Com. v. Chamberlain

Decision Date11 June 1999
Citation557 Pa. 34,731 A.2d 593
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Terry R. CHAMBERLAIN, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

731 A.2d 593
557 Pa. 34

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee,
v.
Terry R. CHAMBERLAIN, Appellant

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued December 10, 1997.

Decided June 11, 1999.


731 A.2d 594
John P. Moses, Wilkes Barre, for Terry Ray Chamberlain

Robert B. McGuinness, Towanda, Robert A. Graci, Office of Atty. Gen., Harrisburg, J. Scott Robinette, Towanda, for Com.

Before FLAHERTY, C.J., and ZAPPALA, CAPPY, CASTILLE, NIGRO and NEWMAN, JJ.

OPINION OF THE COURT

FLAHERTY, Chief Justice.

Appellant, Terry Ray Chamberlain, was convicted by a jury in the Court of Common Pleas of Bradford County of two counts of murder of the first degree, and one count each of burglary and possessing an instrument of crime. At the sentencing phase, the jury returned a verdict of

731 A.2d 595
death.1 The court imposed a death sentence for the murder convictions and a five to ten year term in prison for burglary and a consecutive two and one-half to five year term in prison for possessing an instrument of crime. Following the denial of appellant's motions for a new trial and post-trial and post-sentence motions, a direct appeal was taken. We remand to permit appellant to conduct DNA testing

The record reflects the following. Appellant's estranged wife, Sherri Chamberlain, and her boyfriend, Gregory Inman, lived together. They were found dead at their residence in the early morning hours of August 22, 1991. Each victim had suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Kim Ulrich, the victims' next-door neighbor, was awakened by a telephone call at 2:24 that morning. The call lasted about 2.5 seconds. After Mrs. Ulrich picked up the telephone and said, "hello," the caller stated, "call an ambulance—Terry shot Greg and me." When Mrs. Ulrich queried "Sherri?" the caller failed to respond. Mrs. Ulrich could not recall hearing any background noise or voices during the 2:24 a.m. call.

Mrs. Ulrich then told her husband, Vaughn Ulrich, that appellant just shot Sherri and Greg Inman. Vaughn Ulrich dressed and hurried to the Chamberlain residence which was about 100 yards from the Ulrich home. As her husband left, Mrs. Ulrich called 911 to report that Terry Chamberlain had shot two victims. Mr. Ulrich discovered the bodies of the victims about three minutes after the telephone call. The handset of a wall-mounted telephone was found on the floor next to Sherri's body.

No eyewitnesses and no physical evidence linked appellant to the murders. No DNA testing was done on the blood samples to determine whether another person was possibly involved. The only alleged link was the quoted conversation which the trial court admitted, over objection, as either an excited utterance or a dying declaration.

The first issue is whether the trial court properly admitted the testimony of Mrs. Ulrich about the telephone conversation. The admission of evidence is committed to the sound discretion of a trial court and will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. Commonwealth v. Cohen, 529 Pa. 552, 605 A.2d 1212, 1218 (1992). Discretion is abused where the law is not applied. Commonwealth v. (Howard) Smith, 545 Pa. 487, 681 A.2d 1288, 1290 (1996). Where improperly admitted evidence has been considered by the jury, "its subsequent deletion does not justify a finding of insufficient evidence" and the "remedy in such a case is the grant of a new trial." Commonwealth v. (Jay) Smith, 523 Pa. 577, 568 A.2d 600, 603 (1989).

The hearsay rule provides that evidence of a declarant's out-of-court statements is generally inadmissible because such evidence lacks guarantees of trustworthiness fundamental to the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence. (Howard) Smith, 681 A.2d at 1290 (Pa.1996). Hearsay evidence is presumed to be unreliable because the original declarant is not before the trier of fact and, therefore, cannot be challenged as to the accuracy of the information conveyed. (Jay) Smith, 568 A.2d at 608. Exceptions to the hearsay rule are premised on circumstances surrounding the utterance which enhance the reliability of the contents of the utterance, Smith, id., and render unnecessary the normal judicial assurances of cross-examination and oath, Smith, 681 A.2d at 1290.

731 A.2d 596
A statement may come within the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule if it is
a spontaneous declaration by a person whose mind has been suddenly made subject to an overpowering emotion caused by some unexpected and shocking occurrence, which that person had just participated in or closely witnessed, and made in reference to some phase of that occurrence which he perceived, and this declaration must be made so near the occurrence both in time and place as to exclude the likelihood of its having emanated in whole or in part from his reflective faculties.

