Homicide and Assault

Homicide

A person is guilty of criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowing, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another human being. In Pennsylvania, homicide is the generic term that includes murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter.

Murder

Murder is further classified as first degree murder, second degree murder, or third degree murder. A criminal homicide constitutes first degree murder when the killing is committed with intent. An intentional killing is willful, deliberate, and premeditated. One who has been convicted of a murder of the first degree can be sentenced to serve a term of life imprisonment or receive the death penalty – there are no other options.

A criminal homicide constitutes second degree murder when the killing is committed during the commission of a felony. The commission of the felony can include the attempt to commit a felony or the flight after committing a felony.  One who has been convicted of murder of the second degree can be sentenced to serve a term of life imprisonment.

All other kinds of murder are considered to be third degree murder. Essentially this is a killing involving gross recklessness rather than intentional conduct. Third degree murder is a felony of the first degree. One who has been convicted of murder in the third degree will be sentenced to up to 40 years in jail.

Voluntary Manslaughter

A person who kills an individual without lawful justification commits voluntary manslaughter if at the time of the killing he is acting under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by either the individual killed or another person whom the actor endeavors to kill but negligently or accidentally causes the death of the individual killed. Pennsylvania law also provides for a voluntary manslaughter charge when a person intentionally or knowingly kills an individual if, at the time of the killing, he believes the circumstances would justify the killing-even though the belief is unreasonable. Voluntary manslaughter is a felony in the first degree and punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Involuntary Manslaughter

A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when, as a direct result of the doing of an unlawful or lawful act committed in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, causes the death of another person. Involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor of the first degree and punishable by up to five years in prison. Where the victim is under 12 years of age and is in the care, custody, or control of the person who caused the death, involuntary manslaughter is a felony of the second degree.

Pennsylvania and the Death Penalty

Pennsylvania’s death penalty statute is still in effect.  The prosecution may only seek the death penalty in cases where a defendant is found guilty of first degree murder. A death penalty case is tried in two parts:  the guilt phase and the penalty phase. It is after a judge or jury finds a defendant guilty of first degree murder that the penalty phase is held. There, a judge or jury determines whether aggravating and/or mitigating circumstances are present to warrant the application of a death sentence.

Homicide Defenses

The only way to determine whether defenses may exist in a homicide case is to consult with a skilled homicide defense attorney. Every case is different. Having said that, some of the more common homicide defenses include self defense, defense of others, intoxication, battered person syndrome, and diminished capacity defenses. Some of these defenses provide a complete defense to the charges while others only reduce the degree of guilt. It is highly recommended that anyone who may be facing homicide charges seek out the counsel of the most highly skilled defense attorney that he or she can find.

Assault and other offenses

Simple Assault

The Pennsylvania statute sets out four ways one can be found guilty of simple assault:

  • Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing bodily injury to another person;
  • Negligently causing bodily injury to another person with a deadly weapon;
  • Attempting by physical menace to put another person in fear or imminent serious bodily injury; or
  • Concealing or attempting to conceal a hypodermic needle on his person and intentionally or knowingly penetrating a law enforcement officer or an officer or employee of a correctional institution, county jail or prison, detention facility or mental hospital during the course of an arrest or any search of the person.

Bodily injury is defined under Pennsylvania law as impairment of physical condition or substantial pain.

Simple Assault is usually a misdemeanor of the second degree. It drops down to a misdemeanor of the third degree if the defendant was in a fight or scuffle entered into by mutual consent. It increases to a misdemeanor of the first degree if the defendant is over the age of 21 and the victim is a child under the age of 12.  18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2701

Aggravated Assault

The Pennsylvania statute sets out seven ways one can be found of aggravated assault:

  • Attempting to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causing such injury intentionally, knowingly or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life;
  • Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing serious bodily injury to any of the officers, agents, employees or employee of an agency, company or other entity engaged in public transportation, while in the performance of duty (this includes but is not limited to a police officer, firefighter, probation or parole officer, sheriff, jail or prison employee, district attorney, assistant district attorney, public defender, assistant public defender, emergency medical service personnel, parking enforcement officer);
  • Attempting to cause or intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to any of the officers, agents, employees, or other persons enumerated above, in the performance of duty;
  • Attempting to cause or intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon;
  • Attempting to cause or intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to a teaching staff member, school board member or other employee, including a student employee, of any elementary or secondary publicly-funded educational institution, any elementary or secondary private school licensed by the Department of Education of an elementary or secondary parochial school while acting in the scope of his or her employment or because of his or her employment relationship to the school;
  • Attempting by physical menace to put any of the officers, agents, employees or other persons enumerated above while in the performance of duty, in fear of imminent serious bodily injury; or
  • Using tear or noxious gas or using an electric or electronic incapacitation device against any officer or other person enumerated above while acting in the scope of employment

Serious bodily injury is defined under Pennsylvania law as bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.

Aggravated Assault under the first two points constitutes a felony of the first degree punishable by up to 20 years in prison.  Aggravated assault under  all the other subsections constitutes a felony of the second degree punishable by up to 10 years in prison.  18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2702

Strangulation 

The Pennsylvania Strangulation statute was added to the Crimes Code chapter on assault crimes in 2016. This statute in large part covers situations that prior to its enactment were a gray area between Aggravated Assault and Simple Assault; That is, incidents where during a physical altercation one person puts his hands on the neck of another and applies pressure. Such incidents often do not rise to the level of Aggravated Assault – which in its most frequently charged form requires the attempt to cause or cause of serious bodily injury – but are commonly considered by prosecutors to be more serious than Simple Assault.

A person commits the offense of Strangulation if he knowingly or intentionally impedes the breathing or circulation of the blood of another person by:

  1. applying pressure to the throat or neck; or
  2. blocking the nose and mouth of the person.

Actual infliction of physical injury (e.g. bruises, cuts, redness) to a victim is not a required element of this offense, and therefore lack of physical injury to a victim is not a defense. It is, however, a defense to Strangulation that the victim consented to the defendant’s action.

Generally, Strangulation is a Misdemeanor of the second degree (M2). Strangulation is a Felony of the second degree (F2) if the act is committed against a family or household member, by a caretaker against a care-dependent person, or in conjunction with sexual violence, staling, or human trafficking. Strangulation is a Felony of the 1st degree (F1) if at the time of the commission of the offense the defendant is subject to an active protection from abuse order (PFA) or a sexual violence or intimidation protection order, the defendant uses an instrument of crime in the commission of the offense, or the defendant has previously been convicted of Felony 2 Strangulation. 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2718

Recklessly Endangering Another Person

A person is guilty of recklessly endangering another person when he recklessly engages in conduct which places or may place another person in danger of death or serious bodily injury. Recklessly endangering another person is a misdemeanor in the second degree.  18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2705.

Terroristic Threats

A person is guilty of terroristic threats if the person communicates, either directly or indirectly, a threat to:

  • Commit any crime of violence with intent to terrorize another
  • Cause evacuation of a building, place of assembly or facility of public transportation; or
  • Otherwise causes serious public inconvenience, or cause terror or serious public inconvenience with reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or inconvenience.

Terroristic Threats is usually graded as a misdemeanor of the first degree. The charge is upgraded to a felony in the third degree, however, when the threat causes the occupants of the building, place of assembly or facility of public transportation to be diverted from their normal or customary operations.