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Degrees of Homicide Under Pennsylvania Law

The unlawful taking of a human life is the most serious offense in our criminal code. But not all killings are equal. Here is a brief summary of Pennsylvania’s law of criminal homicide:

  • Murder in the first degree — An “intentional killing.” Here the statute provides a further definition: “Killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.” In other words, the suspect planned to kill the victim.
  • Murder in the second degree — Felony murder. If the suspect is engaged in the commission of a felony crime, or fleeing after its commission, and someone dies as a result, the death is charged to the suspect as second-degree murder. This is true even if a stray police bullet causes the death.
  • Murder in the third degree — All other kinds of murder. This generally refers to intentional killing without any elements of premeditation. This kind of killing could be the result of an intent to only injure a victim, but a death results.
  • Voluntary manslaughter — Killing as a result of “sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation,” but “without lawful justification.” Under these circumstances, the suspect became angry enough to kill, but didn’t intend the killing. The suspect may only have intended to assault the victim but was out of control. This crime can also involve an “intentional or knowing” killing while under an “unreasonable” belief the killing is justified. For example, the suspect might believe he is acting in self-defense, but a jury finds he had no reasonable basis for believing he was in mortal danger. Voluntary manslaughter is a felony of the first degree.
  • Involuntary manslaughter — Directly causing the death of another while doing a lawful or unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner. A common scenario is reckless or drunk driving that results in a fatal accident. This is a misdemeanor of the first degree, unless the victim is a child under 12 and was in the care, custody or control of the person who caused the death, which makes the crime a second-degree felony.
  • Causing suicide — A person who intentionally causes another to commit suicide by “force, duress or deception” is guilty of homicide.
  • Aiding or soliciting suicide — A person who aids or solicits another to commit suicide is guilty of a second-degree felony if suicide or attempted suicide result.
  • Drug delivery resulting in death — A person who, in violation of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, provides a controlled substance that results in the death of another is guilty of a first-degree felony and can be sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Under Pennsylvania law, a person can commit criminal homicide by causing the death of another “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently.” So, as far as the degree of the crime goes, a suspect’s mental state at the time of the killing is often more important than any actions the suspect took. But, since proving a particular mental state is not an easy task, criminal defense attorneys can often negotiate a reduction in charges even when it’s clear the suspect took the victim’s life.

David R. Eshelman defends individuals accused of violent crimes in the Reading area. If you are charged with homicide, protect your rights by meeting with criminal defense attorney David R. Eshelman today.

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