Com. v. Stoltzfus

Decision Date13 May 1975
Citation462 Pa. 43,337 A.2d 873
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. LeRoy STOLTZFUS, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Grant E. Wesner, Deputy Dist. Atty. for Law, Reading, for appellee.



EAGEN, Justice.

The appellant, LeRoy Stoltzfus, was found guilty by a jury of murder in the first degree. Post trial motions were denied and a sentence of life imprisonment was imposed. This direct appeal followed.

The prosecution stemmed from the untimely death of Marilyn H. Sheckler, eighteen years of age, in Berks County. She was last seen alive, in an automobile in the company of her boy friend, Glenn W. Eckert, at 9:30 p.m. on August 12, 1969. On August 19, 1969, the automobile which Eckert had been driving was found abandoned in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Found in the automobile were several articles of clothing identified as belonging to Miss Sheckler and Eckert. On October 24, 1969, while making a search in a wooded area in Berks County, State Police officers discovered under some rocks near a stone wall, a decomposed body partially clad in a yellow dress. The body was later identified as Miss Sheckler. 1

At trial, the Commonwealth's case against Stoltzfus rested primarily on the testimony of James Eways and Harlin Bailey, which may be summarized as follows:

At approximately 1:00 a.m., on August 13, 1969, Stoltzfus, Eways, Bailey and Robert Martinolich, pursuant to a plan to kidnap a girl for the purpose of satisfying each of the group member's sexual whims, drove to Skyline Drive, located on the top of a mountain overlooking Reading, Pennsylvania. After driving around for a short time, they stopped alongside a parked vehicle occupied by Eckert and Miss Sheckler. Stoltzfus, Bailey and Martinolich entered the parked vehicle, and took the young couple captive. They then proceeded to follow Eways, who was driving a panel truck, to Leesport where the Eckert vehicle was abandoned. Miss Sheckler was forced to undress in the rear of the panel truck where a variety of sexual abuses were performed upon her by Stoltzfus and his companions. Subsequently, the four proceeded with their captives to Dreamland Park where their 'clubhouse' was located. However, on approaching it, they discovered two police vehicles parked across its entrance. Stoltzfus, Bailey and Martinolich, along with the two captives, then exited from the panel truck and entered the woods wherein Miss Sheckler's body was eventually discovered. Eways then drove away in the panel truck and, shortly thereafter, Bailey left the woods in order to find transportation for the group.

In addition to the foregoing, Bailey testified to three conversations he had with Stoltzfus following their arrest. In one, Bailey asked Stoltzfus what happened to the boy and girl (Eckert and Miss Sheckler), and the latter replied, 'Don't worry about it, we took care of them, just forget you ever saw them.' In the other two conversations, Stoltzfus explained that he attempted to choke Miss Sheckler and when she wouldn't die he crushed her skull with a rock and buried the body underneath rocks obtained from a nearby stone fence.

Stoltzfus was indicted for the murder of Miss Sheckler, and Martinolich was indicted for the murder of Eckert, whose body was discovered on October 23, 1969. Upon Stoltzfus' motion he was granted a separate trial. Martinolich was tried first and was convicted in June 1970 of murder in the first degree. 2 Stoltzfus was tried in September 1970 and found guilty of murder in the first degree.

A number of trial errors are asserted on this appeal. We find none meritorious and will, therefore, affirm the judgment. These claims of error will be discussed seriatim.

Initially, it is urged the trial court erred in refusing to grant pretrial motions for a change of venue. 3 Stoltzfus contends substantial adverse publicity at the time of the slayings and during the Martinolich trial denied him a fair trial by an impartial jury.

The grant or refusal of a change of venue is within the sound discretion of the trial court. Commonwealth v. Powell, --- Pa. ---, 328 A.2d 507, 510 (1974); Commonwealth v. Martinolich, supra, 456 Pa. at 141, 318 A.2d at 683; Commonwealth v. Hoss, 445 Pa. 98, 107, 283 A.2d 58 (1971). On appeal from the refusal of the trial court to grant a change of venue, the test is whether the court abused its discretion or committed an error of law which controlled the outcome of the case. Commonwealth v. Swanson, 432 Pa. 293, 248 A.2d 12 (1968).

