Com. ex rel. Elliott v. Baldi

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation96 A.2d 122,373 Pa. 489
Decision Date14 April 1953

Page 122

96 A.2d 122
373 Pa. 489
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
April 14, 1953.
Writ of Certiorari Denied June 8, 1953.
See 73 S.Ct. 1125.

[373 Pa. 490]

Page 123

William R. Pomerantz and Barnie F. Winkelman, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Michael von Moschzisker, First Asst. Dist. Atty., Malcolm Berkowitz, Asst. Dist. Atty., and Richardson Dilworth, Dist. Atty., Philadelphia, for appellee.

Frank P. Lawley, Jr., Asst. Dep. Atty. Gen., Randolph C. Ryder, Dep. Atty. Gen., and Robert E. Woodside, Atty. Gen., for intervening J. W. Claudy.

[373 Pa. 489] Before STERN, C. J., and STEARNE, JONES, BELL, CHIDSEY, and MUSMANNO, Jj.

[373 Pa. 490] BELL, Justice.

It will aid in a proper understanding and determination of this appeal if we briefly review some of the facts and some of the issues which are fully set forth in our Opinion in Commonwealth v. Elliott, 371 Pa. 70, 89 A.2d 782.

Elliott ruthlessly shot and killed a policeman during a robbery. He pleaded guilty to murder and a three Judge court found him guilty of murder in the first degree. Elliott's counsel, whose industry and zeal in his behalf have been remarkable, obtained the appointment (by the trial Court) of Dr. Drayton, a psychiatrist, and presented to that Court Elliott's history and background from a very early age. Elliott and his counsel have continuously, consistently and unqualifiedly admitted that the killing was first degree murder and that he (Elliott) was and is sane, but allege that he was and is an irresponsible moron or mental defective and consequently should have been sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death.

[373 Pa. 491] After a careful study of all the evidence, including Elliott's history from his early youth, the Court below, in a very able and persuasive opinion, imposed the death sentence. Thereafter Elliott's counsel discovered that Dr. Drayton, the court-appointed psychiatrist, had himself been committed as of January 12, 1952, because of an incurable mental disease which was progressive and which had deprived him of any judgment or insight. The commitment proceedings had been brought by Dr. Drayton's wife on or about September 18, 1951. These facts were contained in an affidavit by Thomas D. McBride, Esq., which was filed in U. S. ex rel. Smith v. Baldi, 344 U.S. 561, 73 S.Ct. 391, 437.

At the oral argument of Elliott's appeal before this Court in the prior case of Commonwealth v. Elliott, permission to file the McBride affidavit was requested and granted. Dr. Drayton's reports of his examination of Elliott in 1938 and also on July 3, 1950, stated that defendant was a middle grade moron and a mental defective who was, however, a shrewd fabricator. The case was unusual in that all of the psychiatric and similar history with respect to the mental condition of the defendant from the time he was 10 years old are in substantial and practically unanimous agreement, viz., that the defendant was an aggressive, unstable, dangerous moron who was mentally defective. The important fact to note and remember throughout the present case is that experts and laymen all agree (1) that defendant was sane, and (2) that he was a moron and mentally defective. We decided that this was a factor to be taken into consideration in determining and fixing a sentence, but did not require the imposition of a life sentence instead of death.

In that case we very carefully considered all points raised by the defendant--including

Page 124

the aforesaid affidavit[373 Pa. 492] of McBride, 1--and decided there had been no abuse of discretion in fixing the sentence of death, and affirmed the judgment and sentence of the lower Court. Commonwealth v. Elliott, 371 Pa. 70, 89 A.2d 782, supra.

Because the point now raised was orally argued and carefully considered by us in the former appeal, we could summarily dismiss the present appeal. However, in view of the fact that a man's life is at stake and in view of the very recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in U. S. ex rel. Smith v. Baldi, 344 U.S. 561, 73 S.Ct. 391, 437, supra, and in further view of the novel and important questions herein raised, we shall consider the case on its merits.

Elliott's petition for a writ of habeas corpus and rule to show cause in the instant case is based upon McBride's aforesaid affidavit pertaining to the incompetence of Dr. Drayton, which was unknown to the sentencing Court. The petition averred that this incompetence, which was discovered 10 months after Dr. Drayton's last report on Elliott, 'constituted a defect or irregularity in the criminal proceedings'; with, we assume, the implication that it amounted to a denial of due process. Relator specifically contends that because of Dr. Drayton's mental condition in September 1951 and January 1952, his opinion of the defendant in July 1950 was worthless, and the sentencing Court was erroneously guided by this worthless opinion and consequently came to an unjust conclusion. The lower Court through one of the sentencing Judges who was thoroughly familiar with Elliott's case, summarily dismissed the present petition and rule for habeas corpus without requiring an answer or a hearing.

The first contention of the Commonwealth is that this question cannot be raised by a habeas corpus addressed[373 Pa. 493] to the lower or sentencing court. The cases are legion in which this Court has said that a writ of habeas corpus is not a substitute for an appeal or for a writ of error or for a motion for a new trial or for the correction of trial errors. Commonwealth ex rel. Marelia v. Burke, 366 Pa. 124, 75 A.2d 593; Commonwealth ex rel. Smith v. Ashe, 364 Pa. 93, 71 A.2d 107; Commonwealth ex rel. McGlinn v. Smith, 344 Pa. 41, 24 A.2d 1. On the other hand, the recent tendency of Courts, especially the Supreme Court of the United States, has been to relax this general rule and to widen the scope of due process and allow a writ of habeas corpus when the interests of justice imperatively require it. See particularly Townsend v. Burke, Warden, 334 U.S. 736, 68 S.Ct. 1252, 92 L.Ed. 1690 and the recent United States Supreme Court cases of U. S. ex rel. Smith v. Baldi, 344 U.S. 561, 73 S.Ct. 391, 437; Brown v. Allen (Speller v. Allen, Warden and Daniels v. Allen) 334 U.S. 443, 73 S.Ct. 397, 437.

It must be obvious, as well as just, that petitioner should have some redress if he was sentenced under either a mistake of law or a mistake of important material facts which were discovered after sentence and could not by reasonable diligence have been discovered before sentence. His only possible remedy under such facts is either a writ...

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    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • July 2, 1963
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