Com. v. Whitfield

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtBefore JONES; ROBERTS; EAGEN; NIX
Citation474 Pa. 27,376 A.2d 617
Decision Date01 August 1977
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Edward WHITFIELD, Appellant (two cases).

Page 617

376 A.2d 617
474 Pa. 27
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania
v.
Edward WHITFIELD, Appellant (two cases).
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Argued Jan. 18, 1974.
Decided July 8, 1977.
Rehearing Denied Aug. 1, 1977.

Page 619

[474 Pa. 31] F. Emmett Fitzpatrick, Jr. and J. M. Smith, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Arlen Specter, Dist. Atty., Richard A. Sprague, 1st Asst. Dist. Atty., David Richman, Asst. Dist. Atty., Chief, Appeals Division, for appellee.

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

OPINION

ROBERTS, Justice.

Appellant was convicted following a jury trial of murder of the second degree, aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit murder and robbery for his participation in the fatal beating of Raymond Townsend. 1 The trial court sentenced appellant to two concurrent ten to twenty year prison terms on the murder and robbery convictions, and suspended sentence on the conspiracy conviction.

Appellant contends that the trial court denied him a fair trial when it commented on the degree of his guilt on the murder charge. 2 We agree, reverse the judgment of [474 Pa. 32] sentence for murder, and grant appellant a new trial. However, the trial court's impermissible comment on the degree of appellant's guilt only mandates a new trial for the murder charge. Appellant's remaining claims are without merit and we accordingly affirm the judgment of sentence on the aggravated robbery conviction.

I

In its charge to the jury, the trial court stated over objection: 3

"The Commonwealth contends that there is nothing in the evidence in this case which would warrant any finding by the jury that the killing of Townsend was committed under provocation or momentary frenzy or passion, and with this contention the Court concurs, and I therefore instruct you that under the evidence of this case this defendant is guilty of murder or he is not guilty of any kind of unlawful homicide." (emphasis added)

This comment exceeded the permissible bounds of judicial comment and improperly impinged upon the exclusive province of the jury. This expression of opinion as to the degree of appellant's guilt deprived him of a fair trial. Commonwealth v. Archambault, 448 Pa. 90, 290 A.2d 72 (1972).

Contrary to the court's charge, the jury properly could have returned a voluntary manslaughter verdict in this case. In every prosecution for murder where the evidence would sustain a murder conviction, the jury may [474 Pa. 33] return, and the court must accept, a voluntary manslaughter verdict, even in the absence of any evidence of

Page 620

voluntary manslaughter. 4 Our cases reason that voluntary manslaughter is by definition a lesser included offense of murder, 5 and that a jury, pursuant to its inherent mercy dispensing power, may, from sympathy or awareness of extenuating circumstances, find a defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the absence of any evidence of legally recognized mitigating circumstances. 6 Although voluntary manslaughter[474 Pa. 34] is defined in terms of provocation, heat of passion and imperfect self-defense, the defendant has no burden to introduce such factors before a voluntary manslaughter verdict is permissible. Voluntary manslaughter is a permissible verdict whether or not the defendant presents a defense.

The trial court's instruction here, that appellant was either guilty of murder or not guilty of any kind of unlawful homicide, communicated to the jury that if it determined that appellant committed the homicide, it must find that appellant committed murder and not voluntary manslaughter. This improperly impinged upon the exclusive province of the jury, particularly since the trial court did not inform the jury of its power to return a voluntary manslaughter verdict. Although appellant requested a voluntary manslaughter charge, this request was denied. Thus, the only instruction regarding voluntary manslaughter was a misstatement of the law that the jury could only return a verdict of murder or not guilty of any kind of unlawful homicide. At no time did the trial court inform the jury that voluntary manslaughter was a permissible verdict. See e. g., Commonwealth v. Bennett, 471 Pa. 419, 370 A.2d 373 (1977).

