Award-Winning Philadelphia Homicide Lawyers
Fighting Murder and Manslaughter Charges in PA and NJ
Criminal Homicide Charges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey
If you are facing murder charges or are under investigation for criminal homicide, our Philadelphia, PA criminal defense lawyers will fight for you. Most importantly, it is critical that you speak with an experienced defense lawyer immediately because criminal homicide is the most serious possible charge under Pennsylvania law. Criminal homicide is the killing of another person which occurs when the defendant was acting intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with certain degrees of negligence. It is divided into degrees and punished based on the mental state of the defendant at the time of the killing. This means that it is not enough to show that someone has died; the Commonwealth must also show that death occurred due to the defendant’s actions and that the defendant intended the death at some level or acted in disregard of the risk that it would occur.
Types of Homicide Charges in Pennsylvania
Homicide is divided into two general categories. It can either be murder or manslaughter. Murder charges are divided into three degrees – first, second, and third degree murder. Likewise, manslaughter is divided into two types – voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. There are also other types of charges that could apply in more specific circumstances such as Homicide while Driving under the Influence (“DUI”), Homicide by Vehicle, Homicide of a Law Enforcement Officer, or Drug Delivery Resulting in Death. Pennsylvania has seen an increasing number of prosecutions for Drug Delivery Resulting in Death in recent years.
Degrees of Murder Charges - First Degree Murder, Second Degree Murder, Third Degree Murder, and Drug Delivery Resulting in Death
First Degree Murder
Murder is an intentional killing when the defendant was not acting in self-defense or defense of another or where a death occurred during the commission of a felony. First degree murder is the intentional killing of another person. An “intentional killing” is a “killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.” This means that in order to be properly convicted of first degree murder, the defendant must have not only killed someone else on purpose, but also thought about the decision in advance. Pennsylvania law is clear that the defendant does not have to have thought about it for long or taken serious steps to plan the killing, but there must be at least some appreciable time in which the defendant reflected on the killing and made the decision to do so.
The charge of first degree murder does not apply in situations where the defendant killed rashly on sudden impulse or because he killed on strong emotion, like panic, rage, or terror, or as a result of a mental disorder or intoxication. It also does not apply where the defendant unreasonably believed he or she was acting in self-defense. A conviction for first degree murder requires the sentencing judge to impose a sentence of life without parole. Thus, if the jury finds the defendant guilty of first degree murder, the judge will typically proceed right to sentencing and impose the mandatory life without parole sentence.
Second Degree Murder
Second degree murder occurs when a killing “is committed while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.” This means that if two people commit a felony together and one of the people kills someone during the commission of the felony, even the person who did not commit the killing can be charged with and convicted of murder.
For example, where two men commit a robbery but only one of them has a gun, if the person with the gun ends up shooting and killing the victim of the robbery, the person who did not have a gun can also be charged with murder. This charge is just a serious as first degree murder because it also requires the sentencing judge to impose a sentence of life without parole for even the person who did not commit the killing, and the Commonwealth will frequently use that fact as leverage to try to get the other co-defendants to cooperate against the shooter.
Third Degree Murder
Third degree murder applies to all other types of murder. It is a killing where the defendant may have intended his actions or intended to kill, but the killing was not premeditated. It is also a felony of the first degree, but unlike other first degree felonies, it is punishable by up to 40 years of incarceration instead of only 20 years. However, there is no mandatory minimum for a conviction for third degree murder, and therefore the judge may choose from a wide range of sentencing options when the defendant is convicted of third degree murder instead of first or second degree murder. A conviction is still likely to result in a significant prison sentence, and the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines call for a recommended minimum sentence of nearly ten years even for a defendant with no record. However, it is far better to be convicted of murder in the third degree than first degree because it does not automatically result in a life sentence.
