Murder, Manslaughter or Mishap – Murrary, Pistorius & Tony Stewart

Three recent cases in the news demonstrate the different forms of criminal homicide. While two of these cases did not occur in Pennsylvania the alleged facts still serve as good examples. In the case of Tony Stewart, there are rumors that New York could charge him with second degree manslaughter if prosecutors believe that he recklessly caused the death of Mr. Ward. The case against Stewart, however, could be problematic given that Ward clearly walked toward oncoming race cars as they circled the track in a black racing suit at night. While Ward’s actions obviously do not justify an intentional killing they could cause prosecutors to question whether Stewart’s behavior was reckless or simply accidental. The Oscar Pistorius case in South Africa could be considered an example of murder or manslaughter. While prosecutors have alleged that he acted intentionally many of the alleged facts indicate that other factors affected his state of mind. It is those factors (heat of passion or duress) which could determine a conviction for murder or manslaughter which is known as culpable homicide in South Africa. Finally, the Philadelphia case involving the strangulation death of a jogger by her husband could be an example of first degree or second degree murder. While Christopher Murray’s attorney will more than likely argue some type of altered state of mind (heat of passion or mental imbalance) the evidence may make it a difficult argument. Murray confronted his wife and lied to police about the situation prior to her death. These facts indicate some type of premeditated plan which would be a requirement for first degree murder.

In Pennsylvania, much like other jurisdictions, criminal homicide is classified into one of three categories; murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter. Following the decision to charge an individual with criminal homicide, the government may and often does charge one or more of these crimes depending on the circumstances surrounding the death of the victim. Criminal homicide is broadly defined as the intentional, knowing, reckless, or negligent killing of another human being. Murder is obviously the most serious form of criminal homicide and in Pennsylvania it is classified into one of three categories (first, second, or third degree).

First degree murder is defined as an intentional killing while second degree murder is a homicide committed while the defendant is engaged in a felony (robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, etc.) as a principle (main actor) or as an accomplice. Third degree murder is any other type of intentional killing where there is no evidence of other factors affecting the defendant’s state of mind (heat of passion). The defendant’s state of mind is often what distinguishes murder and manslaughter.

Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing without any lawful justification committed while the defendant is acting under a sudden or intense feeling (heat of passion) caused by the victim or another individual associated with a person who caused the state of mind. Pennsylvania also allows the law to charge an individual with voluntary manslaughter when the defendant causes the death of another but believes at the time that his/her actions are justified. This is also sometimes called imperfect self-defense. While murder and manslaughter are first degree felonies, first degree murder carries with it a mandatory minimum life imprisonment or death and second degree subjects the person to the same life sentence without the death penalty. Third degree murder is less serious but a person still faces up to twenty years in jail even with no prior criminal record. Voluntary manslaughter, while still a felony, is far less serious than murder and those with no prior criminal history could receive sentences less than five years in state prison.

Involuntary manslaughter is the lowest form of criminal homicide and is not even considered a felony in Pennsylvania unless the victim is under the age of twelve and in the care of the actor (second degree felony). Involuntary manslaughter is defined as an unlawful killing done with either recklessness or gross negligence.

There is no case more serious than a criminal homicide. If you are faced with defending these charges it is critical that your attorney explore all of the circumstances surrounding the alleged death.

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