In this article below we discuss sentencing for 1st degree murder cases in Pennsylvania. In later articles, we will discuss sentencing for 2nd and 3rd degree murder cases.
If you or a loved one is facing murder charges in Philadelphia or the surrounding counties, please contact our law firm for a free consultation. Mr. Nenner is a criminal trial lawyer with decades of experience and fights to preserve and protect his clients’ rights. (215) 564-0644
PA 1st Degree Murder: 18 PA. C.S. § 2502. Murder (a).
Murder of the first degree.–A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the first degree when it is committed by an intentional killing.
Example of 1st Degree Murder: A PA man kills his neighbor after months of arguments. The man walks to his neighbors front door, knocks and fires two shots at his neighbor, killing him instantly. He is subsequently charged with 1st degree murder.
Whether the 1st degree murder charge is valid depends on the circumstances leading to the shooting. The defense trial strategy would be to investigate the nature of the arguments and present evidence that the defendant was provoked or otherwise justified in shooting the neighbor. For example, did the shooting victim previously threaten violence against the neighbor or the neighbor’s family?
Sentence for 1st Degree Murder
18 PA C.S. § 1102. Sentence for murder, murder of unborn child and murder of law enforcement officer. (a) First degree.–
(1) Except as provided under section 1102.1 (relating to sentence of persons under the age of 18 for murder, murder of an unborn child and murder of a law enforcement officer), a person who has been convicted of a murder of the first degree or of murder of a law enforcement officer of the first degree shall be sentenced to death or to a term of life imprisonment in accordance with 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711 (relating to sentencing procedure for murder of the first degree).
(2) The sentence for a person who has been convicted of first degree murder of an unborn child shall be the same as the sentence for murder of the first degree, except that the death penalty shall not be imposed. This paragraph shall not affect the determination of an aggravating circumstance under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(17) for the killing of a pregnant woman.
A Note About the Death Penalty in PA
Currently, Pennsylvania law still allows for the death penalty to be imposed during sentencing. However, since 2015, there’s been a moratorium on the death penalty. This means that imposition of the death sentence has been paused, although some counties can and still do seek the death penalty for 1st degree murder cases. In Philadelphia, prosecutors are unlikely to seek the death penalty under the current district attorney. That may all change, depending on who takes the PA governor’s seat in January 2023, when Wolf’s term expires, and who replaces Krasner.
Using our example above, let’s assume that the defendant did not have a valid justification for shooting the neighbor, and that he is found guilty after a trial. What is the sentence — life in prison or the death penalty?
Sentencing Procedure in 1st Degree Murder Cases
Pennsylvania law lays out the procedure for 1st degree murder charges. See 42 PA C.S. § 9711. Sentencing procedure for murder of the first degree, which is provided below.
After a 1st degree murder verdict, the jury will decide the sentence. This sentencing hearing is similar to a trial, where the fact finder hears evidence and then renders a verdict.
In a 1st degree murder sentencing hearing, the jury may hear victim impact testimony, and both sides may present evidence on any aggravating or mitigating factors.
After arguments by both sides, the judge will instruct the jury, and then the jury will decide the sentence.
Phila. PA Criminal Defense Law Firm for Murder Charges
Our Philadelphia law firm accepts murder cases throughout the Southeastern PA region. Firm founder David Nenner has over 30 years of experience handling complex criminal cases such as 1st degree murder, drugs and guns charges. Mr. Nenner offers a free consultation. (215) 564-0644
42 PA C.S. § 9711. Sentencing procedure for murder of the first degree. (Current as of Jan. 2022)
(a) Procedure in jury trials.–
(1) After a verdict of murder of the first degree is recorded and before the jury is discharged, the court shall conduct a separate sentencing hearing in which the jury shall determine whether the defendant shall be sentenced to death or life imprisonment.
(2) In the sentencing hearing, evidence concerning the victim and the impact that the death of the victim has had on the family of the victim is admissible. Additionally, evidence may be presented as to any other matter that the court deems relevant and admissible on the question of the sentence to be imposed. Evidence shall include matters relating to any of the aggravating or mitigating circumstances specified in subsections (d) and (e), and information concerning the victim and the impact that the death of the victim has had on the family of the victim. Evidence of aggravating circumstances shall be limited to those circumstances specified in subsection (d).
