Com. v. Jermyn

Decision Date15 April 1993
Citation533 Pa. 194,620 A.2d 1128
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Frederic Jacob JERMYN, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

J. Michael Eakin, Dist. Atty., Syndi L. Guido, Asst. Dist. Atty., for appellee.

Before NIX, C.J., and FLAHERTY, McDERMOTT, ZAPPALA, PAPADAKOS and CAPPY, JJ.

OPINION OF THE COURT

FLAHERTY, Justice.

This is a direct appeal from the order of the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas--Criminal Division denying post-conviction relief in a death penalty case. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9546(d) (denial of post-conviction relief appealable directly to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a death penalty case).

Jermyn was convicted by a jury of first degree murder, arson and aggravated assault. 1 He was sentenced to death on the first degree murder conviction and to a concurrent term of ten to twenty years for arson, with the arson sentence to run consecutively with a five to ten year sentence on aggravated assault. Jermyn appealed the death sentence and this court affirmed, Commonwealth v. Jermyn, 516 Pa. 460, 533 A.2d 74 (1987). Jermyn then filed a motion under the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa.C.S. § 9541 et seq. The PCRA court conducted a hearing on the motion, and at the conclusion of the hearing, denied the motion. This appeal followed.

The Post-Conviction Relief Act provides, in pertinent part:

(a) General rule.--To be eligible for relief under this subchapter, a person must plead and prove by a preponderance of the evidence all of the following:

* * * * * *

(2) That the conviction or sentence resulted from one or more of the following:

* * * * * *

(ii) Ineffective assistance of counsel which, in the circumstances of the particular case, so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place.

* * * * * *

(v) A violation of the provisions of the Constitution, law or treaties of the United States which would require the granting of Federal habeas corpus relief to a State prisoner. 2

42 Pa.C.S. § 9543. With respect to ineffectiveness of counsel, this court has stated:

There are three elements to a valid claim of ineffective assistance. We inquire first whether the underlying claim is of arguable merit; that is, whether the disputed action or omission by counsel was of questionable legal soundness. If so, we ask whether counsel had any reasonable basis for the questionable action or omission which was designed to effectuate his client's interest. If he did, our inquiry ends. If not, the appellant will be granted relief if he also demonstrates that counsel's improper course of conduct worked to his prejudice, i.e., had an adverse effect upon the outcome of the proceeding.

Commonwealth v. Davis, 518 Pa. 77, 83, 541 A.2d 315, 318 (1988). In other words, in order for a claim of ineffectiveness of counsel to prevail, the petitioner must show (1) that counsel's conduct was of questionable legal soundness; (2) that he had no reasonable basis for the conduct; (3) that counsel's action had an adverse effect on the outcome of the proceeding.

Jermyn's first claim is that it was error for trial counsel to fail to ask questions of defendant at trial in such a manner as to allow him to testify in his own defense and deny the charges against him. The record indicates that Jermyn confessed to trial and pre-trial counsel his culpability in the crime charged and that trial counsel was aware of both confessions. At the PCRA hearing, Jermyn testified as follows:

Q. Do you recall, sir,--well, had you been given the opportunity to testify about what happened on January first of 1985, did you want to testify to the jury and tell the jury your version of the events?

A. More than likely, yes. Had I been given the opportunity to testify, I would have denied the allegations.

Believing that Jermyn would lie as to his culpability if given an opportunity, trial counsel asked Jermyn if he would like to make a general statement to the jury. 3 4

Counsel's treatment of the problem was reasonable, for while he was obligated to defer to his client's insistence on testifying, he was also obligated not to participate in the lie that he believed his client would state. The impact of counsel's conduct, thus, was to impede Jermyn's ability to lie to the jury. But Jermyn's ability to lie to the jury is not, of course, protected, and counsel cannot be ineffective for failing to promote it. 5 This claim is without merit because counsel acted reasonably within the constraints of ethical requirements.

Next, Jermyn claims that appellate counsel was ineffective in failing to file a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court on the issue of whether arson, which was the means utilized to commit the murder, may constitute an aggravating circumstance which would support a death verdict.

In Jermyn's direct appeal to this court he raised the question of whether it was error to allow the jury to consider arson endangering persons, 18 Pa.C.S. § 3301(a)(1), an aggravating circumstance for purposes of application of the death penalty statute. We held that it was not error to permit the jury to use arson endangering persons as an aggravating circumstance. Com. v. Jermyn, 516 Pa. at 484-86, 533 A.2d at 85-86. Jermyn now attempts to relitigate this issue by couching it in terms of an allegation that it was ineffective for counsel to fail to petition for certiorari once we had denied his claim.

