What is the legal definition of murder?

In Pennsylvania, murder charges are the most serious types of charges that people might face. If you are accused of murder, you could face up to life in prison or capital punishment, depending on the type of murder you are accused of committing.

Because of the serious nature of murder charges, it is crucial for you to retain an experienced and skilled criminal defense lawyer.

In the U.S., our laws arise from both the statutory law and the common law. The common law is made up of laws that originate from court decisions and customs instead of statutes.

The common law definition of murder is an intentional and unlawful killing that is perpetrated with “malice aforethought.”

Malice aforethought refers to the defendant’s intent to kill someone else without a legally justifiable reason.

Malice aforethought can also exist when the defendant intentionally causes serious bodily harm that leads to the death of the victim or when the defendant acts with an extreme and reckless disregard as to whether his or her actions could result in the death of the victim, and the victim dies as a result.

In Pennsylvania, murder is now defined in the statutory law instead of the common law. While Pennsylvania’s murder laws originally were derived from the common law, you must look at the murder statute to understand different types of murder offenses, including first-, second-, and third-degree murder.

Under 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502, there are three different types of murder. First-degree murder is a criminal homicide that is committed intentionally. Second-degree murder is a criminal homicide that is committed while the defendant was committing a different felony either as the principal or as an accomplice.

Third-degree murder includes all other types of murder and is a first-degree felony.

The second-degree murder definition is Pennsylvania’s felony murder law. Under this law, you can be charged with second-degree murder even if you are not the person who committed the killing.

This law simply requires you to have been engaged in committing a felony as an accomplice when the killing occurs to be charged with this murder offense.

Manslaughter vs. murder charges in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania recognizes two other types of homicide offenses, including voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. While manslaughter offenses are related to murder charges, there are some distinct differences.

While manslaughter charges also deal with the death of someone else, they generally do not include the same type of malice that is found in murder cases.

Voluntary manslaughter is codified at 18 Pa.C.S. § 2503. Under this statute, voluntary manslaughter can be committed in the following two ways:

  • When the defendant kills the victim out of a sudden and intense heat of passion caused by provocation by the victim or by provocation of a third party that the defendant attempts to kill but accidentally kills the victim instead; or
  • When the defendant intentionally kills the victim under an unreasonable belief that the killing is justified.

Voluntary manslaughter is a felony. Prosecutors will sometimes charge defendants with first-degree murder and with voluntary manslaughter to try to ensure a conviction.

Juries may find someone guilty of voluntary manslaughter while also finding that he or she is not guilty of first-degree murder. Whether a jury returns a guilty verdict for murder or manslaughter sometimes depends on the degree of culpability that the jury believes the defendant has.

Involuntary manslaughter is found in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2504. This offense is committed when a defendant acts with gross negligence or reckless disregard about whether his or her actions could result in the death of the victim, and the victim is killed.

Involuntary manslaughter is a first-degree misdemeanor offense in most cases. However, if the victim was younger than 12 and was in the custody, control, and care of the defendant at the time of his or her death, involuntary manslaughter is a second-degree felony.

First-degree murder vs. second-degree murder

Some defendants who commit intentional killings are considered to have greater culpability and to be more dangerous than others under the law.

These defendants are charged with first-degree murder, which carries life in prison or capital punishment under Pennsylvania law. A killing that occurs with malice but that does not rise to the level of first-degree murder may be charged as second- or third-degree murder in Pennsylvania, depending on the circumstances.

To determine whether a murder offense is intentional and constitutes first-degree murder, the jury will consider whether there is evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing was premeditated and deliberate.

This means that the defendant had the intent to kill the victim and had time to think about it. An example of premeditation and intention includes an estranged husband purchasing a gun and then lying in wait for his estranged wife to shoot her multiple times.

While some states have felony murder rules that make the killing of a person during the commission of a different felony a first-degree felony murder, Pennsylvania’s felony murder rule classifies this type of murder as a second-degree murder offense.

An example of this type of murder includes two accomplices who commit a home-invasion burglary and are surprised by the homeowner. If one of the accomplices shoots and kills the homeowner, he or she may be charged with first-degree murder while the other accomplice may be charged with second-degree murder for the homeowner’s death.

Penalties for murder convictions in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, a conviction of first-degree murder can result in either life imprisonment or capital punishment. Second-degree murder convictions carry up to life in prison.

Third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter offenses each carry up to 20 years in prison. Finally, an involuntary manslaughter conviction can carry up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Contact Our Criminal Defense Law Firm in West Chester, PA

If you are facing criminal charges and need legal help, contact the West Chester, PA criminal defense lawyers at DiCindioLaw, LLC to schedule a free initial consultation.

DiCindio Law, LLC

29 S Walnut St
West Chester, PA 19382
(610) 430-3535

***This blog article is made available by the law firm publisher for educational purposes and to provide general information, not to provide specific legal advice. By reading, you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the publisher. The above listed information does not include the entire crimes code, annotations, amendments or any recent changes that may be relevant. The information provided is for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal developments. These materials are not intended, and should not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. Please contact DiCindio Law, LLC for a consultation and to discuss what law is relevant to your case. ***