Com. v. Dillon

Decision Date31 October 1991
Citation528 Pa. 417,598 A.2d 963
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Carol DILLON, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Ronald Eisenberg, Chief, Appeals Div., Gaele McLaughlin Barthold, Deputy Dist. Atty., Maxine J. Stotland, for appellee.



LARSEN, Justice.

Appellant, Carol Dillon, was found guilty of murder in the third degree and possession of an instrument of crime following a jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. The trial court denied her post-trial motions and sentenced her to a prison term of not less than three years and no more than six years. Appellant appealed to the Superior Court, which affirmed 386 Pa.Super. 236, 562 A.2d 885. We granted allocatur. We now reverse on the basis of the trial court's exclusion of evidence presented by appellant as herein set forth.

Appellant was accused of stabbing and killing her husband, James Dillon, in their home on Saturday, June 7, 1986. Appellant admits to the fatal stabbing but asserts that she did so in self-defense after the decedent, who was drunk at the time, attacked her. At trial, appellant testified that the decedent had become violent when drinking and beaten her on numerous occasions (T.T., 11/4/87, pp. 7-8).

To support her testimony that the decedent became violent when drinking, appellant attempted to introduce the testimony of her son, Robert Weinert Jr., regarding the decedent's character for violence when intoxicated. According to the offer of proof, Weinert would have testified that "during the time he visited the home, he and his friends, James Dillon Sr.'s, would get in the basement at which time they would drink and smoke marijuana and inhale it and he would get drunk and mean and vicious." The trial court refused to admit Weinert's testimony because it considered the testimony irrelevant and incompetent. The trial court did, however, permit two Commonwealth witnesses to testify on rebuttal that decedent was normal and happy when drinking (T.T., 11/4/87, pp. 100, 113).

In a trial for homicide, where self-defense is asserted, the defendant may introduce evidence of the turbulent or dangerous character of the decedent. Commonwealth v. Tiffany, 121 Pa. 165, 15 A. 462 (1888). This type of character evidence is admissible on either of two grounds: 1) to corroborate the defendant's alleged knowledge of the victim's violent character in an effort to show that the defendant reasonably believed that her life was in danger; and/or 2) to prove the allegedly violent propensities of the victim to show that the victim was in fact the aggressor. Commonwealth v. Clemmons, 505 Pa. 356, 479 A.2d 955 (1984); Commonwealth v. Amos, 445 Pa. 297, 284 A.2d 748 (1971). In the instant case, Weinert's testimony is admissible on both of these grounds.

Where this character evidence is proffered to corroborate the defendant's state of mind, the defendant must demonstrate knowledge of the decedent's character or reputation in order to establish a proper foundation for her claim that such knowledge put her in fear. Commonwealth v. Stewart, 483 Pa. 176, 180 n. 2, 394 A.2d 968, 970 n. 2 (1978); II Wigmore, Evidence § 246. As noted previously, appellant herein testified as to the numerous episodes of violence inflicted upon her by the decedent when he had been drinking. From this, it is obvious that appellant knew of the decedent's character for violence when drinking.

Having established her knowledge of the decedent's violent character, appellant was entitled to buttress her claim with evidence of the decedent's violent character. Appellant sought to introduce Weinert's testimony to explain the decedent's general character and reputation when drinking. At the very least, Weinert's testimony would have shown that the decedent was "mean and vicious" when drunk. Since there was evidence to show that the decedent had been drinking prior to the stabbing, 1 Weinert's testimony would be relevant to corroborate appellant's state of fear, and therefore, the testimony should have been admitted.

In addition, Weinert's testimony should have been admitted on the issue of who was the aggressor. This Court, as far back as 1884, has permitted the introduction of character evidence to prove the decedent's violent propensities, where self-defense is asserted and where there is an issue as to who was the aggressor. Alexander v. Commonwealth, 105 Pa. 1, 9 (1884). "When the issue of self-defense is made in a trial for homicide, and thus a controversy arises whether the deceased was the aggressor, one's persuasion will be more or less affected by the character of the deceased; it may throw much light on the probabilities of the deceased's action." I Wigmore, Evidence § 63 at 467. 2 In the instant case, appellant testified that the decedent was the aggressor and that he grabbed her by the arm, pushed her, punched her and told her he was going to kill her just prior to her stabbing him (T.T., 11/4/87, p. 11). On cross examination, however, the Commonwealth tried to establish that appellant did not feel that her life was threatened and that she stabbed the decedent out of anger (T.T., 11/4/87, p. 59). Because there was a question as to who was the aggressor, appellant should have been permitted to show the decedent's violent propensities through Weinert's testimony.