Although there was extensive media coverage of the crimes at the time the bodies of the victims were found, and also during the Martinolich trial, by the time Stoltzfus' trial commenced, the effect of any damaging publicity had subsided, and the selection of the jury was not adversely affected. Stoltzfus' trial was more than a year after the crimes occurred and three months after Martinolich's trial. Under the circumstances, 'there was time for the effect of these news stories to fade from the minds of prospective jurors.' Commonwealth v. Powell, supra. See also Commonwealth v. Hoss, supra. Moreover, the reporting was factual in nature and not particularly inflammatory. As noted by this Court in Commonwealth v. Martinolich, supra 456 Pa. at 142, 318 A.2d at 684:

'Defense counsel at the March, 1970 hearing offered several newspaper accounts as proof of overwhelming community prejudice against appellant. However, many of these articles describe only the unrelated incident of the August 12 beating of the three young men, and others speak of the unexplained disappearance of Eckert and (Miss) Sheckler. It is true that a few newspaper stories are written in the graphic style endemic to journalism, but their total number is small. Most of the newspaper articles in the record are simply straightforward accounts of the police investigation, judicial proceedings, and other matters in the public record. (Emphasis supplied.)

Similar reasoning is applicable instantly. 4

In addition, the trial court determined that it was possible to select jurors who had no fixed opinion as to Stoltzfus' guilt. Commonwealth v. Powell, supra; Commonwealth v. Hoss, supra. The record justifies this conclusion. Of the one hundred and thirty-nine prospective jurors questioned on voir dire, only thirty-one indicated they had formed an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of Stoltzfus and only one of these thirty-one served on the trial jury. This juror stated affirmatively that he could set aside his opinion and render a decision based solely on the evidence presented at trial. 5 The other eleven jurors and two alternates selected stated they had no opinion as to the guilt or innocence of Stoltzfus.

The trial court denied the motions for a change of venue because it was satisfied Stoltzfus could receive a fair trial in Berks County. Upon this record, we find no abuse of discretion or error of law in this determination. Cf. Commonwealth v. Powell, supra.

Stoltzfus next contends the trial court committed reversible error in refusing, after timely motion, to exclude jurors already selected, from the court room during the examination of other prospective jurors. He asserts this refusal subjected those jurors already selected to 'prejudicial discussion and answers by panel members being questioned'. We find no merit to this argument.

Rule 1106 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, 19 P.S. Appendix, provides:

'(b) The voir dire of prospective jurors shall be conducted individually and May be conducted beyond the hearing and presence of other jurors.' (Emphasis supplied.)

Clearly the exclusion from the court room of selected jurors during the continuing voir dire examination is not mandatory. While exclusion may be the 'more desirable practice', such determination is a trial matter, committed to the sound discretion of the trial court. Commonwealth v. Martinolich, supra, 456 Pa. at 146, 318 A.2d at 686. The trial court explained the situation in this manner:

'(A)s a practical matter, there was neither space nor supervisory personnel available to keep accepted jurors separate from the court room. The use of a jury deliberation room of twelve by fifteen feet for such purpose was not feasible. Considering it took nine court days to select the jury, to compel one to thirteen jurors to be confined to a room of such size for a varying number of days up to nine court days would have resulted in an exhausted and frustrated jury before the trial even began, which of itself would have been prejudicial to the defendant.'

Similar reasoning was recently approved by this Court in Commonwealth v. Martinolich, supra at 145--146, 318 A.2d at 686.

Stoltzfus fails to point to any prejudicial event or incident which conceivably may have influenced the jurors selected to serve during the trial. Moreover, immediately after the entire jury was agreed upon, it was reminded to decide the case solely on the basis of the evidence presented at trial, without regard for any preconceived notions or opinions. We will not presume that the jurors disregarded their duty and the instructions of the Court. Cf. Commonwealth v. Martinolich, supra.

It is next asserted the trial court erred in permitting the Commonwealth to establish the corpus delicti through the testimony of Dr. George P. Desjardins. Dr. Desjardins, who performed the autopsy upon Miss Sheckler's remains, testified: 'My opinion is that this young lady died as a result of a blow to the left side of the head producing a depressed skull fracture.' It is argued that, because Dr. Desjardins failed to state his opinion in terms of 'beyond a reasonable doubt', the testimony was insufficient to establish the required causal connection between the death and the criminal act.

This argument is premised on the fact that Miss...

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