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Pennsylvania First Degree Murder Laws

Overview of Pennsylvania First Degree Murder Laws

In Pennsylvania, criminal homicide, the unlawful death of a human being, includes three types of murder and two types of manslaughter. Pennsylvania state laws require proof of malice to distinguish murder from manslaughter. To prove malice in a murder case, the prosecutor must show the defendant's general intent to commit an unlawful act or achieve a harmful result. A prosecutor can establish either express malice or implied malice; first degree murder generally requires a showing of express malice.

In addition, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant had a specific intent to kill. In a first degree murder case, the state may prove the defendant's deliberate intent to commit an unlawful killing by considering the defendant's actions, use of a deadly weapon, or other circumstances.

Possibility of the Death Penalty

First degree murder is the highest degree of murder in Pennsylvania and generally results in the most severe punishments available under state law. To prove first degree murder, the prosecutor must show that the defendant committed a premeditated, unlawful killing of a human being.

The defendant's premeditation, planning, and deliberate acts set first degree murder apart from second degree murder. A killing committed spontaneously or during a heat of passion may likely require prosecution as one of the other homicide crimes established by Pennsylvania law.

Below you will find a chart with more detailed information on Pennsylvania murder laws.

Code Section

18 Pa. Cons. Stat. section 2502,18 Pa. Cons. Stat. section 1102


Defenses to First Degree Murder Charges

  • Diminished capacity: the defendant lacked the mental capacity required to form a specific intent to kill. This defense does not relieve the defendant of criminal liability; the defense only reduces the charge from first degree murder to a lower degree of criminal homicide.
  • Voluntary intoxication: the defendant may be able to use this defense to reduce the charge from first degree murder to a lower degree of criminal homicide.
  • Mental insanity
  • Self-defense or battered women's syndrome
  • Accidental killing without criminal intent while engaging in lawful activity
  • Duress


Penalties and Sentences

Death penalty or a sentence of life imprisonment for a conviction of first degree murder. The court must hold a sentencing hearing during which the prosecutor and the defense present their arguments regarding the defendant's punishment. For example, the prosecutor may offer evidence of aggravating circumstances in support of a sentence for the death penalty.

Premeditation Required?


Note: State laws are constantly changing -- please contact a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

Pennsylvania Criminal Laws Related Resources:

Get Legal Help with Your First Degree Murder Case in Pennsylvania

Taking another person's life unlawfully is considered the most heinous crime under the law, especially if it fits the elements of first degree murder. As such, the penalties are the most severe, including the possibility of the death penalty. If you've been accused of violating Pennsylvania first degree murder laws, it's in your best interest to a local criminal defense attorney right away for legal advice.

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