Comminwealth v. Moon

Decision Date04 October 1955
Citation117 A.2d 96,383 Pa. 18
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Norman W. MOON, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Defendant was convicted of murder in first degree and sentenced to death. The county sheriff petitioned for appointment of sanity commission. The Court of Oyer and Terminer, Warren County, Alexander C. Flick, Jr., P. J., at No. 1, February Sessions, 1954, found defendant to be sane, and he appealed. The Supreme Court, at No. 192, January Term, 1955, Chidsey J., held that trial court erred in testing defendant's alleged mental illness by common law definition of insanity.

Order reversed and record remanded.

Bell J., dissented in part.

Thomas A. Waggoner, Jr., Edward Dumbauld, Uniontown E. H. Beshlin, Warren, for appellant.

Frank P. Lawley, Jr., Harrington Adams, Deputy Attys. Gen., David S. Kohn, Harrisburg, Special Prosecutors for County of Warren, for appellee.

Before STERN, C. J., and STEARNE, JONES, BELL, CHIDSEY, MUSMANNO and ARNOLD, JJ.

CHIDSEY, Justice.

The pivotal and important question presented by this appeal is whether the Mental Health Act of 1951 changed the common law test for staying criminal proceedings after verdict but prior to sentence or execution. Inasmuch as appellant's motion for a new trial has not been argued and sentence has not been pronounced we are not concerned with possible trial errors or the merits of appellant's conviction.

On January 13, 1954 the appellant, Norman W. Moon, appearing before the Court of Quarter Sessions of Warren County on a charge of failure to comply with a support order, shot and fatally wounded the Honorable Allison D. Wade, President Judge of the 37th Judicial District. After apprehension appellant was indicted, tried and on May 25, 1954 convicted of murder in the first degree. The jury, rejecting appellant's sole defense of insanity, fixed the penalty at death. About two months thereafter, on July 31, 1954, while appellant was confined in the Warren County Jail pending disposition of his motion for new trial, the county sheriff, in his capacity as keeper of the jail, petitioned the court for the appointment of a sanity commission under Section 344 of the Mental Health Act of June 12, 1951, P.L. 533, as amended, 50 P.S. § 1224. This section of the Act provides, inter alia, that a petition for the commitment of any person detained in any penal or correctional institution who is thought to be mentally ill or in such condition that he requires care in a mental hospital, or who is thought to be a mental defective (except mental defectives convicted of first degree murder) may be made by counsel for the prisoner or the superintendent of the institution where defendant is detained or by any responsible person.

Without holding a hearing on the petition, the court by an order dated July 31, 1954, appointed a commission composed of two physicians and an attorney to investigate appellant's mental condition. After examining the defendant and holding hearings at which testimony and statements were taken, the commission on October 13, 1954 filed its report with the court in which it found the following ultimate facts:

‘ a. Norman W. Moon is in fact mentally ill.

‘ b. Norman W. Moon's mental illness is that of dementia praecox of the paranoid type.

‘ c. This illness is chronic and continuing.

‘ d. Norman W. Moon is a proper subject for commitment to a mental hospital.’

The findings also contained answers to three specific questions submitted by the court on October 8, 1954, namely,

(1) Regardless of what Moon's ideas or his feelings may be as to his own acts or behavior and although he may have a mental abnormality or illness, has he sufficient intelligence or mental ability to comprehend that by generally accepted standards an unjustifiable and inexcusable killing is considered to be wrong and a crime?

‘ Answer. Yes, except during the two periods of acute mental disturbance that he has exhibited.

(2) Regardless of what Moon's ideas or his feelings may be as to his own acts or behavior and although he may have a mental abnormality or illness, has he sufficient intelligence or mental ability to comprehend that he has been tried by a jury which found him legally responsible for such a killing and guilty of murder in the first degree, and the jury also set death as the penalty which it felt was the proper one in his case?

‘ Answer. Yes, except during the two periods of acute mental disturbance that he has exhibited.

(3) Regardless of what Moon's ideas or his feelings may be as to his own acts or behavior and although he may have a mental abnormality or illness, has he sufficient intelligence or mental ability to comprehend that if the penalty set by the jury is carried out and he is sent to the electric chair, it will be in punishment for the crime of which the jury found him guilty?

