Involuntary manslaughter is generally a misdemeanor of the first degree. It is punishable by:
Up to $10,000 fine, and
Up to five years in prison.
First-offense involuntary and voluntary manslaughter does not carry a mandatory minimum sentence.
Defenses to Homicide
In any criminal trial, the Commonwealth has the burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Depending on the circumstances of your case, the best defensive strategy may be to do very little, especially if the prosecutor’s case is weak. However, often the most exceptional criminal homicide attorneys will challenge and rebuke the prosecutor’s case.
Some potential defenses to murder or manslaughter charges include the following:
You committed the murder in self-defense or in the defense of another,
You did not have the requisite intent,
You were mentally insane and did not know the difference between right and wrong,
You were intoxicated,
You are the victim of mistaken identity,
You have an alibi for the time of the homicide,
Were you under duress when you committed the homicide, or
You suffer from battered women’s syndrome, and the victim was your spouse or partner.
Every case is unique, and not every defense will apply to you. Upon meeting with your homicide defense attorney, you will better understand your potential defenses.
Pennsylvania Homicide Lawyer
If you find yourself or a loved one facing homicide charges in Pennsylvania, you need sharp, resourceful, and experienced counsel. At Dusharm Law LLC, we will vigorously defend your rights every step of the way. Contact us today for a confidential, free consultation with our team.