(3) After the presentation of evidence, the court shall permit counsel to present argument for or against the sentence of death. The court shall then instruct the jury in accordance with subsection (c).
(4) Failure of the jury to unanimously agree upon a sentence shall not impeach or in any way affect the guilty verdict previously recorded.
(b) Procedure in nonjury trials and guilty pleas.–If the defendant has waived a jury trial or pleaded guilty, the sentencing proceeding shall be conducted before a jury impaneled for that purpose unless waived by the defendant with the consent of the Commonwealth, in which case the trial judge shall hear the evidence and determine the penalty in the same manner as would a jury as provided in subsection (a).
(c) Instructions to jury.–
(1) Before the jury retires to consider the sentencing verdict, the court shall instruct the jury on the following matters:
(i) The aggravating circumstances specified in subsection (d) as to which there is some evidence.
(ii) The mitigating circumstances specified in subsection (e) as to which there is some evidence.
(iii) Aggravating circumstances must be proved by the Commonwealth beyond a reasonable doubt; mitigating circumstances must be proved by the defendant by a preponderance of the evidence.
(iv) The verdict must be a sentence of death if the jury unanimously finds at least one aggravating circumstance specified in subsection (d) and no mitigating circumstance or if the jury unanimously finds one or more aggravating circumstances which outweigh any mitigating circumstances. The verdict must be a sentence of life imprisonment in all other cases.
(v) The court may, in its discretion, discharge the jury if it is of the opinion that further deliberation will not result in a unanimous agreement as to the sentence, in which case the court shall sentence the defendant to life imprisonment.
(2) The court shall instruct the jury that if it finds at least one aggravating circumstance and at least one mitigating circumstance, it shall consider, in weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, any evidence presented about the victim and about the impact of the murder on the victim’s family. The court shall also instruct the jury on any other matter that may be just and proper under the circumstances.
(d) Aggravating circumstances.–Aggravating circumstances shall be limited to the following:
(1) The victim was a firefighter, peace officer, public servant concerned in official detention, as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 5121 (relating to escape), judge of any court in the unified judicial system, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, a deputy attorney general, district attorney, assistant district attorney, member of the General Assembly, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Auditor General, State Treasurer, State law enforcement official, local law enforcement official, Federal law enforcement official or person employed to assist or assisting any law enforcement official in the performance of his duties, who was killed in the performance of his duties or as a result of his official position.
(2) The defendant paid or was paid by another person or had contracted to pay or be paid by another person or had conspired to pay or be paid by another person for the killing of the victim.
(3) The victim was being held by the defendant for ransom or reward, or as a shield or hostage.
(4) The death of the victim occurred while defendant was engaged in the hijacking of an aircraft.
(5) The victim was a prosecution witness to a murder or other felony committed by the defendant and was killed for the purpose of preventing his testimony against the defendant in any grand jury or criminal proceeding involving such offenses.
(6) The defendant committed a killing while in the perpetration of a felony.
(7) In the commission of the offense the defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense.
(8) The offense was committed by means of torture.
(9) The defendant has a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence to the person.
(10) The defendant has been convicted of another Federal or State offense, committed either before or at the time of the offense at issue, for which a sentence of life imprisonment or death was imposable or the defendant was undergoing a sentence of life imprisonment for any reason at the time of the commission of the offense.
(11) The defendant has been convicted of another murder committed in any jurisdiction and committed either before or at the time of the offense at issue.
(12) The defendant has been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2503 (relating to voluntary manslaughter), or a substantially equivalent crime in any other jurisdiction, committed either before or at the time of the offense at issue.
(13) The defendant committed the killing or was an accomplice in the killing, as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 306(c) (relating to liability for conduct of another; complicity), while in the perpetration of a felony under the provisions of the act of April 14, 1972 (P.L.233, No.64), known as The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, and punishable under the provisions of 18 Pa.C.S. § 7508 (relating to drug trafficking sentencing and penalties).
