Commonwealth v. Geschwendt

Citation454 A.2d 991,500 Pa. 120
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. George GESCHWENDT, Appellant.
Decision Date31 December 1982
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Argued Oct. 27, 1982.

Reargument Denied Feb. 4, 1983.

Stuart Wilder, Asst. Public Defender, for appellant.

Michael J. Kane, Dist. Atty., Stephen B. Harris, First Asst. Dist Atty., for appellee.



NIX, Justice.

Appellant George Geschwendt, following a jury trial was convicted of murder in the first degree in the killing of 5 members of the Abt family and a family friend. [1] In this appeal he raises a number of objections in support of his request for a new trial. We will focus in this opinion upon the question of whether the holding of this Court in Commonwealth v Mulgrew, 475 Pa. 271, 380 A.2d 349 (1977) is here applicable. [2]

The facts surrounding the murders were not disputed. Appellant sought to avoid criminal responsibility by reason of insanity at the time of the incident.

George Geschwendt lived across the street from the Abt family. On March 12, 1976, at approximately 8:30 a.m., he broke and entered the Abt residence. Appellant's mother, with whom he lived with a brother, had gone to work. No one was in the Abt home, as all of the members of the Abt family had gone to work or to school. He had a .22 caliber gun and ammunition which he had purchased some time prior to March 12 and falsely reported stolen the day of the purchase. In the process of his illegal entry, glass from the kitchen window was broken. In order to avoid suspicion, he cleaned up the glass and placed himself in the house in a manner that made the kitchen door visible, while simultaneously he was able to observe the living room door to the outside. He patiently laid in wait for approximately six hours; then, consecutively, as five members of the Abt family and a boyfriend entered the house, he shot and killed them one by one. During this carnage, he also killed the family dog.

The bodies of all the victims were pushed or carried into the basement. He also cleaned up the victims' blood. The dead dog was obscured from the sight of anyone who might look through the window of the ground level cellar door, by articles of clothing. He placed all spent shell casings in his pocket. The purpose of these activities which occurred after each shooting was to ensure the inability of successive victims entering the house from being aware of the prior slaughters. When Margie Abt, one of the victims, came home he secreted himself and permitted her to complete a brief telephone conversation before killing her. Although two members of the Abt family had not returned, he left the house because the constant telephone ringing made him cunningly cautious. He returned to his home by a circuitous route, in a deliberate effort to avoid detection. The shootings occurred during a time span between 3:20 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Once home, appellant concealed the gun, the rubber gloves he had worn and his bloody clothing in the saddlebags of his motorcycle. He locked the motorcycle in the garage where it was usually kept. The next day, he drove a considerable distance to the Delaware River into which he discarded the shoes and gloves. He washed his pants and other clothing to remove the bloodstains and gave them to the Goodwill Industry. Three days later, March 16, he threw the gun, spent shell casings and the remainder of the live ammunition into the Neshaminy Creek which was nearby. The gun was later recovered by the police from the creek. While the shootings were taking place, he had worn ear protectors.

Approximately a week after the Abt killings, the Bensalem Police asked appellant to come to headquarters for questioning about the alleged theft of his gun. On March 22, he was interviewed and given a polygraph test by police. The polygraph test showed that his answers were deceptive. At 7:45 p.m. the same day, he confessed, once told of the results of the polygraph test, giving a full and detailed description of the killing, together with the events and activities related thereto which had occurred before and after the shootings. After his arraignment that evening, he gave a stenographically recorded confession. He stated to the police that he was sorry he was unable to remain in the Abt house to accomplish his purpose of killing all of the members of the family. Two members survived as a result of his early departure.

The first assignment of error is the trial court's refusal to charge the jury, upon request by the defense, as to the consequences of a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. This Court originally expressed the view set forth in Commonwealth v. Gable, 323 Pa. 449, 187 A. 393 (1936). In Gable we summarily rejected the contention as follows:

The third question involves the proposition that, in a homicide case, where the defense is insanity, the trial judge must state, when requested to do so, that if the verdict is not guilty by reason of insanity, it will be his duty to send the defendant to a state institution for the insane. With this the jury has nothing to do and it was not error to refuse to so tell them. Id. at 453, 187 A. at 395.

The Gable view was thereafter the law in this Commonwealth until our decision in Commonwealth v. Mulgrew, 475 Pa. 271, 380 A.2d 349 (1977). A unanimous Court in Mulgrew reversed the position previously adopted in Gable and held "when insanity is raised as a possible defense to criminal charges, a jury must be instructed concerning the possible psychiatric treatment and commitment of the defendant after the return of a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity." Commonwealth v. Mulgrew, supra at 277-78, 380 A.2d at 352. In Mulgrew we explained that the simplistic view articulated in Gable, in that punishment was not the concern of the jury and thus no explanation was required to be given to them, fails to meet the realities of the situation.

If the instant trial had occurred after the filing of our opinion in Mulgrew, it is clear that the appellant would have been entitled to the requested point of charge. However, since the trial in this appeal was concluded on July 19, 1976 and the opinion in Mulgrew was not filed until December 1, 1977, the trial court's ruling was consistent with the then prevailing statement of the law. Thus, absent a determination that the Mulgrew rule should be given retrospective application, the instant assignment of error is without merit.