Page 621

Although this Court has recognized the duty of the trial court to aid the jury in understanding and clarifying the issues to be resolved, the court's charge should be a calm and dispassionate one. Commonwealth v. Trunk, 311 Pa. 555, 565-66, 167 A. 333, 337 (1933). The jury depends on the trial court for guidance and it will give great weight to any [474 Pa. 35] expressions of the court's personal opinion. Commonwealth v. Archambault, 448 Pa. 90, 290 A.2d 72 (1972); Commonwealth v. Myma, 278 Pa. 505, 123 A. 486 (1924). To preserve a defendant's right to a fair trial, the trial court must be careful to remain absolutely impartial, and not to invade the province of the jury. Commonwealth v. Archambault, supra; Commonwealth v. Myma, supra.

In Archambault, this Court, after considering the need for judicial impartiality, held that a trial court must never express to the jury its personal view of guilt or innocence no matter how overwhelming the evidence of guilt.

The Court stated:

"An expression by the judge that in his opinion the accused is guilty leaves an indelible imprint on the minds of the jury. The jury is undoubtedly going to attribute to the judge, because of his experience in criminal cases, special expertise in determining guilt or innocence. As Mr. Justice (later Chief Justice) Kephart stated for this Court: 'The judge occupies an exalted and dignified position; he is the one person whom the jury, with rare exceptions, looks for guidance, and from whom litigants except absolute impartiality. An expression indicative of favor or condemnation is quickly reflected in the jury box . . . . To depart from the clear line of duty through questions, expressions or conduct, contravenes the orderly administration of justice. It has the tendency to take from one of the parties the right to a fair and impartial trial, as guaranteed under our system of jurisprudence.' (Commonwealth v. Myma, 278 Pa. 505, 508, 123 A. 486, 487 (1924).)"

448 Pa. at 95, 290 A.2d at 75; see Commonwealth v. Motley, 448 Pa. 110, 289 A.2d 724 (1972); ABA Project on Standards for Criminal Justice, Standards Relating to the Function of the Trial Judge § 5.6(a) (Approved Draft, 1972) ("The trial judge should not express or otherwise indicate to the jury his personal opinion whether the defendant is guilty or express an opinion that certain testimony is worthy or unworthy of belief.").

[474 Pa. 36] These considerations apply with equal force to trial courts' opinions concerning a defendant's degree of guilt. The jury's verdict in a murder trial necessarily includes not only a determination of guilt or innocence but also a determination of the degree of guilt. The latter decision is often as important as the former, particularly in homicide cases. As Mr. Justice Powell, speaking for a unanimous United States Supreme Court, recently stated:

"The safeguards of due process are not rendered unavailing simply because a determination may already have been reached that would stigmatize the defendant and that might lead to a significant impairment of personal liberty. The fact remains that the consequences resulting from a verdict of murder, as compared with a verdict of manslaughter differ significantly."

Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 698, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 1889, 44 L.Ed.2d 508 (1975). Our constitutional system of trial by jury is founded upon the firm belief that the highest quality of criminal justice is achieved when the jury retains the sole power to determine both guilt or innocence and the degree of guilt if guilt is found.

Thus, because of the court's influence over the jury, an opinion by the trial court that a defendant is either guilty of murder or not guilty of any kind of unlawful homicide effectively removes voluntary manslaughter as a potential verdict from the jury's deliberations. This is a prohibited invasion of the province of the jury and denies appellant his constitutional right to a

Page 622

fair trial before an impartial jury. See Commonwealth v. Archambault, supra. 7

The instruction here presents a sharp contrast to the cases in which this Court has found that a trial court's expression of opinion as to the degree of a defendant's guilt was not [474 Pa. 37] error. 8 In Commonwealth v. Bennett, 471 Pa. 419, 370 A.2d 373 (1977), Mr. Justice Pomeroy, speaking for a majority of this Court, 9 stated that two conditions must exist before a [474 Pa. 38] trial court may express its opinion that the evidence would not support a voluntary manslaughter verdict:

"(I)t is clear that two principal conditions must be met before such an expression of opinion may properly be included in such a charge: (1) the trial court must fully inform the jury of its 'power' to return a verdict of voluntary manslaughter, whether supported by the evidence or not; and (2) the court must also instruct the jury that it is not bound by the court's comments concerning the evidence because it is the jury which is the sole finder of the facts."

Id. at 427, 370 A.2d at 377.

