Someone’s died, and the police are trying to hold you responsible. Whether the death was natural, unnatural, or the result of traumatic injuries, grieving loved ones are often looking for someone to blame. Further, the police are quick to try and identify suspects and hold someone accountable if a death is ruled unnatural. Murder, homicide, and manslaughter are the most serious crimes an accused can be charged with, and these types of cases tend to generate enormous publicity and reaction. If you or a loved one is charged with murder, homicide, or manslaughter, contact a criminal defense attorney at the Philadelphia, PA-based office of The Zeiger Firm. Our experienced murder, homicide, and manslaughter lawyers understand the seriousness of these crimes and are here to help and offer a free consultation in every case.
Pennsylvania Homicide Law
When the crime is murder, not only is a person’s liberty and reputation at stake, but his or her life may also be. That is why it is vitally important to have an attorney represent the accused as early as possible in these cases. There are many types of murder and related criminal charges. The Pennsylvania Criminal Code defines “criminal homicide” as when someone “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another human being.” Murder is classified in various degrees.
First-degree murder generally means “an intentional killing;” second-degree murder occurs “when it is committed while [a] defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony,” and third-degree murder includes “[a]ll other kinds of murder.” Further, although the term “manslaughter” sounds worse than the term “homicide,” did you know that it is actually the lesser charge? There are multiple categories of manslaughter and homicide, and what you’ve actually been charged with after being accused of causing another’s death is essential in making a decision about how to proceed with your case. Often, the prosecutor will charge you with a higher degree of homicide than the evidence supports in order to induce you into entering a guilty plea. The attorneys at the Zeiger Firm know how to analyze the facts of your case to determine what is and what is not supported by the evidence on hand. They may be able to defeat the charges against you or get them reduced to a lesser degree of homicide or manslaughter as set forth herein.
Categories of Murder in Pennsylvania
If you are charged with causing the death of another in Pennsylvania, you have likely been charged under one of the following categories of “criminal homicide:”
- Murder in the first degree;
- Murder in the second degree;
- Murder in the third degree;
- Voluntary manslaughter;
- Involuntary manslaughter;
- Causing or aiding a suicide;
- Drug delivery resulting in death; or
- Criminal homicide of a law enforcement officer.
Murder in the first degree is defined simply as an “intentional killing,” which can cover many of the additional categories of criminal homicide. For example, plotting to and carrying out the murder of your spouse so that you can marry your mistress, such as the in the famous case of Scott Peterson, would likely be charged as murder in the first degree. Murder in the second degree is a little more complicated in that it is charged when someone is murdered during the commission of a felony, such as a carjacking. The catch with this is that you don’t actually have to be the one who committed the murder if you were an accomplice in the crime. For example, if Bonnie and Clyde are robbing a bank and Clyde shoots the teller, then Bonnie can be charged with second-degree murder. The marked difference between first and second-degree murder is the element of “premeditation.” Whereas Bonnie and Clyde’s plan was to rob a bank, not necessarily kill anyone, Scott Peterson’s goal was to murder his wife.
Third-degree murder encompasses those categories of criminal homicide that don’t fit into the other two. An example of third-degree murder would be if someone died as a result of an intentional assault but there was no intent to kill. Murder in the third degree is not punishable as a capital offense, which is why the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm will analyze every fact of your case to determine whether a charge of first or second-degree murder should be reduced.
Pennsylvania Voluntary Manslaughter
Although still considered a criminal homicide, a charge of manslaughter differs from a charge of murder in that the crime was not “premeditated” and was either the unintentional result of otherwise criminal behavior or the perpetrator killed another as a result of provocation. Voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person, at the time of the killing, is acting under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by the individual killed or another whom the actor endeavors to kill. If you kill an individual with lawful justification, then the act itself is not criminal, for example, if you were defending yourself from an attack.
If, however, you kill an individual without lawful justification but because you were overcome by sudden passion because of serious provocation by the person killed, then this is “voluntary manslaughter.” The most common example of this is if a husband catches another man in bed with his wife, and the other man makes a crude joke. If the husband then grabs his gun and shoots the man, because this was done as a result of provocation in the “heat of passion,” it should not be charged as murder. Further, if the husband attempts to shoot the man but misses and unintentionally kills his wife instead, this is still chargeable as manslaughter and not murder. Similarly, there are cases when the father or mother of a murdered or raped child hunts down and kills the person they believe was responsible for the crime. Although this may have been premeditated and there was no direct provocation, the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm may be able to argue that this is akin to manslaughter than murder.
Further, voluntary manslaughter also covers situations when a person intentionally kills another because he or she has an unreasonable belief that the killing is legally justified. For example, if a salesman knocks on your door to try and make a sale and you truly believe he is trying to break in and kill you as the result of a past experience, this may be charged as voluntary manslaughter rather than murder. The key here is an individual’s “belief,” however unjustifiable or unreasonable, not just the facts of the murder itself. If the person charged had diminished mental capacities, was hallucinating, or was suffering from the effects of a legal medication that made her believe she was in danger, the courts do not look at these individuals as if they had the same “heart of malice” as those who knew the killing was illegal and unjustified. Even though the killing was not justified and still resulted in the loss of life, if the facts as the defendant believed them to be were assumed true and the killing would have been justified in that case, then the charge should be manslaughter and not murder.