‘ Answer. Yes, except during the two periods of acute mental disturbance that he has exhibited.'[1]

After reviewing the evidence taken before the sanity commission and its report and, as well, the evidence adduced at the trial, the court below on October 21, 1954 filed an opinion and order finding appellant legally sane and ordering the proceedings to continue. Exceptions filed to this order by appellant were subsequently dismissed by an opinion and order dated February 9, 1955. This appeal followed. As the Mental Health Act of 1951 neither provides for nor prohibits an appeal to this Court where commitment is denied, review by certiorari may be had in the broadest sense and we may examine the record to determine whether the court's finding amounted to an error of law or an abuse of discretion as appellant contends: Commonwealth v. Patskin, 375 Pa. 368, 375, 100 A.2d 472.

Prior to any legislation on the subject, Pennsylvania and the vast majority of other jurisdictions consistently followed and applied the common law principle that no insane person could be tried, sentenced or executed: Commonwealth ex rel. Smith v. Ashe, 364 Pa. 93, 116, 71 A.2d 107; Commonwealth v. Patskin, supra, 375 Pa. at page 377, 100 A.2d 472. The common law concept of insanity to be applied by a jury in determining guilt where insanity is set up as a defense against conviction was the so-called ‘ right or wrong’ test laid down in M'Naghten's Case, 8 Eng.Rep. 718, 10 Cl. & Fin. 200, and subsequently adopted as the law of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Mosler, 4 Pa. 264. While the M'Naghten rule has been criticized, it remains the law of Pennsylvania when insanity is pleaded at trial: See Commonwealth v. Carluccetti, 1952, 369 Pa. 190, 200, 85 A.2d 391. However, the test at common law and employed by the courts in determining the mental capacity of a defendant to stand trial or to be sentenced or executed is not the M'Naghten ‘ right or wrong’ test but whether the defendant is able to comprehend his position and make a rational defense. In Commonwealth v. Scovern, 292 Pa. 26, at page 29, 140 A. 611, at page 612, it was stated: ‘ A person who, by reason of his insanity, is unable to comprehend his position and to make a rational defense, cannot be tried on a criminal charge while in that condition. * * *’ In Commonwealth v. Ragone, 317 Pa. 113, 176 A. 454, 459, this Court said, quoting from Blackstone's Commentaries, " * * * If, after he [the defendant] be tried and found guilty, he loses his senses before judgment, judgment shall not be pronounced; and if after judgment he becomes of nonsane memory, execution shall be stayed; for peradventure, says the humanity of the English law, had the prisoner been of sound memory, he might have alleged something in stay of judgment or execution." As stated by Professor Weihofen in his book ‘ Mental Disorder as a Criminal Defense’ at p. 459:‘ After a verdict of guilty and before sentence is pronounced, if a defendant is found to be incapable of comprehending the nature and purpose of the proceedings or of stating any reasons that may exist why sentence should not be pronounced, sentence should be stayed and the defendant committed as an insane person until he recovers.’

It is apparent from the three questions which the court submitted to the commission and the opinions accompanying its orders that it was of opinion that the common law test for determining mental capacity at this stage of the proceedings had not been altered by the Act of 1951. If this conclusion were sound, we would not hesitate in subcribing fully to the court's findings and order. The commission found as a fact that appellant ‘ * * * knew why he was in jail * * *, knew that he faced a sentence in accordance with the jury verdict * * *, knows that he is on trial for his life * * * recalls his trial * * *, admits that no one is justified in taking anyone else's life * * *, knows that it is not right to shoot anybody * * *, and what the consequences of his acts might be * * *’ . The commission examined the appellant at some length as to his ability to cooperate with his attorneys, but made no specific finding in this regard. Appellant's attorneys made statements before the commission that appellant was unable to adequately cooperate with them, but the court, stating that The defendant's own words and thoughts, as expressed by him in his own testimony before the Sanity Commission, refute these opinions.’, found that ‘ * * * the defendant, understands the nature of the proceedings against him, comprehends his position in relation thereto, and is able to cooperate with his attorneys, * * *’ . We have read all of defendant's testimony, not only before the sanity commission but at his trial, and are satisfied that, under the law as it existed prior to any legislation on the subject, the court below committed no error of law nor any abuse of discretion. ...

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    ...Mut. Assurance Co., 457 Pa. 94, 321 A.2d 906, 909 (1974); White v. Young, 409 Pa. 562, 186 A.2d 919, 921-22 (1963); Commonwealth v. Moon, 383 Pa. 18, 117 A.2d 96, 104 (1955); see also Gallagher v. Pennsylvania Liquor Control Bd., 584 Pa. 362, 883 A.2d 550, 561 n. 2 (2005) (Baer, J, dissenti......

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