What Are PA’s Penalties for First-Degree Murder?

by | Mar 15, 2023

PA’s penalties for first-degree Murder include life imprisonment and even death when aggravating factors are present. Since Murder is a capital crime in the Commonwealth of PA, it is among the most severe charges a person can face. Get legal advice if you or a family member face first-degree murder charges.

Philadelphia murder defense attorney, Brad V. Shuttleworth, Esq., discusses Pennsylvania’s first-degree murder penalties, how laws define first-degree Murder, and common defenses to these charges. Shuttleworth Law PC wrote this post to help those arrested, and their concerned loved ones get the information they need to protect their legal rights.

Pennsylvania First-Degree Murder Penalties

Commonwealth statutes classify First-Degree Murder as a capital offense. A capital offense is so severe that our legal system considers death a punishment. However, aggravating factors must be present to receive a death penalty sentence in Pennsylvania.

There are two types of penalties for First-Degree Murder in Pennsylvania per 42  § Pa.C.S. 9711:

  1. Life imprisonment (standard sentence)
  2. Death (for aggravating factors)

Under this statute, the court will follow a specific procedure where the jury decides which penalty is most appropriate. The methods they follow occur during a sentencing hearing. At the sentencing hearing, jurors will be presented with evidence, including family member impact, aggravating factors, and other relevant details. At the hearing’s conclusion, the judge will render a sentence.

How Laws Define First-Degree Murder

There are three types of Murder offenses in Pennsylvania by degree, including first-, second-, and third-degree murder charges. You can find the statutory definition of First-Degree Murder 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502 (a). First-degree Murder is the most severe of the three, which could result in the most serious consequences. However, it should always be approached from a defensibility standpoint determined by your defense counsel.

Under this section, Pennsylvania law defines this type of crime as:

A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the first degree when it is committed by an intentional killing.”

Under this statute, the law defines an “intentional killing” specifically. Intentional killing is using poison, lying in wait, or other deliberate homicidal acts ending in death. In simple terms, prosecutors cannot get a first-degree murder conviction if they do not have substantial evidence of your intent.

Common Defenses to First-Degree Murder Charges in PA

Your legal defense to your charges should be anything but common. However, some first-degree murder defenses are more common than others. However, these defenses ultimately should be executed based on the specific facts of your case. An experienced criminal defense attorney will review your charges to establish available legal options and potential outcomes.

Below, we have listed a few common defenses to first-degree murder charges in PA:

Common Defense 1. Self-Defense

You have the right to defend yourself and others from an attack that could cause loss of life. However, raising self-defense in court requires you to prove that you believed that deadly force was immediately necessary for protecting yourself against another’s use of unlawful force.

Common Defense 2. Insanity Defense

A defense by a plea of insanity is often used in murder crimes. Essentially, your defense attorney will evoke the insanity defense when prosecutors cannot evoke criminal intent due to mental disorder. However, your attorney could also raise the Guilty But Mentally Ill defense per 18 Pa.C.S. § 314, whereby you may not qualify for a mentally ill defense without admission of guilt, which also carries significant legal ramifications.

Common Defense 3. Mistaken Identity

Mistaken identity defenses are those made by individuals who stand accused of first-degree Murder but challenge the government’s theory that they committed the crime. This is not to be confused with an alibi defense but could still play a role in identifying the wrong individual.

Common Defense 4. Unintentional Homicide

First-degree Murder requires prosecutors to prove an intentional killing. However, defense attorneys can defend the charge of first-degree Murder by attacking the intentionality of the act that caused the death. This type of defense is effective when the defendant’s action was unintentional, such as reckless or merely negligent.

Common Defense 5. Did Not Cause the Death

Causation is a necessary element of a murder charge. An individual could not be convicted of Murder if his actions did not cause the person’s death.

Common Defense 6. Did Not Meet Specific Elements

As shown in the preceding section, Pennsylvania’s first-degree murder law is very specific, requiring prosecutors to prove elements of the offense. You should not be found guilty if the prosecution cannot confirm every aspect of the crime. It is always their burden to meet this under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions.

[BVS1] PA First-Degree Murder Defense Attorneys Can Help

It is commonly known that Murder is one of the most severe crimes someone can be charged with. From a life sentence to the death penalty, you should never leave your freedom to chance or prosecutorial advances. Every first-degree murder charge in Pennsylvania must be reviewed for defenses by conducting a thorough review of the facts and circumstances of the case and then applying those facts to the law.

Only a Philadelphia murder lawyer can provide legal advice about potential defenses to your first-degree murder case. That kind of knowledge and experience can mean the difference between freedom and a life or death sentence. Ensure you speak with an experienced legal team, such as Shuttleworth Law PC, to learn more about your rights and opportunities for getting your charges dropped, reduced, or won at trial.

Call Shuttleworth Law PC for Your Free Case Evaluation

If you or a loved one face Pennsylvania murder charges in Philadelphia, legal advice from an experienced attorney help. Get your Free Case Evaluation now by calling (215) 774-1371 or messaging us confidentially online. Our legal team can meet with you in person or via secure video conferencing.

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