Com. v. Witherspoon

Decision Date05 October 1978
Citation392 A.2d 1313,481 Pa. 321
Parties, 7 A.L.R.4th 170 COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Lawrence WITHERSPOON, Appellant (two cases).
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

F. Emmett Fitzpatrick, Dist. Atty., Steven H. Goldblatt, Deputy Dist. Atty. for Law, Michael R. Stiles, Asst. Dist. Atty., Chief, Appeals Div., Philadelphia, for appellee.

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

OPINION

NIX, Justice.

This is an appeal from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County which denied appellant relief under the Post Conviction Hearing Act. 1 In view of our disposition of the case we need only consider appellant's claim that his two trial attorneys failed to provide effective assistance at trial, specifically in allowing, without objection, repeated references to statements of a co-defendant implicating appellant. For reasons which follow, we agree with appellant that trial counsel was ineffective and that appellant is entitled to the award of a new trial.

Appellant was arrested on December 8, 1964, and charged with murder, burglary and aggravated robbery arising from a robbery of a bar which occurred on November 4, 1964, during which a patron, Joseph Ambrose, was shot and killed by appellant. After trial by jury appellant was found guilty of murder of the first degree, aggravated robbery and burglary. He received a sentence of life imprisonment for the murder conviction and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years imprisonment on both the robbery and burglary indictments. The sentences were made to be served consecutively. Thereafter, appellant filed a direct appeal to this Court, wherein the judgments of sentence were affirmed. Commonwealth v. Witherspoon, 442 Pa. 597, 277 A.2d 826 (1971). 2 Subsequently, a petition was filed pursuant to the Post-Conviction Hearing Act 3 seeking relief. After a hearing the petition was denied and this appeal followed.

The record reflects that during the course of the trial repeated references were made to hearsay statements of Ernest Satchell, a co-defendant, in which Satchell admitted his participation in the robbery and implicated appellant as the other participant and as the person who shot and killed the victim. At one point an objection was made, however the grounds offered for that objection was that defense counsel had not been afforded an opportunity to see Satchell's statement. Counsel was given an opportunity to review the statement and the objection was withdrawn. 4 At another point in the trial defense counsel requested that the complete statement of Satchell be read to the jury. After an objection by the prosecution and an off-the-record discussion with the court, the request was not pursued.

The examination and cross-examination of witnesses and the determination as to when to interpose objections are matters clearly within the province of trial counsel. See A.B.A. Standards Relating to the Prosecution's Function and the Defense's Function, § 5.2(b) (1971) (the decision on what witnesses to call, whether and how to conduct cross-examination . . . and all other strategic and tactical decisions are the exclusive province of the lawyer after consultation with his client). It is also apparent that this evidence was inadmissible hearsay and its admission violated appellant's constitutional right of confrontation. Commonwealth v. McDowell, 460 Pa. 474, 480, 333 A.2d 876, (1975); Commonwealth v. Ransom, 446 Pa. 457, 464 n. 4, 288 A.2d 762, 765 n. 4 (1972); Commonwealth v. Ellsworth, 409 Pa. 505, 513, 187 A.2d 640, 643 (1963); Commonwealth v. Epps, 298 Pa. 377, 380, 148 A.2d 523, (1930); Commonwealth v. Antonini, 165 Pa.Super. 501, 503, 69 A.2d 436, (1949).

This situation was further compounded by the failure of counsel to object to the prosecution calling Satchell as a witness to testify that he had entered a plea of guilty to murder generally and that the court en banc returned a verdict of murder of the first degree. Mr. Satchell refused to testify as to the circumstances surrounding the robbery -murder, asserting his rights against self-incrimination. The testimony of Mr. Satchell as to the resolution of the proceedings against him was not only irrelevant in the trial of appellant, but also very prejudicial.

