In the state of Pennsylvania, the various forms of murder fall under the criminal homicide umbrella and are first-degree felony offenses.  Murder carries significant penalties, from decades to life imprisonment or even capital punishment under certain circumstances.

A murder conviction can have life-altering consequences for the offender. As such, it’s critical that those who have been charged with murder seek the assistance of qualified attorneys who are capable of aggressively representing their interests in every stage of criminal litigation.

Degrees and Definitions of Murder in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania was one of the first states in the country to classify murder into three different types that cover the particularities of intent as they apply to various situations.  Murder is separated into first degree, second degree, and third degree, each of which qualifies as a felony of the first degree. Therefore, each exposes the defendant to significant criminal liability, though penalties may vary somewhat, depending on the degree of murder and various other relevant factors.

First Degree Murder

Murder of the first degree is defined as an intentional killing — which, according to Pennsylvania statute, is “killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing.”  It’s worth noting that premeditation does not necessarily require planning far in advance of the actual killing. In fact, the state of Pennsylvania can impose criminal liability for murder of the first degree if the prosecution can prove that you formed a premeditated intent to kill just seconds prior to the act of killing.

In Pennsylvania, murder of the first degree is punishable by life imprisonment without parole or death.  The prosecution will have to show that there are aggravated circumstances and other factors justifying an upgrade to capital punishment.

Second Degree Murder

Liability for murder of the second degree attaches for any killing committed during the commission of a felony.  Uniquely, a criminal defendant may be held liable for murder of the second degree even if they do not personally act or form an intention to kill. If the defendant is an accomplice to a co-defendant, and they are engaged in the commission of a felony, then any murder committed by the co-defendant will result in the imposition of criminal liability (for murder in the second degree) on the defendant.

For example, if you were engaged in a violent mugging with your friend, and your friend shoots and kills one of the victims, then you could be found liable for murder in the second degree, even if you did not intend for the killing to happen or pull the trigger. The corresponding punishment is life imprisonment without parole. .

Third Degree Murder

Murder of the third degree is a catch-all for murders committed without premeditated intent and unrelated to the commission of a felony.  Murder committed suddenly and without thinking about the consequences, such as in the midst of a drunken fistfight, would come under the “third degree” category.  For example, if you shoot the defendant in the stomach without intent to kill them — perhaps only to cause severe harm — then you could be found liable for murder in the third degree if they eventually succumb to your violent act.

In Pennsylvania, murder in the third degree is punishable by up to 40 years imprisonment, though there is no minimum sentence.  As such, the overall circumstances surrounding the murder will have a substantial impact on the severity of the penalties imposed by the court.

Common Defenses to a Murder Charge

Though the different degree classifications of murder may require quite varied arguments at trial, there are a number of common defenses that apply to all forms of murder.  Consider the following:


Self-defense is a complete defense to murder.  In Pennsylvania, you are entitled to use force to defend yourself when the circumstances make it reasonable to believe that such force is necessary to protect you (or others) from death or great bodily harm.  Your use of force cannot be disproportionate, however.  When asserting this defense, you’ll want to show that the threat was proportional, thus justifying your use of deadly force.

Diminished Capacity

If you (or in the case of second degree murder, the co-defendant who delivered the killing blow) were diminished in your capacity to form the intent to kill, then your murder charge may be downgraded.  Diminished capacity may occur due to a number of different factors, such as involuntary intoxication, coercion or duress, mental illness, insanity, and more.

Mistaken Identity

In their zealous attempts to pin a murder on “someone,” prosecutors may be mistakenly bringing an action against you for murder when the real culprit has not yet been apprehended and charged.  With the assistance of a qualified attorney, you can investigate the crime, gather relevant evidence, and identify willing eyewitnesses to prove that you are not the murderer that they’re looking for.

Consult an Experienced Pittsburgh Murder Defense Lawyer for Guidance

If you have been charged with murder — whether murder of the first degree, second degree, or third degree — then you may be exposed to significant and life-altering penalties under Pennsylvania law. Given the fundamentally high stakes nature of such litigation, it is absolutely critical that you consult an experienced Pittsburgh murder defense lawyer for assistance.

The attorneys at McKinney Law have over a decade of experience handling a variety of criminal defense disputes, including those that involve murder and other violent crimes.  Here at McKinney Law, we are committed to the comprehensive representation of our clients, and unlike many other criminal defense lawyers, we are willing and able to take a case to trial and battle with prosecutors directly in a court of law.  Our results speak to the efficacy of this approach, and in fact, our reputation as passionate and aggressive advocates at trial gives us a unique competitive advantage when negotiating plea deals on behalf of our clients.

Call (412) 520-3301 or submit your information through our website to arrange a free and confidential consultation with an experienced Pittsburgh murder defense lawyer at McKinney Law.  We are a client-oriented firm, and to that end, we make ourselves available for after-hours consultations and can provide assurances that you will receive a response to any inquiry within 24 hours.

We look forward to speaking with you.