Com. v. Turner

Decision Date26 January 1977
Docket NumberNo. 381,381
Citation469 Pa. 319,365 A.2d 847
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Geary TURNER, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Samuel Kagle, Philadelphia, for appellant.

F. Emmett Fitzpatrick, Dist. Atty., Steven H. Goldblatt, Asst. Dist. Atty., Chief, Appeals Div., James J. Wilson, Philadelphia, for appellee.

Before JONES, C.J., and EAGEN, O'BRIEN, ROBERTS, POMEROY, NIX and MANDERINO, JJ.

OPINION OF THE COURT

POMEROY, Justice.

Appellant, Geary Turner, appeals from the judgment of sentence for murder of the second degree 1 following conviction for that offense in a non-jury trial. 2 Taking all the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, 3 the facts are as follows.

On July 7, 1972 at about 3:40 p.m., Geary Turner, a 200 pound, six foot tall young man, became involved in an argument with one Leon Hamilton, Sr., the victim, who was middle-aged, weighed 163 pounds and was 5 9 tall. At trial Mrs. Hamilton, the widow of the victim, testified that, shortly after the argument had ended and her husband, Leon, was passing the Turner home on the way to his parked car, he was physically attacked by Geary Turner. Appellant's brother, William Turner, and the Hamilton's son, Leon, Jr., joined the fight. Both Mrs. Hamilton and her son testified that Leon Hamilton had no weapon at the time of these events. Both also testified that they saw appellant himself strike the victim several times. A neighbor, Mr. Spalding, testified that he saw appellant strike Leon, Sr. directly between the eyes with a baby cart wheel still attached to its axle, a blow which knocked the victim unconscious. After being thus felled, Mr. Hamilton was taken to the hospital, where he died several days later without having regained consciousness.

In his defense appellant presented testimony by his sister and by his brother, William Turner. Both claimed that Leon, Sr., while engaged in fighting Geary Turner, had 'pulled' a knife, and it was only then that William Turner had knocked Leon down, causing Leon to hit his head sharply on the curbstone as he fell. In the defense version of the fracas, it was this blow by William which ended the fighting; the victim never regained consciousness after hitting the curb.

Through his appellate counsel, who was not his trial counsel, Turner now argues that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel at trial because of two wrong decisions which his lawyer made. The first decision was to stipulate to the admissibility of a medical report establishing the cause of death as having been injuries to the victim's head; the second was to waive his right to summation at the close of the case.

As we have frequently had occasion to repeat,

'Our task in cases of this nature . . . encompasses an independent review of the record . . . and an examination of counsel's stewardship of the now challenged proceedings in light of the available alternatives . . . We cannot emphasize strongly enough, however, that our inquiry ceases and counsel's assistance is deemed constitutionally effective once we are able to conclude that the particular course chosen by counsel had Some reasonable basis designed to effectuate his client's interests. The test is not whether other alternatives were more reasonable, employing a hindsight evaluation of the record . . . (T)he balance tips in favor of a finding of effective assistance as soon as it is determined that trial counsel's decisions had any reasonable basis.' Commonwealth ex rel. Washington v. Maroney, 427 Pa. 599, 604--05, 235 A.2d 349, 352--53 (1967). (citations and footnote omitted).

The problem in this case, as in most cases where the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised on direct appeal, 4 is that we have before us no record of any hearing at which is delineated trial counsel's reasons for taking the steps later challenged. Where the record on appeal clearly shows that there could have been no reasonable basis for a damaging decision or omission by trial counsel, then of course the judgment must be vacated and appropriate relief, such as allowing the filing of post trial motions or the ordering of a new trial, granted. 5 Where, on the other hand, it is impossible to tell from the record whether or not the action of trial counsel could have had a rational basis, the appellate court will vacate the judgment, at least for the time being, and remand for an evidentiary hearing at which trial counsel may state his reasons for having chosen the course of action taken. 6 Neither of these remedies, however, is appropriate if from the record it is apparent that the actions claimed to constitute ineffectiveness were in fact within the realm of trial tactics or strategy. 7 A finding of ineffectiveness of counsel cannot be made 'unless we con(clude) that the alternatives not chosen offered a potential for success substantially greater than the tactics actually utilized.' Commonwealth ex rel. Washington v. Maroney, 427 Pa. at 605 n.8, 235 A.2d at 353 n.8. In our opinion, such conclusion is not justified in the case at bar.

It was no part of the defense in this case to dispute that the victim died of head injuries; the defense was merely that William Turner, and not Geary Turner, the appellant, had struck the blow which caused those head injuries. Thus the decision of counsel to stipulate to the medical report was fully in accord with the defense theory. Indeed, the admission of the report rather than the presentation of the live testimony of the doctor who prepared it may well have been advantageous to the appellant. On its face, the report did no more than list the physical findings on which the conclusion as to the cause of death was based and to conclude that that cause was craniocerebral injuries. Had the doctor testified in person, he could have been examined by the prosecution as to whether the injuries the doctors had observed could have been inflicted, as the defense asserted, by the victim hitting a curbstone in a fall from a standing position. Without such evidence, the...

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