THE PENNSYLVANIA MURDER GRADING STATUTE
After our American Independence a number of the new states began legislative reforms to codify the crime of murder. One of the earliest states to do so was Pennsylvania. In 1794, that state enacted a murder degree statute which divided murder into first degree capital murder and second degree murder. The Pennsylvania legislature constricted the penalty for felony murder by imposing capital punishment only for such felonies as occurred in the perpetration of arson, rape, robbery or burglary. The statute further provided that all murder in the state other than ones committed in the perpetration of one of the common law felonies specified in their degree statute was to be second degree murder.
Later the felony of kidnapping was added to the list of specified felonies for purposes of felony murder. Only first degree murder served as a basis for hanging. The Pennsylvania statute did not actually formulate a felony murder rule or define the elements of murder. Instead the statute identified participation in certain felonies as a grading element that aggravated murder liability. The statute prescribed that:
All murder, which shall be perpetrated by means of poison, or by laying in wait, or by any other kind of wilful, deliberate and premeditated killing, or which shall be committed in the perpetration or attempt to perpetrate any arson, rape, robbery, or burglary, shall be deemed murder in the first degree; and all other kinds of murder shall be murder in the second degree.
The implication of the statute is that murder in the course of one of the enumerated felonies did not require wilful, deliberate, and premeditated killing. The language of the statute does not suggest that the mere causing of death in the course of any felony was always murder. This idea is much more in line of what Lord Hale was proposing in his writings at the end of the seventeenth century and is similar to Judge Stephen’s jury instruction in the Serne case: that it would be murder only if the felonious act was known to be dangerous to life and likely to cause death. The word “deemed” in the statute implies the notion that a judge or jury could weigh the facts of the case and decide whether the conduct of an accused warranted a charge of murder for which the accused could be hanged.
The Pennsylvania statute was enormously influential, shaping homicide reform statutes in two thirds of the then existing states during the nineteenth century. Twelve states adopted Pennsylvania’s grading scheme with little or no modification, the states which adopted the Pennsylvania statute as drafted were: Virginia in 1796, Kentucky from 1798 to 1801, Maryland in 1810, Louisiana from its admission in1812 to 1855, Tennessee in 1829, Michigan in 1838, Arkansas in 1838, New Hampshire in 1842, Connecticut in 1846, Delaware in 1852, Massachusetts in 1858, and West Virginia, entering the Union with such a statute in 1863.
Another nineteen states adopted a somewhat modified grading scheme. The States …