Recently, the crime of murder of the second degree (felony murder) made political headlines in Pennsylvania as U.S. Senatorial candidate John Fetterman (D) advocated for a change to the current Pennsylvania criminal statute regarding the mandatory minimum for this crime. Fetterman is currently running in a very close senate race against Dr. Mehmet Oz (aka Dr. Oz) (R) for the open senate seat in the Commonwealth
Murder of the Second Degree (aka Felony Murder)
Currently, if you’re convicted of felony murder in the Commonwealth, you face a mandatory minimum life sentence. It is important to understand that murder of the second degree is otherwise known as felony murder or the “the felony murder rule.” This means that if a person dies during the commission of a felony crime, such as robbery, burglary, aggravated assault or practically anything which rises to the level of felony, the accused can be convicted of felony murder. There is a difference between murder of the second, first and third degree with regards to the criminality. Murder of the first degree requires premeditation and deliberation (i.e., lying in wait). While murder in the third degree is all the murder and contains an element of recklessness.
How should a criminal defense lawyer approach a felony murder case?
If you’re charged with murder of the second degree, the prosecution will sometimes negotiate a non-trial disposition to a lessor degree of murder (third degree) or possibly even manslaughter. Manslaughter, unlike murder, is imperfect self-defense. This means that a person intended to kill another person but did so under the unjustified belief that his or her life was in danger. Voluntary manslaughter, unlike murder, does not carry with it a life sentence but it is still a felony crime in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as well as the State of New Jersey. Involuntary manslaughter, however, is not even a felony offense in Pennsylvania, but a misdemeanor of the first degree.
What are the alternatives to Felony Murder?
While Mr. Fetterman advocates for a change in the law, it is important to understand that if someone is charged with murder of the second degree, it is on their criminal attorney to evaluate the case and consider all possible options, including non-trial disposition, especially where the evidence is overwhelming. If there is a strong possibility that the Judge or jury will find a person guilty of a felony and there is no question that the person died during the incident, your criminal defense lawyer should attempt to negotiate a non-trial disposition to a lesser charge such as manslaughter. The life sentence was imposed as a deterrent, and it is unlikely that the Pennsylvania legislature not will change the law anytime soon.
What is Manslaughter? Murder vs. Manslaughter
What separates murder from manslaughter in Pennsylvania and New Jersey is malice. Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional killing without lawful justification where the actor kills another due to a sudden and/or intense passion resulting from some serious provocation. Voluntary manslaughter is a felony of the 1st degree in Pennsylvania and a crime of the 2nd degree in New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, the maximum sentence for a felony of the 1st degree is 20 years of state incarceration while the maximum sentence for a 2nd degree crime in New Jersey is 10 years. (See 2C: 11-4 – New Jersey). Aggravated manslaughter is a crime of the 1st degree in New Jersey.
Involuntary manslaughter is the least serious of the crimes within this category. Involuntary manslaughter (Pennsylvania – 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 or does a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner. Involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor of the 1st degree except where the victim is under the age of 12 and in the care and custody of another where it is a felony of the 2nd degree in Pennsylvania.
Like all criminal offenses, the burden is on the Commonwealth to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. While obviously the victim isn’t available in any type of murder trial, the prosecution can establish this burden with circumstantial evidence which would include Coroner’s Reports, videos, medical evidence and eyewitness testimony.
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