The use of self-defense as a defense to criminal charges in homicide charges has always been a controversial one, but it has become an especially hot-button issue in recent years as the headlines have been filled with the acquittal or dismissal of charges against individuals in highly-publicized homicide trials as well as in the implementation of so-called “stand your ground” laws in various jurisdictions. Clearly, if you are under arrest or investigation for homicide, you face extremely serious penalties and should speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer without delay. That said, below is a brief discussion of the legal framework for proving self-defense in a Pennsylvania homicide charge.

What Constitutes Homicide in Pennsylvania

The term “homicide” generally refers to the unlawful killing of another person, but usually includes a number of specific crimes with which one might be charged. In Pennsylvania, there are three general categories of homicide crimes:

  • Murder: Briefly, murder can include a reckless or intentional killing or one that occurs during the commission of a felony. There are three degrees of murder in Pennsylvania.
  • Voluntary Manslaughter: Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing that is mitigated by the fact that the defendant acted under sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by the victim or intended victim.
  • Involuntary Manslaughter: A defendant who causes a death through grossly negligent or reckless behavior may be guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

How Self-Defense Works as a Defense to Homicide

In most cases, the subject of self-defense is going to come up when a defendant acted intentionally in causing another person’s death or at least in taking the action that led to that person’s death. This could include shooting the victim, fighting back with fists or other weapons, or in any other situation where the defendant took an action to defend himself or herself and caused the death of another person in the process.

In Pennsylvania, a person may use force to defend himself against the unlawful actions of another person. The use of “deadly force” (force that causes another person’s death) is justified when he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent his or her death, serious bodily injury, rape, or kidnapping, subject to certain limitations. Deadly force cannot qualify for self-defense if the person who used deadly force started the altercation or if the person knew he or she could safely retreat from the situation.

Pennsylvania and the Duty to Retreat

A person does not have to take the opportunity to retreat to successfully present a self-defense defense when the initial aggressor approached in the person’s home, vehicle, or place of work. A person also does not have a so-called “duty to retreat” when that person is lawfully situated (i.e. not trespassing) and the other person displays a firearm or other deadly weapon. In a way, this is similar to “stand your ground laws” in other states, but many other states do not require the display of a deadly weapon to take advantage of the law. Self-defense laws also cannot be used to justify violent actions against police officers acting lawfully.

Proving that the circumstances of a killing justified the use of self-defense can be challenging, but Pennsylvania law presumes that self-defense was justified when a person is unlawfully attempting to enter or has entered your dwelling or vehicle or is unlawfully attempting to remove another from your dwelling or vehicle.

Experienced Criminal Defense in Pennsylvania

The above description is only a high-level summary of Pennsylvania law as relates to self-defense and homicide, and, again, anyone facing criminal charges should speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

If you are under arrest or investigation for a crime in Pennsylvania, the criminal defense attorneys at The Martin Law Firm, P.C. are here to defend your rights and represent you in any investigation and on through to trial. Contact us today to discuss your criminal defense matter.