Pennsylvania Involuntary Manslaughter
Involuntary manslaughter occurs when, as a direct result of doing an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, or the doing of a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, the accused causes the death of another person. Involuntary manslaughter is the lowest of the criminal homicide charges. In order to understand how this charge works, it is important to understand that not all accidents that result in death are chargeable as a “criminal homicide.” For example, if you are operating a vehicle slightly over the speed limit, hydroplane because it is raining, and get into an accident that kills one of your passengers, then this is likely not criminal homicide. It was an accident even though you were the technical cause of the passenger’s death. The family of the passenger may be able to bring a case against you for monetary damages in civil court for wrongful death, and you may be cited for speeding or driving negligently, but you will likely not be charged with homicide. On the other hand, the charges rise to the level of involuntary manslaughter if your behavior was reckless or grossly negligent.
For example, if road conditions are bad and you are driving over 100 miles per hour in the dark, if the death of one of your passengers or someone else on the road results from an accident you caused, this may rise to the level of involuntary manslaughter. It may not have been your intent to harm anyone, but your behavior was so dangerous that death was a foreseeable result of the same. Drunk driving accidents that result in fatalities typically rise to the level of an involuntary manslaughter.
However, even if you were engaged in lawful behavior but were acting recklessly or negligently while doing so and someone died as a direct result, then this may also be charged as voluntary manslaughter. An example of this might be if you were building a stage for a concert in the park and you purposefully did not adhere to safety recommendations in order to cut corners and save money. If the stage collapses as a result of its unsafe condition and someone is killed in the process, even though you were engaging in legal behavior, i.e., building a stage, it was done in such a reckless manner that you may be charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Causing or Aiding a Suicide
While it is understandable why causing a suicide may be considered criminal homicide, it is a disputed topic of law whether assisting in the suicide of a mentally competent individually suffering from a terminal disease should be placed in the same category. Under Pennsylvania law, a person may be convicted of a criminal homicide only if he or she intentionally causes the suicide by force, duress, or deception. This is a complex area of law because the idea of causing a suicide by “force” is akin to murder itself, the forceful killing of another. Duress may be invoked if the victim is told that she must either shoot herself or carry out a serious crime, and the victim chooses to commit suicide.
Aiding or soliciting a suicide occurs when an individual intentionally aids another in committing a suicide or solicits another to commit a suicide. Aiding a suicide has made the news over the years in the case of those who are terminally ill and ask a family member or doctor to end their life. Soliciting a suicide is similar in that you are guilty of intentionally procuring another person, such as a sympathetic doctor, to aid your relative in committing suicide. It should be noted that aiding or soliciting a suicide is a second-degree felony if it results in death or an attempted suicide. If it does not, then this is still an offense, but it is only a second-degree misdemeanor. Some confusion comes in this area with respect to bullying and cyber-bullying and the effect that it has on causing another to attempt suicide. In some cases, bullies will specifically tell the victim that she should kill herself although likely not intended that be the result. This is a hard case because it does not appear from the text of the legislation that you can be charged with causing another to commit suicide if her suicide is linked to bullying behavior, as this behavior likely did not cause the suicide by force, duress, or deception. There are multiple factors at issue when someone, especially a teenager or young adult, commits or attempts to commit suicide, including, but not limited to:
- Poor family situation;
- Hormone imbalance;
- Relationship difficulties; or
- Loss of a loved one.
Because of this, it is often difficult to pinpoint bullying as the intentional cause of the suicide. If you or your child has been indicted for aiding in a suicide as a result of the recent crackdown on bullying, contact the Zeiger Firm immediately. They understand what the statute is and is not meant to cover, and your child should not have to face criminal homicide charges for an error in judgment.
Drug Delivery Resulting in Death
This category of criminal homicide is highly disputed in many areas of the country because it implicates a principle of law called “transferred intent.” Under this category, if you illegally sell or distribute a controlled substance, such as cocaine, to another, and she dies as a result, you can actually be charged with “drug delivery resulting in death,” which is punishable as a class 1 felony. Often this is charged when someone overdoses on the drug or the substance itself was impure, such that the chemicals it was cut with were not suited for human consumption. The issue here is that it is typically not the drug dealer’s intent to kill anyone. Most of the time he is simply selling the drugs at the request of a buyer without further thought, and the statute is meant to crack down on this indifference by forcing drug distributors to take further responsibility for the effect of introducing those drugs into the stream of commerce. This category of homicide is often charged, however, when you are actually in the presence of another who overdoses or is taken ill and you were the one responsible for providing them with the drugs. This is sometimes seen at college parties. The only other category where this charge is common is if you are a drug dealer or manufacturer who is “cutting” the illegal substance with something dangerous in order to increase your profit. It is not always a case of transferred intent if the manufacturer or dealer knew that the mixture was especially dangerous for human consumption but sold it anyway. If the police have tried to link you to a drug-related death offense, the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm can argue that any substance you may or may not have provided to the victim was not the cause of his death. Often such victims have a variety of medical problems as the result of drug use, and the police may have no real evidence to link you to the crime.
