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The Degrees of Murder: How Pennsylvania’s Laws are Unique

July 20, 2020

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

Most states separate murder into a first or second degree offense. Pennsylvania, separates murder into an act that can be considered a first, second, or third degree offense. This is unique because we are one of only three states in the entire country that allow for third degree murder. Former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, is facing charges of second and third degree Murder after the death of George Floyd. Minnesota and Florida are the only two other sates that have a law defining third degree murder.

Although the varying degrees of murder are often confusing, they do have different definitions in Pennsylvania. These are outlined below.

Murder in the First Degree

In Pennsylvania, murder in the first degree is considered an intentional killing. The statute clarifies this offense even further, defining it as the intentional killing of another person by lying in wait, poison, or any other act that is deliberate, willful, and premeditated. Due to the wording of the statute, murder in the first degree may also include shooting and stabbing. The penalty for a conviction of murder in the first degree in Pennsylvania is either death or life in prison without parole.

Murder in the Second Degree

Murder in the second degree occurs when one person takes the life of another while they are committing a felony. Common felonies that trigger this charge include drug trafficking, robbery, carjacking, arson, and kidnapping. The mandatory sentence for this offense is life in prison with no chance of parole.

Murder in the Third Degree

The legal statute governing murder in the third degree defines this offense as any other type of murder that is not considered murder in the first or second degree. Generally speaking, murder in the third degree involves killing another person without premeditation, as long as the murder was not committed while committing another felony. The penalty for those convicted of murder in the third degree is 10 to 20 years in prison.


In Pennsylvania, like many other states, there is both voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

Voluntary manslaughter is a first degree felony. This offense is defined as taking another person’s life without lawful justification if, at the time of the act, the accused individual was acting under serious provocation or with a sudden and intense passion.

Involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor of the first degree. This offense involves one person killing another while committing an unlawful act, or while acting with gross negligence. When a person is killed during a car accident, the other driver may face involuntary manslaughter charges, depending on their actions just prior to the crash.

Our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers can Help You Beat the Charges

Although there are varying degrees of murder in Pennsylvania, they all have one thing in common. They all carry very harsh penalties for those convicted. If you have been charged with any form of murder or manslaughter, our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers at van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim can help. We know the defenses available in these cases and we will use them effectively to give you the best chance of beating your charges. Call us today at (215) 486-0123 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.


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