While being accused of any crime is a stressful and upsetting ordeal, few charges could be more panic-inducing than those pertaining to murder. However, an experienced attorney may be able to have the charges — and in turn, their respective penalties — significantly reduced. In this blog post, our homicide attorneys will explore some of the potential defenses against murder charges which defendants may be able to raise in the state of Pennsylvania.
Before we examine the potential defenses against murder charges in Pennsylvania, it’s important to distinguish between the various forms of homicide which defendants may be charged with. Contrary to popular belief, “homicide” is not necessarily synonymous with “murder.” In fact, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §2501 divides “criminal homicide” into three possible subcategories: murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter.
These divisions stem from the intent behind the alleged underlying offense: as provided by 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §2501, criminal homicide can involve causing death “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently.” For example, murder involves “intentional killing,” whereas involuntary manslaughter involves “caus[ing] the death of another person” by acting in a “reckless or grossly negligent manner.”
Moreover, the nature of the charges will vary by degree. For example, second degree murder specifically involves committing criminal homicide while committing (or being accomplice to) another felony, such as burglary. The state of Pennsylvania divides murder into third, second, and first degree charges, with first degree being the most serious classification.
Other offenses tend to be categorized more consistently. For example, in accordance with 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §2503(c), voluntary manslaughter is always classified as a first degree felony. Involuntary manslaughter is generally considered a first degree misdemeanor, unless the victim is younger than 12 and was in the defendant’s care, in which case it becomes a second degree felony.
While less commonly charged due to their highly specific natures, related offenses include causing or aiding suicide, drug delivery resulting in death, and criminal homicide of a law enforcement officer.
First and foremost, defendants should bear in mind they are not required to prove anything in court. The “burden of proof” instead falls upon the prosecuting attorney, who must establish the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” as it pertains to all elements of the case.
That being said, the criminal defense lawyer handling the case may be able to introduce evidence which can reduce the charges. This is particularly critical where younger defendants are concerned, as the difference between manslaughter and murder can be decades in prison.
As noted above, these charges and distinguished primarily by the defendant’s intent. Unlike murder, voluntary manslaughter involves “acting under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation.” While each case must be evaluated individually, “sudden and intense passion” involves an immediate reaction, as opposed to calculated premeditation. “Sudden and intense passion” does not entail advance planning. The defense attorney may be able to build a robust case around this distinction by presenting evidence of intent — or lack thereof — and cross-examining witnesses.
Depending on the circumstances of the alleged offense, Pennsylvania’s Stand Your Ground laws may also come into play. In accordance with 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §505(b)(2.3), an individual “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and use force, including deadly force if… [he or she] believes it is immediately necessary to do so to protect himself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or sexual intercourse by force or threat,” provided that (1) the individual was not trespassing (i.e. “has a right to be in the place where he was attacked”), and (2) the attacker used or displayed a weapon.
While Pennsylvania is currently observing Governor Tom Wolf’s temporary moratorium on capital punishment, there are no guarantees this moratorium will last indefinitely. Some attorneys have recently challenged the Constitutionality of the moratorium, bringing its longevity into question. However, even without the protections afforded by the moratorium, use of the death penalty in Pennsylvania is uncommon.
Even though Pennsylvania has the third highest number of executions in the U.S., this statistic is somewhat misleading as the vast majority of executions took place decades or even centuries ago. A total of three individuals, all of whom elected to waived the right to appeal, have been executed in Pennsylvania since 1976.
If someone you love has been arrested for murder, manslaughter, or other forms of criminal homicide in the Philadelphia area, the experienced criminal defense attorneys of Krasner & Long may be able to help fight the charges. To set up a free and completely confidential legal consultation, call our law offices right away at (215) 882-9752.