This issue requires us to wrestle with the most troublesome question of the applicability of a newly articulated pronouncement of state law. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Ernst, 476 Pa. 102, 381 A.2d 1245 (1978) (plurality opinion; Opinion in Support of Affirmance: Pomeroy, J., joined by Eagen, C.J., Nix, J. concurs in result; Opinion in Support of Reversal: Roberts, J. joined by O'Brien, J. and Manderino, J.). Even the terms "prospective" and "retrospective" are deceiving in their complexities. Although the variations are virtually infinite, the dispute has focused upon four specific options. The first option gives complete prospective effect to the newly pronounced rule. It limits its applicability to future cases and denies the benefit even to the parties in the litigation in which the principle was first announced. Commonwealth v. Milliken, 450 Pa. 310, 300 A.2d 78 (1973). Accord, Commonwealth v. Minarik, 493 Pa. 573, 427 A.2d 623 (1981); Commonwealth v. Gravely, 486 Pa. 194, 404 A.2d 1296 (1979) (plurality opinion); Commonwealth v. Tarver, 467 Pa. 401, 357 A.2d 539 (1976) (opinion announcing decision of the Court); Commonwealth v. Jones, 457 Pa. 563, 319 A.2d 142 (1974) (opinion in support of affirmance); Commonwealth v. Fowler, 451 Pa. 505, 304 A.2d 124 (1973); Commonwealth v. Scoleri, 399 Pa. 110, 160 A.2d 215 (1960) (opinion in support of affirmance). See, e.g., Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 490, 92 S.Ct. 2593, 2604, 33 L.Ed.2d 484 (1972).

Second, the change may be applied to future litigants, but retrospectively only to the parties at bar. See, e.g., Michigan v. Payne, 412 U.S. 47, 93 S.Ct. 1966, 36 L.Ed.2d 736 (1973); Adams v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 278, 284-85, 92 S.Ct. 916, 920-921, 31 L.Ed.2d 202 (1972) (plurality opinion); Stovall v. Denno, 388 U.S. 293, 301, 87 S.Ct. 1967, 1972, 18 L.Ed.2d 1199 (1967); DeStefano v. Woods, 392 U.S. 631, 633, 88 S.Ct. 2093, 2095, 20 L.Ed.2d 1308 (1968); Johnson v. New Jersey, 384 U.S. 719, 86 S.Ct. 1772, 16 L.Ed.2d 882 (1966). The third option permits the change to effect all cases still on direct review at the time of the pronouncement. August v. Stasak, 492 Pa. 550, 424 A.2d 1328 (1981); Gibson v. Commonwealth, 490 Pa. 156, 415 A.2d 80 (1980); Mayle v. Pa. Dept. of Highways, 479 Pa. 384, 388 A.2d 709 (1978) applied in Steinberg v. Commonwealth, Dept. of Public Welfare, 480 Pa. 321, 389 A.2d 1086 (1978); Grieser v. Commonwealth, Dept. of Transportation, 480 Pa. 447, 390 A.2d 1263 (1978); Tokar v. Commonwealth, Dept. of Transportation, 480 Pa. 598, 391 A.2d 1046 (1978); Dubree v. Commonwealth, 481 Pa. 540, 393 A.2d 293 (1978); Kenno v. Commonwealth, Dept. of State Police, 481 Pa. 562, 393 A.2d 304 (1978); Commonwealth v. Riggins, 474 Pa. 115, 377 A.2d 140 (1977) applied in Commonwealth v. Green, 480 Pa. 446, 390 A.2d 1263 (1978); Azzarello v. Black Brothers Co., 480 Pa. 547, 391 A.2d 1020 (1978); Kuchinic v. McCrory, 422 Pa. 620, 222 A.2d 897 (1966). The fourth allows the new principle to effect cases already final at the time that it is adopted. [3]

Initially, it must be recognized that there is no dispute that the federal constitution is neutral on the subject. As the United States Supreme Court stated in Linkletter v. Walker, 381 U.S. 618, 629, 85 S.Ct. 1731, 1737, 14...

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4 cases
  • Com. v. Geschwendt
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • February 4, 1983
    ... Page 991 ... 454 A.2d 991 ... 500 Pa. 120 ... COMMONWEALTH" of Pennsylvania ... George GESCHWENDT, Appellant ... Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ... Argued Oct. 27, 1982 ... Decided Dec. 31, 1982 ... Reargument Denied Feb. 4, 1983 ... Page 992 ...         [500 Pa. 122] Stuart Wilder, Asst. Public Defender, for appellant ...     \xC2" ... ...
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    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • July 12, 2016
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    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • December 31, 1982
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    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • February 1, 1983
    ...454 A.2d 985 ... 500 Pa. 109 ... COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, ... Dale BARRY ... Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ... Argued Oct. 18, 1982 ... Decided Dec. 31, 1982 ... Reargument ... ...

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