Drug Delivery Resulting in Death
There is a special type of homicide charge which is similar to Third Degree murder called Drug Delivery Resulting in Death. Drug Delivery Resulting in Death is often used to target alleged drug dealers who are accused of selling drugs to someone who later took the drugs, overdosed, and died. In that scenario, if the Commonwealth can prove who sold the illegal drugs to someone who suffered a fatal overdose, then the Commonwealth may charge Drug Delivery Resulting in Death. Like third degree murder, Drug Delivery Resulting in Death is punishable by up to forty years in prison. Although there are many potential defenses to this charge, it is not a defense that the defendant did not know or intend that the decedent would overdose. It is a very broad statute which can easily be abused by prosecutors to charge people who are not really drug dealers. Therefore, if detectives are trying to question you regarding an overdose death in which you could have any potential liability, you should speak with one of our criminal defense lawyers prior to giving a statement.
Types of Manslaughter Charges - Voluntary Manslaughter and Involuntary Manslaughter
Manslaughter is also the killing of another human being, but it may either be intentional or unintentional. Manslaughter may either be voluntary or involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing, but it is the intentional killing of another person where the defendant was “acting under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by” the person who was killed or where in trying to kill the person who caused the sudden and intense passion, the defendant negligently or accidentally killed someone else. For example, voluntary manslaughter could involve shooting someone who so enraged the defendant through that person’s actions that the defendant could not control themselves.
Voluntary Manslaughter Charges
Voluntary manslaughter also occurs where the defendant kills someone believing that he or she was acting in self-defense or the defense of another person but the belief turns out to have been unreasonable. For example, a defendant who shoots and kills someone in their house in the middle of the night believing that person to be an armed intruder could be charged with voluntary manslaughter if it turns out that the decedent was actually a family member and there was no real reason to believe it was an intruder. Therefore, voluntary manslaughter is either an intentional killing resulting from intense and sudden provocation, or it is a killing where the defendant genuinely believed he or she was acting in self-defense or defense of another but that belief was unreasonable.
Involuntary Manslaughter Charges
Involuntary manslaughter occurs when the defendant causes the death of another person by acting in a manner that is either reckless or grossly negligent. A person acts recklessly when he or she makes the conscious decision to disregard a substantial and unjustifiable risk. Gross negligence occurs when a person should have known of a substantial and unjustifiable risk and acts in a way a reasonable person would not have acted anyway. In order to show negligence, the Commonwealth must show that a reasonable person would have perceived the risk and acted differently, and gross negligence requires an even greater showing than ordinary negligence. Involuntary manslaughter is often seen in car accidents in which the defendant was speeding or otherwise driving poorly and thereby caused a collision in which someone died.
Involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor of the first degree unless the decedent is under the age of 12 and in the care, custody, or control of the person who caused the decedent’s death. In that case, involuntary manslaughter is a felony of the second degree. Both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter can be sentenced by probation and/or incarceration because they do not carry any mandatory minimum sentence.
Homicide Cases Are Different
Homicide cases bring unique challenges because every case is different, and the government uses its best detectives and experts to investigate the case and its best prosecutors to prosecute the case. Because of the seriousness of the crime, the government often leaves no stone unturned and will conduct forensic tests and take other steps to obtain evidence that it simply would not do due to constraints on time and resources had someone not been killed. While every criminal case is serious, this is especially true when the defendant is charged or could be charged with a form of homicide. Additionally, prosecutors have recently announced an increasingly aggressive crack down on drug overdoses in response to the nationwide opioid crisis, leading to a a large increase in the number of people charged with Drug Delivery Resulting in Death following an overdose, and this charge can be as serious as third degree murder. Therefore, it is critical that you hire a criminal defense attorney with the ability and expertise to contest these charges.
Criminal Defense Lawyers For Homicide Charges
Our Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers have the expertise necessary to challenge the government each step of the way. We have experience working with expert witnesses, challenging identifications, fighting forensic evidence, and thoroughly investigating cases in order to find exculpatory evidence that the police might have missed. We know the defenses, and we know how to challenge each part of the Commonwealth’s case at the preliminary hearing, through pre-trial motions, and at trial with a judge or a jury. We also have extensive experience in negotiating for better outcomes for our clients, and we have obtained great results even in cases in which the Commonwealth has a great deal of evidence. If you or a loved one are under investigation or facing homicide charges, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney in your corner. Call 267-225-2545 for a free strategy session with one of our top-rated defense lawyers today.