Com. v. Holcomb

Decision Date04 October 1985
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Charles Preston HOLCOMB, Appellant. 41 W.D. 1983
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

John P. Dohanich, Public Defender's Office, Beaver, for appellant.

Edward J. Tocci, Dist. Atty., John Lee Brown, Jr., Asst. Dist. Atty., Beaver, for appellee.




This is a direct appeal from a death penalty imposed by Beaver County Common Pleas on a conviction for first-degree murder. 1 Additional sentences of imprisonment for convictions of rape, 2 kidnapping, 3 theft 4 and indecent assault 5 arising out of the same occurrence are also before us. The jury returned the death penalty for the first-degree murder conviction after the separate sentencing hearing required by our capital punishment act. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(a).

Appellant raises expressly on this appeal:

(1) Whether his Miranda rights were violated during questioning;

(2) Whether the arrest was supported by either probable cause or a valid arrest warrant;

(3) Whether the trial court abused its discretion by not granting the motion for change of venue;

(4) Whether certain photographic evidence was improperly admitted;

(5) Whether the evidence as a whole was insufficient to support the convictions;

(6) Whether the trial court's charge on kidnapping was proper;

(7) Whether the Pennsylvania death penalty provisions violated the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions; and

(8) Whether the evidence supported the imposition of the death penalty in this case.

After a careful review of all of the issues presented, our additional independent review of the record 6 and a further proportionality review as required by the death penalty statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(3)(iii), we affirm the convictions and the sentence imposed. We will address each of these issues in the order presented.


This prosecution arises out of the killing of Sandra Jean Vespaziani in Beaver County on Saturday, January 16, 1982. Mrs. Vespaziani and a friend were on their way home from their jobs in the Beaver Valley Mall. Her friend stopped at an adjacent store, while Mrs. Vespaziani remained in the car. When her companion came out of the store, both the car and Mrs. Vespaziani were missing.

Mrs. Vespaziani's body was found the next day, a half mile from the car in which she had been waiting, and about 12 to 16 miles away from the shopping mall. The interior of the car was burned. Medical tests showed that the victim had been raped.

On Monday, January 18, 1982, the police received information that the appellant had appeared between 8:00 and 8:30 P.M. on Saturday at a house, the Tice residence, about one mile from where the body had been found. By sheer happenstance one of the persons at this house knew and recognized appellant. Learning of the victim's discovery from the public media and hearing the police request for help from anyone with relevant knowledge, the witnesses from the farmhouse came forward to identify appellant. They stated that the appellant had come to the house on foot suffering from the elements on one of the coldest nights of the year, with temperatures around -18~ F. and a wind chill factor of -50~ F. One of these witnesses also testified that appellant asked if there were any scratches or blood on him. After a time in the house, appellant was driven to a convenience store some miles beyond the mall at which Mrs. Vespaziani had last been seen alive. From that store appellant called a relative who drove him back to the mall to pick up his car.

Based on this information, the police chief sent some officers out to look for appellant. When they found him, they asked him to come to the police station. He did so freely, even though the police had not told him why they wanted to talk to him. At the station, appellant was interviewed from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, January 16. The police asked if he knew why they wanted to speak with him. Appellant said that he thought the questioning concerned his whereabouts on Sunday, when he was involved in a fight at a bar. The police stated they were really interested in where he was on Saturday. At that time, appellant said that he was in a bar all day, from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. The police told him there were reports that he had been seen elsewhere. At that point, they read him his Miranda rights. He signed a waiver form, and was then told exactly what they were investigating.

Appellant remained in the police station, undergoing questioning. He gave several different versions of where he had been on Saturday. During the questioning, appellant suggested that the police take a picture of him to show around the bars he had been. The police did this while appellant remained at the station. No one verified any of appellant's stories. During the interview, appellant also suggested the police search his mother's car for a jacket they were seeking. His mother consented to the search, and police found a penknife and most of a case of beer. These items were not taken until the police had obtained a search warrant. The testimony at trial indicated that none of the people named by appellant could vouch for his actions during the crucial hours between about 6:00 p.m. until about 10:00 p.m. Saturday evening.

During questioning, appellant was told at several times that he was free to go. He nevertheless stayed and answered more questions. He was unguarded while the police left from time to time during the interview to check his story. When he left the station after the interview he had not yet been placed under arrest.

