Page last reviewed and updated: August 12, 2020
The following Philadelphia, PA murder and homicide criminal law library is brought to you by the Nenner Law Firm These articles address legal topics, such as how to pick the best criminal defense lawyer and best defenses individuals can present in criminal murder cases. This legal library is for information only and is not a substitute for legal advice. If you have questions about a PA criminal case, it is best to consult with an experienced Philadelphia criminal lawyer.
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Pennsylvania Law: Murder & Homicide Charges
An Explanation of Pennsylvania Murder Law
Under PA criminal law, there are different degrees of murder and homicide charges, and the punishment varies for the different degrees of murder. Murder in the first degree murder carries the most significant sentence in Pennsylvania (life in prison).
Second degree murder, also known as felony murder, is defined as any death that occurs during the commission of a felony crime, such as robbery or drug trafficking. An accomplice can also be charged and convicted of felony murder. An intent to kill the victim is not necessary for a defendant to be convicted of felony murder.
Juveniles Charged as Adults in Murder Cases
When juveniles are accused of murder, they face serious consequences. Just because the defendants are juveniles does not mean that the case will be handled by the juvenile system. In Pennsylvania, criminal courts maintain jurisdiction for all murder cases regardless of the age of the defendant. The juvenile defendant may file a motion to transfer the case to juvenile court, but it is not guaranteed. Pennsylvania criminal courts will consider the evidence presented, by a preponderance of the evidence, that transferring the case to the juvenile system will serve the public interest.
Police Investigation & Interrogation Tactics in Philly Murder Cases
Police officers and detectives in Philadelphia often interrogate murder suspects with the goal of getting an admission of guilt. However, some police questioning tactics are inhumane which can cause an individual to undergo severe emotional and physical stress. As a result, they may admit to a crime even though they did not commit it just to get out of the room. In recent Philadelphia murder cases, wrongly accused defendants have succumbed to an interrogation and given a confession for crimes they did not commit, even murder charges.
Murder Trial Tactics: Attacking Witness Credibility
When a murder or homicide criminal case goes to trial, one of the most important trial tactics is attacking the credibility of a key prosecution witness or eyewitness. Oftentimes, in Philadelphia murder cases, the prosecution will depend heavily on the testimony of one or two witnesses. A criminal defense lawyer who can successfully show weaknesses of those witnesses can win a trial or get the charges reduced.
Criminal Murder Trials & Affirmative Defenses
In criminal cases, defendants do not have to prove their innocence. Rather, the burden of proof rests with the prosecution to prove the defendants’ guilt. Therefore, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and they do not have to provide evidence that they are innocent.
However, if defendants present affirmative defenses at trial, then the burden shifts from the prosecution to the defendant. Affirmative defenses are strategies whereby defendants provide evidence and proof to negate their own criminal liability. The most common affirmative defenses are self defense and the alibi defense.
Self Defense in Murder Cases
Under Pennsylvania law, the affirmative defense of self defense is limited to very specific situations set out in the Penal Code, Chapter 5, General Principles of Justification. In other words, the defense must present evidence to show that the use of force was justified.
Consider the following: a defendant is on trial in Philadelphia for murdering her ex-boyfriend. On the night of the murder, the defendant’s ex-boyfriend went to the defendant’s house and attacked her. The defendant tried to get away but could not, and she finally was able to grab a knife in the kitchen to defend herself. A struggle ensued and the ex-boyfriend was stabbed as a result.
Here, the defense attorney would present the affirmative defense of self defense and has to prove that the defendant was justified to use deadly force because she was acting under the belief that it was necessary to prevent serious physical harm or her own death.
The Alibi Defense in Murder Cases
Individuals charged with murder in Philadelphia and PA criminal cases are innocent until proven guilty. Individuals can present defenses to raise reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant committed the crime. The alibi defense is one of those defenses a defendant can assert. When presenting the alibi defense, the defendant has to show that there were somewhere else when the alleged crime occurred.
An example of the alibi defense would be the following: A victim was shot at a corner bar in South Philadelphia, and the defendant is accused of the murder. On the night of the murder however, the defendant says that he was at home with his friend watching a football game. Here, the defendant can present a valid alibi defense and has the burden to prove that he was not present when the murder happened. The friend would be called as an alibi witness to help prove the defendant was not at the bar. Other evidence would also be presented, such as what football game they were watching, to help prove that the defendant was not at the bar.
Time to Appeal a Murder Trial
There are strict timelines for when defendants can appeal a murder conviction. Failure to comply with a time deadline will result in dismissal of the appeal issue, even if it has merit. Very often, after a murder trial in Philadelphia, a defendant will want to know what his or her appeal rights are. Click the legal article to learn about the different types of appeals after a murder trial and when defendants must file them.
Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) Info
Defendants who’ve already been convicted of murder or homicide, whether via a criminal trial or plea agreement, can file a PCRA petition. However, PA PCRA law is very specific in terms of the time deadlines to file, the types of claims allowed and how the petition is handled (procedural requirements). These rules are mandatory; failure to follow these rules will result in dismissal of the petition.
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