Criminal Homicide of a Law Enforcement Officer or Child
If you are charged with criminal homicide of any of the following individuals, you have been charged with the most serious crime in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, one punishable by death:
- Murder of a law enforcement officer in the course of duty with knowledge that the victim was a law enforcement official; or
- A child under the age of 13.
- When it comes to the murder of a law enforcement officer, the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm may be able to get your charges reduced to manslaughter in the first or second degree if any of the following are true:
- You were acting under sudden and serious provocation by the victim, i.e., the officer;
- You were acting under sudden and serious provocation by another individual, such as a man who just harmed your wife, and you attempt to harm that individual but unintentionally kill the law enforcement officer instead;
- You believed, although falsely, that you were justified in the killing, for example, if you were hallucinating and believed the officer was going to harm your child; or
- You caused the death of a law enforcement officer as the result of grossly negligent or reckless behavior, such as forcing law enforcement officials to engage with you in a high-speed chase.
If the victim was a child under 13, this is akin to murder in the first degree. However, there is no upper limit on punishment as there is if the person is over the age of 13. This is because the murder of a child is considered one of a series of aggravating factors that take a murder in the first-degree charge beyond the sentencing range of life imprisonment and into the realm of capital punishment.
Murder Statistics in Philadelphia
Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports
Criminal Homicide Sentencing Factors for First Degree Murder
In Pennsylvania criminal homicide cases, your trial (or guilty plea) is conducted separately from your actual sentencing hearing. Accordingly, if you are convicted and looking for another attorney to handle your sentencing hearing or are considering pleading guilty to the crime and making your case for leniency during the sentencing phase, contact the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm. It is important to have a zealous advocate fight for your rights during sentencing as well as during the trial process but the details can make all the difference. Under Pennsylvania law, if you are found guilty of murder in the first degree but under one of the following “aggravated circumstances,” you are potentially subject to capital punishment; although this is a rare verdict in Pennsylvania, it still exists:
- The victim was a firefighter, police officer, or another public official such as a judge, and he or she was killed in the course of his or her duties or as a result of his or her public position;
- The defendant was a paid killer;
- The victim was a hostage;
- The victim as a witness against the defendant who was killed for the purpose of preventing testimony;
- The victim was killed during commission of a felony, such as rape;
- The victim was tortured in the course of the killing;
- The defendant had a significant, violent criminal history;
- The defendant had previously been convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter;
- The defendant killed during the commission of a drug trafficking offense;
- The victim was a police informant;
- The victim was under 12 years of age;
- The victim was known to be pregnant in her third-trimester; or
- The defendant was under a restraining order as to the victim, such as in certain cases of domestic violence.
However, there are also a series of “mitigating circumstances” that the court must consider during your sentencing even when you have been charged with aggravated first-degree murder, and your attorney at the Zeiger Law firm can ensure they are all considered by the court:
- You had no significant criminal history;
- You were under the influence of extreme mental or emotional distress, which your attorney can prove with the assistance of expert psychological testimony;
- You or a loved one had a diminished mental capacity such that you were unable to understand that your conduct was criminal, or you had no control over your physical conduct. Again your attorneys at the Zeiger Firm can hire an expert to provide testimony regarding you or your loved one’s mental capacity such that you can get him the help he truly needs;
- Your age should be considered;
- You acted under extreme duress or under the domination of another person;
- The victim was actually a part of the violence and consented to the homicidal acts;
- The defendant’s participation in the murder was relatively minor; and
- The court should consider other factors of mitigating evidence regarding your character or the circumstances of the offense.
As you can tell, the court has wide latitude in looking at these mitigating factors, and your attorneys at the Zeiger Firm will be provided with ample opportunity to present evidence to the court in order to mitigate your conduct and reduce your sentence. Whether you were not yourself at the time of the murder due to emotional distress, had relatively little involvement in the crime compared to that of certain co-defendants, or truly could not appreciate the criminality of the offense, the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm are here to ensure your punishment is no greater than necessary considering all of the circumstances involving the offense.
Contact a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Homicide, Murder, and Manslaughter Defense Attorney without Delay
To defend against charges of murder or manslaughter requires a team of aggressive investigators, lawyers, and expert witnesses all devoting their maximum effort for their clients. At The Zeiger Firm, our Pennsylvania criminal defense attorneys have represented clients charged with murder, manslaughter and similar crimes, and we know the layout of the Pennsylvania court system in these matters. When appropriate, we will work to convince the authorities to drop and dismiss cases at their inception, before reputations are ruined and life and liberty are at stake. When these cases do go forward, our criminal defense attorneys assemble a team of investigators and support staff that will explore every possible defense so we may aggressively and zealously defend our clients against these charges or have them drastically reduced.
When you need a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney to defend against charges of murder, manslaughter and homicide in Pennsylvania federal or state courts, contact The Zeiger Firm, which represents every client zealously in order to obtain the best results possible in each case. To arrange a free consultation, please give us a call at 215-546-0340 or send us an email via the form below.