An arrest warrant was issued for appellant on Wednesday, January 20, 1982. When the police could not find him, they told his mother about the warrant and asked that he contact them immediately. Later that afternoon, appellant called the police and gave himself up.

In a jury trial June 15-22, 1982, appellant was found guilty of first-degree murder, rape, kidnapping, indecent assault, and theft by unlawful taking. A separate sentencing hearing was conducted on the murder conviction, as required by 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(a)(1). The jury, after hearing evidence on aggravating and mitigating circumstances, imposed the death penalty. This direct appeal followed.


Appellant claims that his Miranda rights were violated when he was initially questioned by the police. He argues that he should have received Miranda warnings because he was the focus of the investigation when the police asked him to come in for questioning. See Escobedo v. Illinois 378 U.S. 478, 84 S.Ct. 1758, 12 L.Ed.2d 977 (1964), explained by Beckwith v. United States, 425 U.S. 341, 96 S.Ct. 1612, 48 L.Ed.2d 1 (1976). Appellant nevertheless asks this Court to continue to follow Escobedo and suppress all statements made in the police station, including his suggestions to show the photographs and to search his mother's car.

The "focus of the investigation" test comes from Escobedo, supra. Escobedo held that the police must inform the defendant of his rights when "the investigation is no longer a general inquiry into an unsolved crime but has begun to focus on a particular suspect." Id. 378 U.S. at 490, 84 S.Ct. at 1765. Subsequently, in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), the United States Supreme Court determined that the defendant needed a warning regarding his rights during "custodial interrogation." The Miranda Court stated that this was what was meant by "focus" in Escobedo. 384 U.S. at 444, n. 4, 86 S.Ct. at 1612, n. 4.

Some two years later, this Court, in Commonwealth v. Feldman, 432 Pa. 428, 248 A.2d 1 (1968), set forth its interpretation of a defendant's rights under Miranda and Escobedo:

From reading Escobedo and Miranda together it becomes clear that whenever an individual is questioned while in custody or while the object of an investigation of which he is the focus, before any questioning begins the individual must be given the warnings established in Miranda.

Id. at 432, 248 A.2d at 3 (emphasis in original). This language has been cited as the conclusively established statement of a defendant's rights under Miranda. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. O'Shea, 456 Pa. 288, 318 A.2d 713, cert. denied, 419 U.S. 1092, 95 S.Ct. 686, 42 L.Ed.2d 685 (1974); Commonwealth v. D'Nicuola, 448 Pa. 54, 292 A.2d 333 (1972).

In 1976, the United States Supreme Court clarified its definition of "custodial interrogation" in Beckwith, supra. Beckwith held that Miranda only protects the defendant during actual custodial interrogation, rejecting Beckwith's claim that the government should have informed him of his rights while he was the focus of a criminal tax investigation. The Beckwith Court stated that "Miranda was grounded squarely in that Court's explicit and detailed assessment of the peculiar 'nature and setting of ... in-custody interrogation.' " 425 U.S. at 346, 96 S.Ct. at 1616. The Beckwith decision thus effectively repudiated the inference that the Escobedo focus test was still necessary under the federal constitution.

This change in federal constitutional requirements was not, however, followed by an immediate change in this Court's interpretation of the Miranda line of cases. The first reassessment of Feldman was in Commonwealth v. McLaughlin, 475 Pa. 97, 379 A.2d 1056 (1977):

Although by our placing of "object of an investigation" in the disjunctive with the custodial requirement, it might appear as though the Pennsylvania interpretation of when Miranda warnings are required was broader than the United States Supreme Court's interpretation, an examination of the facts taken with the language of Pennsylvania cases indicates those cases may be interpreted as being harmonious with Beckwith.

Id. at 101-02, 379 A.2d at 1058. McLaughlin noted further...

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  • Wood v. Commonwealth, No. 2003-SC-0535-MR (KY 12/1/2005), 2003-SC-0535-MR.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky
    • December 1, 2005 KRS 532.025(2)(x)(1). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered a slightly different statutory aggravating factor in Commonwealth v. Holcomb, 498 A.2d 833 (Pa. 1985); the Pennsylvania statute authorized the death penalty if the jury found that the defendant has "a significant history of ......

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