The Degrees of Murder in Pennsylvania and What Felony Murder Charges Might Mean

Facing any type of criminal charge, including assault, theft, or weapons charges, can be stressful, but dealing with homicide charges, which can carry some of the most severe penalties imaginable, is especially scary.

The first step when facing any criminal charge, including murder, is to understand the charges levied against you and the consequences you might face if you are convicted. A criminal law attorney can help you understand the situation you’re in and what options you have for a defense.

What Are the Degrees of Murder in Pennsylvania?

One of the first things a lawyer will likely explain to you if you are facing murder charges in Pennsylvania is the degree of charge you’re facing and how that impacts potential consequences and your defense. The degrees of murder in the state are:

  • Murder of the first degree. This is also called criminal homicide. It involves the death of a person related to the intentional and malicious act of another person. With first-degree murder, the individual who committed the crime must have had an intent to cause the death.
  • Murder of the second degree. This is also called felony murder. It involves the death of a person during the commission of a felony crime, even if the individual who caused the death had no intent to do so.
  • Murder of the third degree. This category covers all other types of murder.

All of these crimes are felonies, even though the second is the one that is sometimes referred to as felony murder.

First-degree murder charges require that the prosecution can demonstrate premeditation for a deliberate killing. If a person poisons another purposefully, lies in wait to attack a person, or carries out a complex plan to cause another’s death, these are indications that a crime is first-degree murder.

You can be charged with felony murder, or murder in the second degree, even if you did not actually cause the death in question. If you are involved in a felony and a death occurs, you may be charged. For instance, the lookout or driver in a felony crime situation could face conspiracy murder charges even if they weren’t even in the building when the death occurred.

What Are the Potential Consequences of Murder in PA?

Sentencing for homicide charges depends on a variety of factors, including the facts of the case, the degree of the charge, and the arguments your attorney might make. However, the maximum sentence for these crimes is:

  • Life in prison without parole or even the death penalty for first-degree murder
  • Life in prison without parole for second-degree murder
  • 20 to 40 years in prison for third-degree murder

Controversy Over PA’s Felony Murder Laws

There’s a lot of controversy over PA’s felony murder law—so much so that in February 2024, the state Supreme Court said it would hear the issue and make a ruling on this law. The controversy stems from the fact that someone who had no intention to commit murder could end up facing life in prison without parole if they are convicted on felony murder charges. Advocates for change are asking the state to allow parole in these situations.

How Can You Defend Against Felony Murder or Other Homicide Charges?

Whatever the state decides about parole and sentencing for felony murder charges, a good defense is still important. Some common methods for defending against homicide charges include:

  • Demonstrating you could not have been involved in the crime. If you have a strong alibi that puts you in another place during the time the crime was committed, you may be able to show that you couldn’t have committed the crime in question. This is one method of demonstrating your innocence in the matter.
  • Claiming self-defense or defense of others. In some cases, a death occurs as a result of defending yourself against an attack. This may be a defense in some murder cases. However, if you are facing felony murder charges because you were involved in a felony crime at the time of a homicide, this can complicate matters for this type of defense.
  • Attacking witnesses or evidence. Another way to defend yourself against criminal charges is to attack the validity of witness statements or evidence. Conviction on criminal charges requires that the prosecution prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and if you can show that witness testimony is not accurate or is questionable, that can cast doubt.
  • Plea bargaining. In some cases, it may be to your benefit to negotiate with prosecutors for a lower-level charge that you are willing to plead guilty to in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

Why Working With an Experienced Criminal Defense Team Is So Important

Launching and managing a criminal defense can be a complex effort, and that’s certainly true in a murder case. Working with an experienced criminal defense team provides you with the peace of mind that someone is standing up for your rights and working with your best interests in mind. Your lawyer can also help you understand all your options for defense and provide information about which paths might have a greater chance of success. Contact the Liberty Law Team if you are facing felony murder charges to get help with your case by calling 215-826-3314.