Com. v. Weinstein

Decision Date26 October 1982
Citation451 A.2d 1344,499 Pa. 106
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Stephen WEINSTEIN, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Robert B. Lawler, Chief, Appeals Div., Mark Gurevitz, Philadelphia, for appellee.




In May of 1968 appellant, Stephen Z. Weinstein, while represented by two attorneys, entered a plea of guilty to an indictment charging him with the murder of John W. Green, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, recently arrived from his home in the midwest. Appellant was sentenced by a three judge court to life imprisonment for first degree murder. 1 On direct appeal in 1971, appellant cited as error, at his hearing on the degree of guilt, the rejection by the court of psychiatric testimony as to appellant's irresistible impulse. Appellant has now raised the same issue seeking relief under the Post Conviction Hearing Act, Act of January 25, 1966, P.L. (1965) 1580, § 1 et seq., 19 P.S. § 1180-1 et seq., asserting that he has been denied a constitutional right which requires retroactive application. 2 He appeals to us from Philadelphia Common Pleas' denial of that relief. We are of the opinion the particular psychiatric testimony as to irresistible impulse was not relevant to the issue of specific intent to kill. We therefore affirm the lower court's denial of relief.

The facts in this case were summarized in Justice Bell's opinion supporting affirmance on direct appeal in 1971. 3

Appellant first met his victim, Green, on October 16, 1967 when Green came into his Walnut Street store to purchase a pipe. Attracted to Green by his tight-fitting levis, appellant engaged Green in a conversation about boats, in which they had a mutual interest. Appellant then invited Green to visit his tobacco shop in the Philadelphia 1700 Complex, where he could see the boats on the Delaware River. Green accepted and a meeting was arranged for the following Sunday, October 22.

Before the Sunday meeting, appellant emptied into a small jar the contents of some ten sleeping capsules, intending to use them on Green. When Green came to appellant's Walnut Street shop on Sunday, appellant offered to get him a hamburger, and the unsuspecting Green accepted appellant's hospitality. Appellant sprinkled the powder on the hamburger and gave it to Green. Appellant and Green then took a taxicab to appellant's Philadelphia 1700 Complex shop. By the time they reached the shop, Green complained of drowsiness, and within an hour he fell to the floor unconscious. Shortly thereafter, appellant and a young friend, James Hammell, to whom appellant had previously telephoned, attempted to revive Green, but to no avail. According to appellant's confession, after Hammell left his shop, he was suddenly filled with a strange sexual urge.

Appellant then strangled Green, first with a piece of rope and then with his bare hands, and this killed him. Shortly afterward, appellant, with the assistance of Hammell and some other boys, attempted to dispose of Green's body. Unable to bury the body in a wooded area near Reading, Pennsylvania, appellant and Hammell eventually placed the body in a trunk, filled it with stones, and dumped it into the Delaware River near the Philadelphia 1700 Complex. Appellant subsequently fled to New York City where he was eventually apprehended by the New York police.

Commonwealth v. Weinstein, 442 Pa. 70, 75-76, 274 A.2d 182, 186-87 (1971) (footnotes omitted) (emphasis in original).

Appellant relies on Commonwealth v. Walzack, 468 Pa. 210, 360 A.2d 914 (1976), sustaining, on grounds of relevance, the admissibility of psychiatric testimony to the effect that a pre-frontal lobotomy negated the specific intent to kill required by our statutes for first degree murder. Since the psychiatric testimony was first offered in Weinstein at the degree of guilt hearing solely to negate appellant's intent to kill and since appellant argues that its exclusion was erroneous, the testimony must, perforce, be judged on its relevance to that issue. After the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas had found, without this testimony, that appellant was guilty of first degree murder, the psychiatrist's testimony was admitted as it related to sentencing. The parties in this P.C.H.A. proceeding have agreed that the testimony so received was of the same nature the expert would have given at the degree of guilt hearing. N.T., P.C.H.A. Hearing, at 6-7. We are, therefore, able to examine it in detail to determine its relevancy for the offered purpose. Upon such examination we find that defendant's psychiatrist was unable to give an opinion speaking to the presence or absence of specific intent, but only to the issue of irresistible impulse arising from defendant's uncontrollable sexual urge to continue strangling his victim till that strangulation climaxed in death. His argument necessarily implies that psychiatric testimony that he acted under an irresistible impulse is relevant to negate specific intent to kill and that the right to present such relevant testimony must be retroactively applied in his case.

