Former Philadelphia Police Officer Held on Murder 1 & 3 Charges – What happens at a preliminary hearing? How important is it? Why do some attorneys advise to waive it. ￼
Our law firm defends individuals charged with crimes and offenses in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We often represent person charged with crimes where the alleged victim dies as the result of our client’s alleged unlawful conduct. Despite what many people believe, all criminal charges that result following an intentional or reckless killing do not constitute murder in Pennsylvania. While murder is obviously a possible charge, there are various categories of homicide in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and every other state in the United States.
The Case of Former Philadelphia Police Officer Edsaul Mendoza – Murder, Manslaughter, or a justified police shooting?
Recently, another Philadelphia Police officer was charged with various counts of criminal homicide following the death of suspect during an encounter with police. Former police officer Edsaul Mendoza remains charged with Murder of the First Degree , Murder of the Third Degree and Voluntary Manslaughter following a preliminary hearing in Philadelphia following the death of 12 year old TJ Siderio. Siderio was killed after the encounter with police where he shot into an unmarked police vehicle. Mendonza remains in jail in Philadelphia. He is not entitled to bail given that the Murder charge carries with a life sentence!
This case, like the prior case of former police officer Eric Ruch, Jr., presents an opportunity to explain murder vs. manslaughter charges in Pennsylvania. Mendoza, like Ruch, maintains his defense that he was acting with justification based on the circumstances surrounding this incident. While both fall under the Homicide category, the severity and possible consequences of these criminal charges is very different.
What is a homicide in Pennsylvania?
Homicide is defined as the unlawful killing of one person by another person. Within homicide there are subcategories including Murder (Title 18, Section 2502), Voluntary Manslaughter (Title 18, Section 2503), and Involuntary Manslaughter (See Title 18 Section 2504). Murder of the first degree is defined as the intentional killing of another person with premeditation and deliberation. It carries with it a mandatory life. Mendoza remains charged with this crime despite arguments from his criminal defense lawyers at his preliminary hearing in Philadelphia.
Murder of the second degree is a felony murder which is the killing (or death) of another person while in the commission of a felony crime, such as a robbery, burglary, or even arson (felony murder). Mendoza was not charged with this crime. Murder of the third degree is all other murders. Beneath murder, there are the lesser crimes of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.
What is manslaughter?
In addition to the Murder allegations, Mendoza was also charged with Voluntary Manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional killing of another without lawful justification. Voluntary manslaughter is often referred to as imperfect self-defense (justification). It is where a person acts with the intent to kill another person because that person believes that their life is at risk or they are at risk of serious bodily injury.
Mendoza was not charged with Involuntary Manslaughter. Involuntary Manslaughter, unlike murder of the third degree and voluntary manslaughter isn’t a felony offense. Involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor of the first degree unless the victim is under the age of 12, where it is a felony of the second degree; TJ Siderio was 12 at the time of his death. A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of doing an unlawful act in a reckless or gross and negligent manner or doing a lawful act in a recklessly or grossly negligent manner he causes the death of another person.
What happened at Officer Mendoza’s Preliminary Hearing
An accused person in Pennsylvania, like Mendoza, has the right to a preliminary hearing with exception to those matters where a grand jury is used in a prosecution. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to prevent the Commonwealth (State) from unlawfully arresting and detaining someone for a crime which was either never committed or for which there is no evidence of the accused’s involvement.
At a preliminary hearing, the District Attorney must establish at least a “prima facie” level of proof that a crime was committed and that the accused person was the one who committed that crime. This is a substantially lower level of proof then that required at trial which is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. At a preliminary hearing the district attorney must present legally competent evidence which connects the accused to a crime regardless of the crime. Preliminary hearings are important because they not only present an opportunity for the defense to get a look at the prosecution’s case but also allow the defense an opportunity to get charges dismissed or downgraded.
You should only consider waiving a preliminary hearing if the prosecution agrees to withdraw a serious charge. In this case, it is unknown if the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office proposed a waiver in exchange for withdrawing the lead murder charge
In this case, Mendoza’s criminal defense lawyers were not able to get the lead Murder 1 charge dismissed. This obviously changes the case and makes it much different than Eric Ruch’s case where the Murder 1 charge didn’t get past the lower court level and the Murder 3 charge was withdrawn prior to jury deliberation.
Mendoza is now literally in the fight for his life as a possible conviction on the Murder 1 charge would mean a life sentence! The fact that charges were held for trial, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that Mendoza will be convicted of murder. A preliminary hearing is important because strong defense questions can set up potential pre-trial motions such as motions to suppress evidence and motions to quash. All of these pre-trial motions are important defense tools in any criminal case.
In closing, waiving a preliminary hearing usually isn’t a good decision unless the prosecution is going to dismiss charges based on that waiver or offer the defense some attractive plea deal. If you have more questions about preliminary hearings I invite you to visit the free resource section of my website.
Contact Our Criminal Defense Lawyers in PA & NJ
Please click here to contact our criminal defense lawyers. We offer free case reviews and serve the following areas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Atlantic City, Camden, Cherry Hill, Chester, Conshohocken, Doylestown, Media, Norristown, Philadelphia, Pottstown, Salem, Upper Darby, Upper Merion, Upper Providence, Vineland & Woodbury areas