The most serious charges you can face under Pennsylvania law are homicide charges. While Pennsylvania divides its crimes into categories of summaries, misdemeanors or felonies, murder charges are their own category, known as Homicide, and are more serious than even felonies of the first degree.
Murder charges carry the severest consequences the state can impose, including the death penalty, life in prison, and various other long prison sentences. Typically, homicide charges also include lesser included offenses such as voluntary manslaughter, felon in possession of a weapon, implements of crime and assorted other charges.
The Murder Statute in Pennsylvania is 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502, and it defines the three “degrees” of homicide charge.
Murder in the First Degree—killing with “malice aforethought”
The first and most serious charge is Murder in the First Degree, also sometimes called “Murder 1.” A First Degree Homicide charge requires the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to prove “intentional killing,” often referred to as “malice aforethought” or premeditation. This means that the defendant planned the killing or did the killing with time to consider his actions.
An important defense to this charge is to prove the lack of opportunity to consider the defendant’s actions, or to show that the actions were taken in self-defense, as discussed below.
Murder in the Second Degree—murder committed in the commission of a felony
Second degree murder under Pennsylvania law is where the defendant was involved in the commission of a felony when someone was murdered by one of their co-defendants. This is known as the “felony murder rule,” and allows prosecutors to charge the co-conspirator with murder, even if they never intended that anyone should be killed.
Felony murder remains a controversial method of charging defendants with murders, and many juries have acquitted on the inequity of this rule. The policy behind the rule is the idea that someone who decides to commit a felony deserves the consequences if someone is killed by another conspirator during the murder.
Murder in the Third Degree—all other murder charges
Third degree homicide charges in Pennsylvania are for all other murders that don’t fit the first two categories. Third degree murder is for a killing committed in the heat of the moment, whether as part of “imperfect” self-defense or as a crime of passion.
Manslaughter—the other murder charge
When murder is charged in any degree, a manslaughter charge is usually there also. Both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter are often charged on murder dockets because they are considered “lesser included offenses.” This allows the prosecution to argue to a jury for these charges if the jury is not persuaded a murder was committed.
There are a number of ways to defend against murder charges and it is important to begin developing your strategy immediately when you have been charged. Some of your defenses include alibi, self-defense, defense of others and eye-witness testimony establishing that you did not commit the acts that the police later said you did. We will go over a few of these in more detail below.
Common murder defenses include alibi
An alibi defense is one that says that the defendant was not present at the scene of a crime. Perhaps the accused was with someone else, or perhaps footage from a convenience store will show that the defendant was in a different part of town at the time that the murder was allegedly committed. Alibis today can also be established through the metadata on iPhone photos or even through Apple Watch data. There are dozens of ways to establish the whereabouts of a criminal defendant at a particular time. It is vital to begin gathering the information quickly before footage from a store is deleted as part of the ordinary course of business or before the defendant or his friends lose data on phones or other devices.
Self-Defense: proving the defense was justified
Self-defense is an important defense in murder trials. Deadly force is sometimes necessary to resist an attacker. In the event that the defendant raises self-defense, the prosecutor will sometimes attempt to show the self-defense was “imperfect,” meaning that the defendant had a reasonable fear of the person attacking but overreacted in killing them. The prosecution may also claim the self-defense is a ruse. The defendant will want to persuade the jury that the danger was real and that reacting violently was the best chance of survival. Even in the case of imperfect self-defense, it can mitigate the seriousness of the murder charge and result in a conviction on a lesser-included offense.
Defense of Others
Similar to self-defense discussed above, if the defendant was attempting to defend someone else from injury, the same standards apply. The defendant’s response should have been proportional and based on a reasonable fear that the other person was about to be seriously harmed. Furthermore, even an imperfect defense of another person may be enough to mitigate the potential sentence.
Bail is almost never granted for murder charges. This means that when charged with homicide, the defendant will sit in jail until the charge is resolved. This can be uniquely difficult for families who are separated during the case and a lengthy trial. This often leads defendants to make decisions to push a case quickly forward to trial rather than taking advantage of other procedural motions such as the Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion discussed below. Balancing the desire to get out of jail immediately versus putting on the best murder defense possible is a challenge to consider with a good criminal defense attorney’s advice in mind.
Omnibus Pre-Trial Motions in Murder Trials
When charged with murder, one option to consider is to file an Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion that includes a Habeus Corpus Motion and Motions to Suppress. Omnibus motions are often filed in murder trials challenging the weight of evidence or asking the judge to throw the case out. Most commonly, Omnibus Pre-Trial Motions are aimed at reducing some of the more serious charges that would otherwise be presented to the jury at a trial.
One example of this is when a motion is directed at eliminating charges based on premeditation, even if the trial on the rest of the charges might go forward. Keeping first degree murder charges from being presented to the jury can be an important step for criminal defendants, reducing the risk at trial and limiting the evidence that can be presented.
Whether to file an Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion comes with both pros and cons, however. One of the most significant cons is that the defendant will remain in jail until the Motion is resolved, which usually delays trial. Whether to file an Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion is an important decision to discuss with a criminal defense attorney.
DNA Evidence and Other Physical Evidence
Murder trials call for the examination and investigation of DNA and physical evidence. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will have its own expert witnesses who have been paid to review evidence and provide an opinion. Not surprisingly, this opinion almost always goes against the defendant. Many expert witnesses employed by the government go too far in expressing no potential doubt as to their findings and conclusion. Because proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required for the jury to convict, sometimes prosecutors, police officers and expert witnesses affect having no doubt, even in cases that might be a closer call.
This is why it is important for the defendant to consider hiring expert witnesses in their own defense who can demonstrate why there is substantial doubt about the findings of expert witnesses for the Commonwealth. This includes having DNA review, forensic experts, ballistic experts, psychological experts and more.
Proving Intent to Murder
Because premeditation makes a murder charge far worse, taking it up to a first-degree homicide, proving someone’s state of mind at the time of an alleged homicide is an extremely important battleground. For defendants who have been charged with murder, proving their state of mind can sometimes involve the defendant testifying. But there are other options as well. Psychological experts, as well as friends and colleagues can help the case. Furthermore, the skillful cross examination of any witnesses by the defense attorney is part of demonstrating a lack of sufficient evidence.
Finally, and while it may seem the least of the worries of a defendant charged with murder, a conviction before a judge or jury on murder carries collateral consequences in a wrongful death action. Wrongful death actions can bring substantial financial penalties, and a conviction in a criminal case is admissible to prove the civil case. This is another reason why defending a murder charge aggressively is essential to the defendant’s future.
Because there is nothing more valuable than human life, there is nothing more serious than a homicide charge. Facing a homicide under Pennsylvania law is a very frightening experience and requires complete focus by the defendant and their family on how to best defend the charges. At Cornerstone Law Firm, our attorneys can help you walk through the process of determining what your rights are when charged with homicide and can aggressively defend you against the charges that are filed. Call today to have a consultation with a criminal defense attorney who can help you with your charges.