In Pennsylvania, criminal homicide is divided into the subcategories of murder and manslaughter. Criminal homicide is the intentional, knowing, reckless, or negligently causing the death of another human being. (See 18 § 2501 – Pennsylvania; 2C: 11-2 – New Jersey). While New Jersey does not specifically differentiate between murders of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree within its crimes code, it does define the types of murder similarly to Pennsylvania. New Jersey defines all murder as a crime of the 1st degree which is the most serious offense in the Garden State.
In Pennsylvania, murder is further divided into 3 degrees based on the circumstances surrounding that homicide. First degree murder is committed by an intentional killing of another by lying in wait or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated act. Murder of the 2nd degree is committed when a defendant is engaged as the principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony crime (robbery, rape, burglary, possession with intent to deliver drugs or narcotics).
Riots, Civil Unrest and The Felony Murder Rule
The felony murder rule would also apply to protests and riot situations where police in large cities like Philadelphia often must engage large organized anti-law enforcement crowds. Obviously if police or civilians were killed during these riots which often involve robberies, burglaries and aggravated assaults, the felony murder rule would apply here. Rioters and protesters charged with these crimes, which resulted in a person’s death could face a potential life prison sentence.
The felony murder rule in Pennsylvania
Most people fail to understand that to be charged with murder of the 2nd degree in the Commonwealth, the defendant does not need to form the intent to kill anyone. The prosecution must only establish beyond a reasonable doubt that during the commission of a felony crime another person died. This deceased individual can include a victim of the crime or an accomplice. A common example is a bank robbery where the robbers enter a bank, take the money, and attempt to flee but encounter police officers and law enforcement. During the struggle with police, one of the bank robbers is killed. As a result of this death, the other bank robbers can be charged with murder of the 2nd degree in Pennsylvania even though the surviving bank robbers never intended to kill the deceased robber. This is known as the felony murder rule in the Commonwealth. If convicted of felony murder a defendant faces a life sentence in state prison.
Murder vs. Manslaughter
What separates murder from manslaughter is the malice element. Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional killing without lawful justification where the actor kills another due to sudden and/or intense passion resulting from serious provocation. Voluntary manslaughter is a felony of the first degree in Pennsylvania and a crime of the 2nd degree in New Jersey (aggravated manslaughter is a crime of the first degree in New Jersey). Murder of the 3rd degree is all other types of murder.
In the Commonwealth, the maximum punishment for a felony of the first degree is 20 years of state incarceration. Involuntary manslaughter is the least serious of crimes within the homicide category. Involuntary manslaughter (18 § 2504) occurs when a person dies as the result of an unlawful act of another who commits it in a reckless or grossly negligent manner. Involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor of the first degree except where the victim is under the age of 12 and in the care or custody of another where it is a felony of the 2nd degree.
While murder of the 2nd degree (felony murder) carries with it a life prison sentence, murder of the 3rd degree is a felony of the 1st degree in Pennsylvania under 2502(c). Murder of the 3rd degree is significantly less serious than murder of the 1st or 2nd degree. Murder of the 3rd degree does not carry with it a mandatory minimum sentence and has an offense gravity score of 14 which makes a standard range sentence as low as less than 10 years in Pennsylvania.
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