Commonwealth v. Washington, 547 Pa. 550, 692 A.2d 1018, 1022 (1997); Commonwealth v. Coleman, 458 Pa. 112, 326 A.2d 387, 388-89 (1974). In Coleman, we explained that the res gestae rule embraces four distinct exceptions: (1) declarations of present bodily condition; (2) declarations of present mental state and emotion; (3) excited utterances; and (4) declarations of present sense impression. Id. at 389. The underlying rationale for all four exceptions is that:

the startling event speaks through the verbal acts of the declarant and vests reliability in an out-of-court statement whose accuracy would otherwise be suspect.... The spontaneity of such an excited declaration is the source of reliability and the touchstone of admissibility.

Id.

In Coleman, we held that the testimony of a mother concerning a telephone call she received from her daughter moments before the daughter was killed was properly admitted under the present sense impression exception to the hearsay rule. Id. at 390. The decedent had telephoned her mother at 6:15 a.m. and, during their ten-minute conversation: decedent told her mother that the defendant, decedent's boyfriend, would not permit her to leave their apartment, would hang up the phone, and would then kill her; and, in addition, the decedent's mother heard the defendant shouting in the background. Id. Five minutes after the end of the phone call, the police were hailed by the defendant, who stated that he had hurt his girlfriend. Id. at 388. The police found the decedent dead of multiple stab wounds at 6:35 a.m. Id. The mother's testimony was admissible under the present sense impression exception to the hearsay rule because "there was a sufficient confluence of time and events to vest special reliability in the statements" and her observation of the events in the apartment was not an absolute prerequisite to admissibility of testimony in those circumstances. Id. at 390. See also, Commonwealth v. Peterkin, 511 Pa. 299, 513 A.2d 373, 379 (1986)(decedent's telephonic statements to an off-duty employee about the presence of a former employee at the work-site admissible under present sense impression exception).

On review of the record in appellant's case, the standards for admissibility under an excited utterance exception are met. First, the record reflects that Mrs. Ulrich had no doubt about her identification of Sherri as the caller:

Q. And was there any doubt in your mind when you heard Sherri's voice that it was in fact Sherri?
A. There was no doubt.

Thus, as in Coleman, Mrs. Ulrich clearly recognized the voice of the declarant in the phone call as that of the decedent. Second, the victim, Sherri, spontaneously made the statement as a result of an "unexpected and shocking occurrence" that actually happened to her. In her call, she identified the assailant and referred to the injuries she and Greg sustained. The circumstances of the case support a conclusion that her declaration was shown to be "near the occurrence both in time and place as to exclude the likelihood of its having emanated in whole or in part from [her] reflective faculties." Washington, 692 A.2d at 1022. The record reveals a "sufficient...

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25 cases
  • Com. v. Paddy
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • July 8, 2002
    ...to show that someone other than the defendant committed the charged offense is undeniably relevant. See Commonwealth v. Chamberlain, 557 Pa. 34, 43, 731 A.2d 593, 597 (1999); Commonwealth v. Boyle, 470 Pa. 343, 359, 368 A.2d 661, 669 (1977). As the Commonwealth points out, however, Paddy ci......
  • Peterkin v. Horn
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania
    • November 6, 2001
    ...or emotional states and be made contemporaneously with the event to which the declaration refers. See: Commonwealth v. Chamberlain, 557 Pa. 34, 41, 731 A.2d 593, 596 (1999); Commonwealth v. Pronkoskie, 477 Pa. 132, 137, 383 A.2d 858, 860 (1978), citing, inter alia, McCormick, Evidence, § 29......
  • Commonwealth v. Chamberlain
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    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • October 14, 2011
    ...denying a pretrial motion for continuance to allow Appellant to obtain DNA testing of certain blood evidence. Commonwealth v. Chamberlain, 731 A.2d 593 (Pa. 1999) (Chamberlain I). To remedy this abuse of discretion, we remanded the case to the trial court to afford Appellant the opportunity......
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    • October 14, 2011
    ...a pretrial motion for continuance to allow Appellant to obtain DNA testing of certain blood evidence. Commonwealth v. Chamberlain, 557 Pa. 34, 731 A.2d 593 (1999) ( Chamberlain I ). To remedy this abuse of discretion, we remanded the case to the trial court to afford Appellant the opportuni......
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