Com. v. Cristina

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation481 Pa. 44,391 A.2d 1307
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Jeffrey CRISTINA, Appellant.
Decision Date05 October 1978

Robert E. Colville, Dist. Atty., Robert L. Eberhardt, Stephanie McKinney, Asst. Dist. Attys., Pittsburgh, for appellee.



EAGEN, Chief Justice.

On June 29, 1976, Jeffrey Cristina was convicted by a jury in Allegheny County of robbery and of murder of the second degree. On the murder conviction, a sentence of life imprisonment was imposed. Sentence was suspended on the robbery conviction. An appeal from the judgment of sentence imposed on the murder conviction was filed in this Court. An appeal from the order imposed on the robbery conviction was filed in the Superior Court and later certified here. The charges against Cristina arose out of the death of Frank Slazinski, an eighty-two-year-old retired steel worker, from injuries incurred during a robbery in his apartment on December 10, 1975.

Cristina advances four alleged errors as grounds for an arrest of judgment or a new trial: (1) insufficiency of the evidence to sustain his convictions; (2) admission into evidence of a tape-recorded statement he made while in police custody; (3) failure of the court to charge that, since the Commonwealth made pretrial blood, flesh and hair tests and failed to introduce the results into evidence, the jury might infer "that the results were unfavorable to the Commonwealth"; and, (4) a jury instruction that certain pretrial statements exculpating Cristina made by his alleged accomplice could be considered only for the purpose of impeaching the accomplice and not as substantive evidence. We have examined each of the asserted errors, and we affirm the judgment and order of the trial court.

We now turn our attention to the first issue, namely, was the evidence legally sufficient to sustain the jury's verdict. 1 The test is whether, viewing all of the evidence admitted at trial in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth and drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom, is it sufficient to enable the trier of fact to find every element of the crimes charged beyond a reasonable doubt. See Commonwealth v. Bastone, 466 Pa. 548, 353 A.2d 827 (1976).

Murder of the second degree is defined by the Crimes Code as follows:

"A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the second degree when the death of the victim occurred while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony."

18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2502(b) (Supp. 1978-79).

In our view, the evidence in the record is adequate to have enabled the jury to conclude that Cristina participated, either as a principal or an accomplice, in the robbery of Frank Slazinski, during the course of which Slazinski suffered injuries which resulted in his death. Thus, the evidence supports both convictions.

The Commonwealth's principal witness was William Pirozzi, who testified on direct examination as follows: On December 10, 1975, he, Pirozzi, agreed to help Jeffrey Cristina "rob somebody." They proceeded to the apartment building where Slazinski resided and Cristina kicked in a panel of the door to the front entrance and crawled through the opening. Cristina then opened the door from the inside, allowing Pirozzi to enter. Pirozzi remained in the vestibule while Cristina walked down a hallway, kicked open and entered the door to Slazinski's apartment. Pirozzi heard a voice yelling "get out," a person moaning, a cracking sound and a thump. Five minutes later Cristina emerged from the apartment carrying a television set and some money. He gave five dollars to Pirozzi and told him that he "hit the guy a couple of times" but "he will be all right." At that time Pirozzi observed that Cristina carried a blackjack in his belt. Pirozzi and Cristina left the building and went separate ways. 2

During direct examination, Pirozzi also testified that, when questioned by the police in February of 1976 about the Slazinski crimes, he lied and said one Red Phillips and not Cristina committed the robbery and the assault.

During cross-examination, counsel for Cristina introduced into evidence two recorded statements Pirozzi gave to the police in February of 1976, wherein he exculpated Cristina and said Phillips was the robber and assaulter of Slazinski. During further cross-examination, Pirozzi's truthfulness was further brought into question by demonstrated inconsistencies in a third recorded statement given to the police, also in February of 1976.

Then during redirect examination, Pirozzi unexpectedly stated that neither his testimony on direct examination nor his statements to the police in February of 1976 were true. However, later in the redirect examination, he stated that his direct testimony naming Cristina as the guilty party was the truth. 3

Cristina contends that Pirozzi's testimony was so unreliable and contradictory that it should be considered incredible as a matter of law, and the jury should not have been permitted to return a guilty verdict on the basis of such testimony.

Credibility is a factual issue and is most appropriately resolved in the first instance by the trier of fact and reviewed on post-trial motions by the trial court which has also observed the witnesses as they testified. Assessment of a witness's credibility is not an appropriate function of appellate review. See Commonwealth v. Farquharson, 467 Pa. 50, 354 A.2d 545 (1976) and cases cited.