Appellant's reliance on Commonwealth v. Walzack, 468 Pa. 210, 360 A.2d 914 (1976), suggests an over-hasty reading resulting in a failure to see the line so carefully drawn by Justice Nix. While announcing that this Court would, in the future, accept psychiatric testimony on a defendant's diminished capacity to think and, therefore, to form the intent to kill requisite to a finding of first degree murder, the Court expressly rejected irresistible impulse testimony.

The doctrines of diminished capacity and irresistible impulse involve entirely distinct considerations. Irresistible impulse is a test for insanity which is broader than the M'Naghten test. Under the irresistible impulse test a person may avoid criminal responsibility even though he is capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and is fully aware of the nature and quality of his act provided he establishes that he was unable to refrain from acting. An accused offering evidence under the theory of diminished capacity concedes general criminal liability. The thrust of this doctrine is to challenge the capacity of the actor to possess a particular state of mind required by the legislature for the commission of a certain degree of the crime charged.

Commonwealth v. Walzack, Id. at 220-221, 360 A.2d at 919, 920, (emphasis in original).

Walzack does not recognize irresistible impulse as a test on either diminished capacity or specific intent. In fact, this Court specifically rejected irresistible impulse as a test for diminished capacity in Commonwealth v. Carroll, 412 Pa. 525, 194 A.2d 911 (1963). No irresistible impulse testimony was offered in Walzack and, properly read, the case held only that psychiatric testimony which speaks to the legislatively defined state of mind encompassing a specific intent to kill is admissible. Walzack does not say that all psychiatric testimony, regardless of its nature, is relevant to the question of specific intent. Rather it merely recognizes that competent psychiatric testimony which speaks to a defendant's ability to plan, deliberate and premeditate is relevant.

Prior to Walzack this Court, in Commonwealth v. McCusker, 448 Pa. 382, 292 A.2d 286 (1972) held for the first time that psychiatric testimony was competent and relevant to show that a defendant's subjective state of mind was such that he acted in a state of passion which reduced a homicide to manslaughter under the statutory definition then in effect. In so holding this Court critized our earlier line of cases holding that psychiatric opinion was so fraught with scientific uncertainty that the expert testimony of its practitioners was incompetent on the issue of specific intent. Examining Walzack, in the light of McCusker, it appears this Court has rejected the notion that the unreliability of psychiatric testimony is so great that expert psychiatric opinion adds nothing to the lay knowledge of the fact finder. Hence, Walzack stands for the proposition that psychiatric testimony relevant to the cognitive functions of deliberation and premeditation is competent on the issue of specific intent to kill. Thus psychiatric testimony is competent in Pennsylvania on the issue of specific intent to kill if it speaks to mental disorders affecting the cognitive functions necessary to formulate a specific intent. Where, as here, it does not, it is irrelevant and hence inadmissible.

A theory holding expert testimony of medically defined general psychoses, which impair an individual's ability to control his conduct, relevant to the negation of specific intent was prospectively adopted by the D.C. Circuit in United States v. Brawner, 471 F.2d 969 (D.C.Cir.1979). 4 It was subsequently rejected in Bethea v. United States, 365 A.2d 64 (D.C.App.1976), as resting on a flawed analogy. Brawner held that if evidence of reduced criminal responsibility is relevant in cases involving intoxication, similar evidence must be relevant in cases involving mental illness. Following Brawner by four years, the Bethea Court rejected the asserted analogy in Brawner, noting the significant evidentiary distinctions between psychiatric abnormality and recognized incapacitating circumstances such as intoxication and epilepsy. See 3 West. New Eng.L.Rev. 583, 598 (1981). The latter conditions differ significantly from a psychosis which causes an irresistible impulse to kill. The rejected Brawner test for relevancy to specific intent, like the ALI test for the defense of insanity, relates to an illness which so distorts or confuses an individual's mental processes that he is unable to control his actions and thus is robbed of his freedom to adhere to the right and...

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