In Pennsylvania and many states, did you know that you can go to jail for murder even if you didn't kill or even intend to hurt anyone? If someone dies during the commission of a felony, anyone involved in that crime can face felony murder charges, even if they had no intent to kill. In Pennsylvania, a felony murder conviction also means there is no possibility of parole. For many people in Pennsylvania, the felony murder rule is effectively a life sentence.
Now, a lawsuit brought by six Pennsylvania prisoners aims to challenge the constitutionality of the law. The Abolitionist Law Center, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Amistad Law Project, is suing the state on behalf of six prisoners convicted of felony murder in their late teens and serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Their case argues that the punishment for felony murder in Pennsylvania is a “cruel punishment” prohibited under Pennsylvania law and the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Felony Murder in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, felony murder is a second-degree murder charge: “A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the second degree when it is committed while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.” See Pa. Stat. Ann. § 2502(b) (1974). The sentence for a conviction for felony murder is life in prison without the possibility of parole. See Pa. Stat. Ann. § 1102(b) (2012).
The pending lawsuit hopes to change the law by forcing the parole board to hold hearings for second-degree murder convictions and push the Pennsylvania legislature to change the state's criminal code. NPR reports that 70% of the people serving life in prison for felony murder are black, while only 11% of Pennsylvania's population is black. The attorneys in the lawsuit hope that their suit will also bring awareness to the racial disparity in Pennsylvania's criminal justice system.
Right now, the only way for those serving life in prison to leave jail before they die is to obtain clemency from the governor. However, even if the state pardon board votes to recommend clemency to the governor, there's no guarantee the state will grant it. A man waiting for clemency died in January of this year. Even though the pardon board recommended clemency, he died waiting for the governor to sign it. In 2020, the state pardons board recommended 570 applications for pardons or commutation of life sentences to the governor. The Pennsylvania governor granted only 125 of these applications.
Hire an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney
If you're facing a felony criminal charge in Pennsylvania, particularly felony murder, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney. The stakes are high, and your freedom and future are obviously at risk. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has years of experience in the Pennsylvania criminal justice system and litigating high-stakes criminal cases. He can fight for you too. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 215-535-5353 to discuss your options.