However, where evidence offered to support guilt of a crime is so unreliable and/or contradictory as to make a verdict based thereon pure conjecture rather than the product of reasonable reconciliation, an appellate court is justified in concluding that it was reversible error to allow the jury to return a guilty verdict based thereon. See Commonwealth v. Farquharson, supra ; Commonwealth v. Bennett, 224 Pa.Super. 238, 303 A.2d 220 (1973).

After a careful study of the record, we are not convinced Pirozzi's testimony was so contradictory as to render it incapable of reasonable reconciliation. Moreover, while an accomplice's testimony must be received with caution, see Commonwealth v. Farquharson, supra ; Commonwealth v. Tervalon, 463 Pa. 581, 345 A.2d 671 (1975); Commonwealth v. Vorhauer, 232 Pa.Super. 84, 331 A.2d 815 (1974), a jury may convict on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. Commonwealth v. Bradley, 449 Pa. 19, 295 A.2d 842 (1972).

Further, although Pirozzi's testimony was the only evidence offered by the Commonwealth to establish Cristina as the actual assailant, Cristina, in his trial testimony, corroborated his participation in the criminal episode. During direct examination, Cristina testified as follows:

On December 10, 1975, Cristina agreed to help Pirozzi break into "some guy's apartment." Upon arriving at the front door of the apartment building, Cristina kicked in a panel of the door, crawled through the hole and opened the door for Pirozzi. Cristina then stood in the vestibule while Pirozzi walked down the hallway toward Slazinski's apartment until he was out of Cristina's view. Cristina heard the sound of splintering wood and a man's voice ordering someone to leave. As Cristina turned to leave the building, he heard a cracking sound. He went directly home and had no further contact with Pirozzi until two days later. 4

Thus, by his own admission, Cristina was an accomplice to the robbery-murder, as defined in 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 306:

"A person is an accomplice of another person in the commission of an offense if:

(i) with the intent of promoting or facilitating the commission of the offense, he:

(ii) aids or agrees or attempts to aid such other person in planning or committing it . . . ."

Therefore, even if the jury chose to believe Cristina's testimony that he broke into the building and remained standing just inside the door as Pirozzi entered the victim's apartment, there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could have found Cristina guilty of robbery and of murder under the felony-murder doctrine. See Commonwealth v. Dankel, 450 Pa. 437, 439 n.3, 301 A.2d 365, 367 n.3 (1973).

Next, Cristina contends that the court erred in allowing the Commonwealth to introduce and play for the jury, as part of its case-in-chief, a tape-recorded statement made by him prior to trial which contained information the Commonwealth knew to be false. In the contested statement, given after he was arrested and charged with the robbery-murder, Cristina admitted breaking into both the apartment building and the victim's apartment and claimed to have stood by while Red Phillips struck the victim. 5

Cristina argues that the Commonwealth may not offer, as substantive evidence, evidence which it knows to be false, and that the tape-recorded statement was admissible only for the purpose of impeaching his trial testimony in the event he chose to testify. This argument fails for the following reasons:

The rule regarding the use of prior inconsistent statements solely for impeaching a witness's credibility, see Commonwealth v. Brewer, 479 Pa. 558, 388 A.2d 1071 (1978) (filed July 14, 1978); Commonwealth v. Knudsen, 443 Pa. 412, 278 A.2d 881 (1971), is not applicable to extra judicial statements made by the accused. A defendant's voluntary, pretrial admissions or confessions which comply with constitutional safeguards are admissible as substantive evidence under the admission exception to the hearsay rule, regardless of whether the defendant testifies. Commonwealth v. Tervalon, supra. See also 10A P.L.E. Criminal Law §§ 291, 311.

Even an admission or confession shown to be false may be admissible to prove something other than the matter falsely confessed. See 23 C.J.S. Criminal Law § 817(1). This Court has held that prior false or contradictory or...

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2 cases
  • Com. v. Lapcevich
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • 25 Junio 1987
    ...on post-trial motions; assessment of a witness' credibility is not an appropriate function of appellate review. Commonwealth v. Cristina, 481 Pa. 44, 391 A.2d 1307 (1978); Commonwealth v. Beckham, 349 Pa.Super. 430, 503 A.2d 443 Next, appellant claims the trial court erred in refusing his p......
  • Commonwealth v. Cristina, J-S13002-15
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • 3 Mayo 2016

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