Here, unlike Bennett, the trial court did not inform the jury that it had the power to return a verdict of voluntary manslaughter

Page 623

even absent any evidence of voluntary manslaughter. Unlike Bennett, the trial court did not instruct the jury that even though the court did not find any evidence of passion or provocation, the jury was not bound by the court's opinion. 10 Rather, the trial court instructed the jury that appellant was either guilty of murder or not guilty of any kind of unlawful homicide. This instruction misstated the law and took away from the jury its power to return a voluntary manslaughter verdict.

Appellant's trial occurred before Commonwealth v. Jones, 457 Pa. 563, 319 A.2d 142 (1974)...

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36 practice notes
  • Lesko v. Lehman, No. 90-3295
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • March 11, 1991
    ...of that charge." Appellant's Brief at 45. Citing Commonwealth v. Schaller, 493 Pa. 426, 426 A.2d 1090 (1981); Commonwealth v. Whitfield, 474 Pa. 27, 376 A.2d 617 (1977); and Commonwealth v. Jones, 457 Pa. 563, 319 A.2d 142, cert. denied, 419 U.S. 1000, 95 S.Ct. 316, 42 L.Ed.2d 274 (1974), h......
  • Com. v. Cox
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 22, 2004
    ...of the court should be calm and dispassionate. Commonwealth v. Whiting, 501 Pa. 465, 462 A.2d 218, 220 (1983); Commonwealth v. Whitfield, 474 Pa. 27, 376 A.2d 617, 621 (1977). In order to preserve the right of a defendant to a fair trial, the trial court must remain impartial and refrain fr......
  • Com. v. Pursell
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • September 24, 1985
    ...any, was insufficient to require a mistrial. See, Commonwealth v. Richardson, 496 Pa. 521, 437 A.2d 1162 (1981); Commonwealth v. Whitfield, 474 Pa. 27, 376 A.2d 617 (1977); Commonwealth v. Williams, 470 Pa. 172, 368 A.2d 249 (1977); Commonwealth v. Brown, 444 Pa. 318, 282 A.2d 364 Appellant......
  • Commonwealth Of Pa. v. Flor
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • July 22, 2010
    ...guilt or innocence in the charge to the jury, i.e., prior to the announcement of the jury's verdict. See Commonwealth v. Whitfield, 474 Pa. 27, 376 A.2d 617 (1977); Commonwealth v. Archambault, 448 Pa. 90, 290 A.2d 72 (1972). The rationale behind this principle is that the judge's expressio......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
36 cases
  • Lesko v. Lehman, No. 90-3295
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • March 11, 1991
    ...of that charge." Appellant's Brief at 45. Citing Commonwealth v. Schaller, 493 Pa. 426, 426 A.2d 1090 (1981); Commonwealth v. Whitfield, 474 Pa. 27, 376 A.2d 617 (1977); and Commonwealth v. Jones, 457 Pa. 563, 319 A.2d 142, cert. denied, 419 U.S. 1000, 95 S.Ct. 316, 42 L.Ed.2d 274 (1974), h......
  • Com. v. Cox
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 22, 2004
    ...of the court should be calm and dispassionate. Commonwealth v. Whiting, 501 Pa. 465, 462 A.2d 218, 220 (1983); Commonwealth v. Whitfield, 474 Pa. 27, 376 A.2d 617, 621 (1977). In order to preserve the right of a defendant to a fair trial, the trial court must remain impartial and refrain fr......
  • Com. v. Pursell
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • September 24, 1985
    ...any, was insufficient to require a mistrial. See, Commonwealth v. Richardson, 496 Pa. 521, 437 A.2d 1162 (1981); Commonwealth v. Whitfield, 474 Pa. 27, 376 A.2d 617 (1977); Commonwealth v. Williams, 470 Pa. 172, 368 A.2d 249 (1977); Commonwealth v. Brown, 444 Pa. 318, 282 A.2d 364 Appellant......
  • Commonwealth Of Pa. v. Flor
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • July 22, 2010
    ...guilt or innocence in the charge to the jury, i.e., prior to the announcement of the jury's verdict. See Commonwealth v. Whitfield, 474 Pa. 27, 376 A.2d 617 (1977); Commonwealth v. Archambault, 448 Pa. 90, 290 A.2d 72 (1972). The rationale behind this principle is that the judge's expressio......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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