In assessing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, as to trial decisions which fall within areas where counsel had the full responsibility for making the judgment, we have set forth the following criteria:

"The right to representation by counsel to be meaningful necessarily includes the right to effective representation." Commonwealth v. Wideman, 453 Pa. 119, 123, 306 A.2d 894, 896 (1973). There is, however, a presumption that counsel's representation was competent, Commonwealth v. Murray, 452 Pa. 282, 305 A.2d 33 (1973); Commonwealth ex rel. Washington v. Maroney, 427 Pa. 599, 235 A.2d 349 (1967), and it is an accepted principle within our criminal justice system "that certain decisions during trial are within the exclusive province of counsel." Commonwealth v. McGrogan, 449 Pa. 584, 297 A.2d 456 (1972). In cases of this nature we are required to make an independent review of the entire record and an examination of counsel's "stewardship" of the now challenged proceedings in view of the available alternatives. Commonwealth ex rel. Washington v. Maroney, 427 Pa. 599, 235 A.2d 349 (1967); Commonwealth ex rel. Sprangle v. Maroney, 423 Pa. 589, 225 A.2d 236 (1967). In Commonwealth ex rel. Washington v. Maroney, 427 Pa. 599, 604, 325 A.2d 344, 352-53 (1967), the test to be employed in determining whether counsel was effective was set forth:

". . . 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.

It follows, that if an independent examination of the record reveals a reasonable basis for the strategy employed by counsel, that strategy is imputed to the appellant. Commonwealth v. Sullivan, 450 Pa. 273, 299 A.2d 608 (1973). The Court will not substitute its determination for that of counsel as to what course of action would have been more effective in promoting the client's interest. Rather, the only inquiry is whether counsel made an informed choice, which at the time the decision was made reasonably could have been considered as advancing and protecting the appellant's interest. See Commonwealth v. Hill, 450 Pa. 477, 482, 301 A.2d 587, 590 (1973). As we have acknowledged before, our primary concern is whether the accused's rights have been adequately protected. Commonwealth v. Pride, 450 Pa. 557, 301 A.2d 582 (1973). " (Footnotes omitted).

Commonwealth v. Roundtree, 469 Pa. 241, 248-49, 364 A.2d 1359, 1362 (1976).

After studying the record before us we are satisfied that counsel's failure to exclude this evidence can not be justified on the theory of a legitimate trial strategy. We find the explanations proffered by the Commonwealth for counsel's actions to be unpersuasive.

The Commonwealth advances the theory that counsel sought to emphasize the fact that the shooting of the victim was accidental. While it is true that the version given by Satchell gave support to an unintentional slaying the prosecution's theory was that of felony-murder and under the law at the time of this offense it was immaterial that the killing may have been accidental. 5 Furthermore, the only theory offered to the jury was that of felony-murder. Thus highlighting the fact that the killing was not intentional, was legally of no significance and could not have provided a basis for the avoidance of a verdict of murder of the first degree.

The Commonwealth suggests that this emphasis might have been intended to persuade the jury not to return a sentence of death. This argument ignores the fact that the procedure at that time provided for a bifurcated trial and during the adjudicative stage the jury was instructed not to consider the question of penalty. The unintentional nature of the killing could have been stressed after the degree of guilt had been determined. Following this tactic appellant would have had the advantage of this information being before the jury without being subject to the prejudice that this testimony was likely to have in the determination of guilt. We also must reject the theory that this approach was a legitimate appeal to the mercy dispensing power of the jury in an effort to secure a conviction of a lesser degree of homicide. There was no serious contention that the killing was intentional. To allow damaging testimony to enter simply to gain an advantage which was virtually conceded cannot be deemed the strategy that competent counsel would employ.

There are unquestionably instances where trial counsel may properly elect to allow the introduction of technically objectionable testimony where there is an advantage to be gained by its admission. For example the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that counsel may properly allow his opponent to introduce objectionable evidence where the defense is in possession of information to contradict that testimony and thereby create an issue of credibility which might provide a basis for a jury to acquit. Henry v. Mississippi, 379 U.S. 443, 451, 85 S.Ct. 564, 13 L.Ed.2d 408 (1965). In Commonwealth v. Goosby, 461 Pa. 229, 336 A.2d 260 (1975) we approved of trial strategy which waived an objection to the admissibility of a statement of the defendant where the statement indicated that the shooting might have been in self-defense or at least in the heat of passion. There we reasoned that although the statement admitted the shooting, the prosecution had eyewitnesses who had presented impressive evidence to establish that appellant was the...

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