Com. ex rel. Hilberry v. Maroney

Decision Date14 March 1967
Citation227 A.2d 159,424 Pa. 493
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania ex rel. William Thomas HILBERRY, Appellant, v. James F. MARONEY, Warden, State Correctional Institution, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Allen D. Keller, Ellwood City, Richard J. Audino New Castle, for appellant.

Kenneth E. Fox, Jr., Dist. Atty., New Castle, for appellee.



EAGEN Justice.

On September 5, 1952, William Thomas Hilberry pleaded guilty generally to murder in Lawrence County. A hearing before the court was held on October 8 and 9, 1952, and subsequently he was adjudged guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1965, in habeas corpus proceedings. Hilberry challenged the validity of his conviction and sentence, alleging that at the time thereof he was mentally incompetent and unable to comprehend his acts. The question presented by this appeal is, whether or not the court below correctly dismissed the proceedings and properly found, after hearing that Hilberry's allegations of incompetency at the times involved were without merit. [1]

There can be no doubt that, if Hilberry were mentally incompetent at the time he entered his plea, the same should be set aside and declared of no effect. See Commonwealth v. Moon, 383 Pa. 18, 117 A.2d 96 (1955). And the test to be applied in determining the legal sufficiency of his mental capacity to stand trial, or enter a plea at the time involved, is not the M'Naghten 'right or wrong' test, but rather his ability to comprehend his position as one accused of murder and to cooperate with his counsel in making a rational defense. See Commonwealth v. Moon, supra, and Commonwealth ex rel. Hilberry v. Maroney, supra, 417 Pa. at 544, 207 A.2d 794. Or stated another way, did he have sufficient ability at the pertinent time to consult with his lawyers with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and have a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him. See Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 80 S.Ct. 788, 4 L.Ed.2d 824 (1960). Otherwise, the proceedings would lack due process: Bishop v. United States, 350 U.S. 961, 76 S.Ct. 440, 100 L.Ed. 835 (1956). Moreover, if he lost his senses subsequent to the plea but before the judgment, the sentence could not validly be imposed until after his recovery. See Commonwealth v. Ragone, 317 Pa. 113, 176 A.2d 454 (1935).

Hilberry plead guilty to killing his wife by cutting her throat with a razor. He did not testify at trial. At the habeas corpus hearing he testified that he has now no recollection of the crime, his arrest, his trial attorneys, entering the plea of guilty, the plea and sentence proceedings, or in fact anything that occurred for a three-year period, at or about that time. Hilberry's statement of present lack of memory, even if true, would certainly not establish lack of mental competency at the controlling times, but there is other significant testimony in the record [2] which could lend credence to and support such a finding. This may be summarized as follows:

The crime was committed on April 4, 1952. About eight years before, i.e., in June 1944, Hilberry was discharged from service in the United States Navy as 'unfit for service' based upon the conclusion that he was suffering from 'a profound personality disorder.' [3] Dr. Dunaway, a psychiatrist, told the trial court that in her opinion Hilberry was not born with normal mental capacity, that his mentally before trial was that of a five to eight-year old and his ability to distinguish between right and wrong would be limited and similar to one of that age level. There was testimony of a layman that the night before the killing Hilberry acted in an irrational manner. Following his sentence, he was committed to the Western Pennsylvania Correctional Diagnostic and Classification Center on November 18, 1952. Within a few weeks thereafter, a resident physician of that institution recommended that a lunacy commission be appointed to examine Hilberry, and on December 30, 1952, such a commission was appointed by the court. As a result of the commission's findings and report to the court on January 8, 1953, that Hilberry was then insane and of criminal tendency, he was ordered committed to the Farview State Hospital for the criminally insane, where he remained until 1959. [4] In that year a commission found him sane, and he was returned to the Western Pennsylvania Correctional Diagnostic and Classification Center.

The foregoing, however, is only one part of the entire picture or one side of the coin, so to speak. Other testimony in the record establishes the following:

For some time prior to the killing, Hilberry and his wife suffered serious marital trouble and arguments over his excessive drinking. In 1945, 1949 and 1951, he was hospitalized for treatment of acute alcoholism. In January 1952, Hilberry struck his wife on the head and caused injury requiring suturing. Shortly thereafter, she instituted divorce proceedings, but discontinued the action on his promise to stop drinking and join Alcoholics Anonymous. Later he began drinking again, threatened her, and about one week before the killing she made arrangements to proceed with the divorce action. On the morning of the day of the killing, Hilberry phoned an insurance agent who had written a policy on his life, and requested that he call at their home so he could change the designated beneficiary therein. On the very evening of the killing and a short time prior thereto, the insurance agent visited the Hilberry home, as requested, and remained for a period of about twenty-five minutes during which time forms were prepared changing the insurance policy beneficiary from his wife to another person. During this period, while an aura of trouble in the home was manifest, Hilberry was sober and acted and talked rationally.

Immediately following the killing, Hilberry visited a neighbor's home and stated he 'had just cut his wife's throat' and requested that the police be called. Shortly thereafter, when police officers arrived, he told them that he and his wife had an argument and he had cut her throat.

Within a short time thereafter, upon being taken to police headquarters, Hilberry detailed the occurrence of the crime in a lucid manner. He stated, inter alia, that he became so upset with his wife's nagging that in a sudden impulse of anger he grabbed the razor and committed the killing. His statements were stenographically recorded. The typewritten statement was signed by Hilberry.

On May 7 1952, the court appointed two members of the bar of Lawrence County to represent Hilberry. One of these lawyers had been practicing law over twenty years and enjoyed extensive prior...

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