In order to prevail on this claim, Jermyn must show, inter alia, that counsel's conduct had no reasonable basis. Counsel testified at the PCRA hearing that he had consulted with other legal counsel as to the arson/aggravating circumstance issue and decided that this court's decision did not conflict with federal law or the law of other states. Moreover, Jermyn has not cited conflicting decisions from other states or from the federal circuits. We conclude, therefore, that counsel's failure to file a writ of certiorari was reasonable and that Jermyn's assertion of ineffectiveness is without merit.

Finally, Jermyn asserts that counsel was ineffective per se for failing to request "life qualification questioning" during voir dire; that appellate counsel was ineffective in failing to properly frame the issue on direct appeal (failed to cite legal authority from other jurisdictions and failed to obtain a transcript of the voir dire); and that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to file a petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court on the "life qualification" issue.

Life qualification questioning is merely questioning of each prospective juror to ensure that each juror is willing and able to award a sentence of life imprisonment in an appropriate case and that the juror would not insist on a death sentence in all cases of first degree murder.

Had this court been furnished with a transcript of the voir dire proceedings in this case, it would have read the following questioning which was conducted by the trial court:

Q. The Commonwealth in this case is seeking to convict Mr. Jermyn of murder in the first degree. If the jury is unanimous in a verdict of murder of the first degree, the jury would then be asked to deliberate a second time to decide whether or not to impose a penalty of death or life imprisonment. In order to serve on this jury it is a requirement of the law that you do not have any scruples that would prevent or substantially impair the performance of your duties as a juror in accordance with the instructions provided to you by this Court and your oath as a juror. My question is, do you have any moral, philosophical or religious scruples that would prevent you from imposing the death penalty in this case if under the law and the facts as you found them the circumstances warranted it?

A. (Assumed answer no).

Q. Are you telling me that under the appropriate circumstances you could vote for the death penalty in this case?

A. (Assumed answer yes).

This questioning, which "death qualifies" a jury, is designed to ensure that the jury will be able to follow the requirements of the law in imposing a death sentence in an appropriate case. Neither the transcript of the voir dire nor the citation of cases from our sister states significantly adds to what we had previously considered on direct appeal. As we stated on direct appeal:

The purpose of voir dire is to empanel a fair and impartial jury which will apply the law in accordance with the instructions of the trial court. Both general and specific questions are directed to prospective jurors under oath in an effort to ferret out evidence of bias and prejudice. Those veniremen who express an inability to render a fair and impartial decision are subject to a challenge for cause. In addition, those venirepersons thought to be unfavorably disposed to the positions of the respective parties may be removed through the exercise of peremptory challenges. The mere fact that counsel may not have posed the specific...

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20 cases
  • Com. v. Jermyn
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • 25 Febrero 1998
    ...460, 533 A.2d 74 (1987). We subsequently affirmed the trial court's dismissal of Jermyn's first PCRA petition. See Commonwealth v. Jermyn, 533 Pa. 194, 620 A.2d 1128 (1993). Jermyn's execution was scheduled for the week of December 6, 1993. The trial court denied his petition for a stay of ......
  • Commonwealth v. Mitchell, 9673CF0312
    • United States
    • Massachusetts Superior Court
    • 18 Diciembre 2000
    ... ... convinced he was telling the truth in making such an ... admission); Commonwealth v. Jermyn , 620 A.2d 1128, ... 1130-31 (Pa. 1993), cert. den., 510 U.S. 1049 (1994) ... (concluding that it was proper for counsel to use a narrative ... ...
  • People v. Johnson, D026826
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • 24 Marzo 1998
    ...and illegal conduct, and which advanced the societal interest in the administration of justice"]; see also Commonwealth v. Jermyn (1993) 533 Pa. 194, 200, 620 A.2d 1128, 1131). result in the attorney testifying against the client and which would require the court to be able to see into the ......
  • Com. v. Wright
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • 22 Diciembre 2008
    ...of a fair and impartial jury capable of applying the law in accordance with the trial court's instructions. Commonwealth v. Jermyn, 533 Pa. 194, 620 A.2d 1128, 1132 (1993). Here, the prosecutor made a misstatement, which the trial court corrected, and the proper standard was provided during......
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