Com. v. Thomas

Decision Date15 July 1991
Docket NumberNo. 98,98
Citation594 A.2d 300,527 Pa. 511
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Jeffrow THOMAS, Appellant. W.D. 1989.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

FLAHERTY, Justice.

Appellant, Jeffrow Thomas, challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction of third degree murder, when death was caused by a single bare-fisted blow to the decedent's face.

On June 23, 1978, Joe Humphrey, the victim, was eating and drinking with appellant, appellant's two brothers, and four or five other people in the kitchen of a friend for a period of several hours in the afternoon. Humphrey, forty years old, six feet, one inch tall, weighing 175 pounds, had, years earlier, suffered an injury to his neck when he was struck in the back of the neck with a pool cue. In 1972, six years before the fatal assault, the neck injury had required surgery and a cervical fusion had been performed. The result was a chronically stiff neck which made it difficult for him to turn his head. The condition was readily apparent and was a topic of conversation at the gathering on June 23, 1978.

Humphrey left the residence at approximately 6:00 P.M. to purchase more wine, and returned a little later. At that time, appellant and his two brothers were outside the residence and met Humphrey on the pavement. One of appellant's brothers took Humphrey's bottle of wine and Humphrey began to object. While Humphrey turned his head, with difficulty, to face appellant's brother, appellant, who was twenty years old, six feet tall, weighing 180 pounds, struck him in the face with his fist. The blow knocked Humphrey down, causing him to strike his head on the concrete pavement, knocking him unconscious. Without regaining consciousness, Humphrey died a week later of a brain hemorrhage caused by the fall.

Appellant was charged with first degree murder, third degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter. At the conclusion of the Commonwealth's case, the trial court dismissed the charges of first degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. Appellant elected to waive jury instructions on involuntary manslaughter, choosing to present the jury with only two options: third degree murder or an acquittal. He was convicted of third degree murder and sentenced to a term of three to twenty years imprisonment.

Trial counsel neglected to appeal and a PCHA proceeding in 1986 reinstated appellant's right to appeal. Appellant challenged the weight and sufficiency of the evidence as well as trial counsel's effectiveness in waiving jury instructions on involuntary manslaughter. The trial court and the Superior Court rejected appellant's arguments and denied his motion for new trial. Due to our view of the sufficiency of the evidence, we need not address the remaining issues raised by appellant.

The narrow issue presented by this case is whether proof of appellant's single punch to Joe Humphrey's face was sufficient to support a finding of malice, an element of the crime of murder of the third degree. Commonwealth v. Young, 494 Pa. 224, 431 A.2d 230 (1981). In reviewing sufficiency of the evidence, we ask "whether the evidence, and all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, are sufficient to establish all the elements of the offense(s) beyond a reasonable doubt." Commonwealth v. Bricker, 525 Pa. 362, 364, 581 A.2d 147, 148 (1990).

Malice was defined in Commonwealth v. Drum, 58 Pa. 9, 15 (1868), as follows:

The distinguishing criterion of murder is malice aforethought. But it is not malice in its ordinary understanding alone, a particular ill-will, a spite or a grudge. Malice is a legal term, implying much more. It comprehends not only a particular ill-will, but every case where there is wickedness of disposition, hardness of heart, cruelty, recklessness of consequences, and a mind regardless of social duty, although a particular person may not be intended to be injured. Murder, therefore, at common law embraces cases where no intent to kill existed, but where the state or frame of mind termed malice, in its legal sense, prevailed.

The crime of third degree murder under the Crimes Code incorporates the common law definition of malice. Commonwealth v. Hinchcliffe, 479 Pa. 551, 556, 388 A.2d 1068, 1070, cert. denied, 439 U.S. 989, 99 S.Ct. 588, 58 L.Ed.2d 663 (1978). The question is whether the evidence in this case supports a finding of wickedness of disposition, hardness of heart, cruelty, recklessness of consequences, and a mind regardless of social duty sufficient to constitute legal malice.

The Commonwealth concedes that a single blow, without a weapon, is, ordinarily, not sufficient to establish malice. Commonwealth v. Moore, 488 Pa. 361, 412 A.2d 549 (1980); Commonwealth v. Buzard, 365 Pa. 511, 76 A.2d 394 (1950); Commonwealth v. Dorazio, 365 Pa. 291, 74 A.2d 125 (1950). Moreover, malice may not be inferred simply from the fact that a person "performed a certain act and that act brought about the death of another." Commonwealth v. Reilly, 519 Pa. 550, 568, 549 A.2d 503, 512 (1988). The Commonwealth would distinguish this case, however, by focusing on the victim's infirmity, a stiff neck, the unexpectedness of appellant's assault, delivered from the victim's "blind side" as he faced toward appellant's brother, and the fact that the victim was intoxicated.

Three of the cases cited above are particularly...

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22 cases
  • Com. v. Crockford
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • June 8, 1995
    ...viewing all the evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the verdict winner. Commonwealth v. Thomas, 527 Pa. 511, 594 A.2d 300 (1991). The statute in question, 75 Pa.C.S.A. 1543(b), provides in pertinent § 1543. Driving while operating privilege is suspend......
  • Hayman v. Pennsylvania
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania
    • February 9, 2009
    ...918 A.2d 766, 774 (Pa.Super.Ct.2007)); see also Commonwealth v. Pitts, 486 Pa. 212, 404 A.2d 1305, 1307 (1979); Commonwealth v. Thomas, 527 Pa. 511, 514, 594 A.2d 300 (1991) (malice exists "where there is wickedness of disposition, hardness of heart, cruelty, recklessness of consequences, a......
  • Com. v. Cruz-Centeno, CRUZ-CENTEN
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • December 4, 1995 intent to kill existed, but where the state or frame of mind termed malice, in its legal sense, prevailed.' Commonwealth v. Thomas, 527 Pa. 511, 514, 594 A.2d 300, 301 (1991), quoting Commonwealth v. Drum, 58 Pa. 9, 15 (1868). Accordingly, it has been observed "that malice may be found w......
  • Commonwealth v. Packer
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • August 22, 2017
    ...a killing conducted "with malice aforethought." Commonwealth v. Santos , 583 Pa. 96, 876 A.2d 360, 363 (2005) ; Commonwealth v. Thomas , 527 Pa. 511, 594 A.2d 300, 301 (1991). Section 2502 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code categorizes murder into degrees. See generally 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(a) - ......
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