(14) At the time of the killing, the victim was or had been involved, associated or in competition with the defendant in the sale, manufacture, distribution or delivery of any controlled substance or counterfeit controlled substance in violation of The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act or similar law of any other state, the District of Columbia or the United States, and the defendant committed the killing or was an accomplice to the killing as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 306(c), and the killing resulted from or was related to that association, involvement or competition to promote the defendant’s activities in selling, manufacturing, distributing or delivering controlled substances or counterfeit controlled substances.
(15) At the time of the killing, the victim was or had been a nongovernmental informant or had otherwise provided any investigative, law enforcement or police agency with information concerning criminal activity and the defendant committed the killing or was an accomplice to the killing as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 306(c), and the killing was in retaliation for the victim’s activities as a nongovernmental informant or in providing information concerning criminal activity to an investigative, law enforcement or police agency.
(16) The victim was a child under 12 years of age.
(17) At the time of the killing, the victim was in her third trimester of pregnancy or the defendant had knowledge of the victim’s pregnancy.
(18) At the time of the killing the defendant was subject to a court order restricting in any way the defendant’s behavior toward the victim pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. Ch. 61 (relating to protection from abuse) or any other order of a court of common pleas or of the minor judiciary designed in whole or in part to protect the victim from the defendant.
(e) Mitigating circumstances.–Mitigating circumstances shall include the following:
(1) The defendant has no significant history of prior criminal convictions.
(2) The defendant was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.
(3) The capacity of the defendant to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law was substantially impaired.
(4) The age of the defendant at the time of the crime.
(5) The defendant acted under extreme duress, although not such duress as to constitute a defense to prosecution under 18 Pa.C.S. § 309 (relating to duress), or acted under the substantial domination of another person.
(6) The victim was a participant in the defendant’s homicidal conduct or consented to the homicidal acts.
(7) The defendant’s participation in the homicidal act was relatively minor.
(8) Any other evidence of mitigation concerning the character and record of the defendant and the circumstances of his offense.
(f) Sentencing verdict by the jury.–
(1) After hearing all the evidence and receiving the instructions from the court, the jury shall deliberate and render a sentencing verdict. In rendering the verdict, if the sentence is death, the jury shall set forth in such form as designated by the court the findings upon which the sentence is based.
(2) Based upon these findings, the jury shall set forth in writing whether the sentence is death or life imprisonment.
(g) Recording sentencing verdict.–Whenever the jury shall agree upon a sentencing verdict, it shall be received and recorded by the court. The court shall thereafter impose upon the defendant the sentence fixed by the jury.
(h) Review of death sentence.–
(1) A sentence of death shall be subject to automatic review by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania pursuant to its rules.
(2) In addition to its authority to correct errors at trial, the Supreme Court shall either affirm the sentence of death or vacate the sentence of death and remand for further proceedings as provided in paragraph (4).
(3) The Supreme Court shall affirm the sentence of death unless it determines that:
(i) the sentence of death was the product of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor; or
(ii) the evidence fails to support the finding of at least one aggravating circumstance specified in subsection (d).
(4) If the Supreme Court determines that the death penalty must be vacated because none of the aggravating circumstances are supported by sufficient evidence, then it shall remand for the imposition of a life imprisonment sentence. If the Supreme Court determines that the death penalty must be vacated for any other reason, it shall remand for a new sentencing hearing pursuant to subsections (a) through (g).
(i) Record of death sentence to Governor.–Where a sentence of death is upheld by the Supreme Court, the prothonotary of the Supreme Court shall transmit to the Governor a full and complete record of the trial, sentencing hearing, imposition of sentence, opinion and order by the Supreme Court within 30 days of one of the following, whichever occurs first:
(1) the expiration of the time period for filing a petition for writ of certiorari or extension thereof where neither has been filed;
(2) the denial of a petition for writ of certiorari; or
(3) the disposition of the appeal by the United States Supreme Court, if that court grants the petition for writ of certiorari.
Notice of this transmission shall contemporaneously be provided to the Secretary of Corrections.
(j) Issuance of warrant.–(Repealed).
(k) Terms of confinement.–(Repealed).
(l) Witnesses to execution.–(Repealed).
(m) Certification of superintendent.–(Repealed).
(n) Postmortem examination.–(Repealed).
(o) Costs of execution and examination.–(Repealed).