Weinert's testimony was both relevant and competent evidence of the decedent's character for violence when drinking and of his being the aggressor. The trial court erred in excluding such evidence. 3 Appellant is entitled to a new trial.

Accordingly, we reverse the order of the Superior Court and remand to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

ZAPPALA, PAPADAKOS and CAPPY, JJ., join this majority opinion.

NIX, C.J., filed a concurring opinion joined by FLAHERTY and McDERMOTT, JJ.

FLAHERTY, J., filed a concurring opinion joined by NIX, C.J., and McDERMOTT, J.

CAPPY, J., filed a concurring opinion joined by LARSEN and PAPADAKOS, JJ.

NIX, Chief Justice, concurring.

Although I concur in the result reached by the majority today, I write separately to state my belief that evidence regarding the cumulative effects of wife-beating and general spousal abuse must be admissible to bear upon the "reasonableness" of the conduct by a party who claims self-defense to a charge of spousal homicide.

Theorists have long espoused the concept of a separately defined claim of self-defense for the woman who is repeatedly brutalized by her husband. Advocates believe that the traditional theory of self-defense fails to account for either society's cultural expectations relating to gender or the specific problems inherent in battered women. Crocher, Equality and Self-Defense, 8 Harv. Women's L.J. 121, 128 (1985). See also Cipparone, Defense of Battered Women, 135 U.Pa.L.Rev. 427 (1987). These theorists agree that social and legal attitudes toward women have rendered them helpless in abusive situations.

With respect to battered women in particular, society has condoned wife abuse, ignored or denied its existence, or blamed the wife. The legal system has reinforced this by not providing effective assistance and only selectively enforcing applicable laws. [T]hese "social misconceptions of battered women often blind the [jury] [sic] to the reasonableness of a battered woman's use of defensive force."

8 Harv.Women's L.J. at 130 (footnotes omitted).

To support the battered woman's argument in a proper case, expert testimony can be introduced to show how a battering relationship generates different perspectives of danger, imminence, and necessary force. Id. at 132. Expert testimony can also explain why the defendant stayed in the relationship, why she never called the police, or why she feared increased violence. The behavioral patterns that emerge in a study of battered women are collectively referred to as "learned helplessness." 135 U.Pa.L.Rev. at 432. This learned helplessness and its resulting feeling of inability to control the beatings lead to a process of victimization, rendering the woman psychologically paralyzed and unable to perceive the existence of any available options.

Clearly, society's historic refusal to acknowledge or interfere with instances of domestic violence has forced the victims into an impossible situation. As a result of traditionally being unable to obtain help, these victims, all too frequently, resort to killing their abuser, perceiving this to be the only solution available to eliminate the potential for future abuse. However, traditional concepts of self-defense do not include this particular cycle of behavior, but instead focuses on the immediacy of the perceived harm rather than the systematic and cumulative damage inflicted on the abused individual. Tailoring self-defense claims to recognize the "battered woman syndrome" would thus be an effective means of finally providing legal protection for a woman forced to defend herself from further attack.

Section 505(a) of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code states:

Use of force justifiable for protection of the person:

The use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.

18 Pa.C.S.A. § 505(a) (emphasis added).

Section 501 of the Code defines "belief" as meaning "reasonable belief" and this standard has been observed in the decisions of this Court. Commonwealth v. White, 492 Pa. 489, 424 A.2d 1296 (1981); Commonwealth v. Webster, 490 Pa. 322, 416 A.2d 491 (1980); Commonwealth v. Black, 474 Pa. 47, 376 A.2d 627 (1977);...

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    ...been permitted to introduce decedent's assaultive and aggressive propensities through Kathy Potter's testimony. See Commonwealth v. Dillon, 528 Pa. 417, 598 A.2d 963 (1991). The fact that this testimony "fell through the cracks" we attribute to ineffectiveness which, "in the circumstances o......
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    ...TABLE OF CITATIONS Cases Commonwealth v. Dillon , 528 Pa. 417, 598 A.2d 963 (1991) Commonwealth v. Nolen , 535 Pa. 77 634 A.2d 192 (1993) Commonwealth v. Ray , 2000 Pa. Super. 126, 751 A. 2d 233 (2000) Commonwealth v. Rittle , 285 Pa. Super. 522, 425 A. 2d 168 (1980) Commonwealth v. Gray , ......

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