Commonwealth v. Hipple

Decision Date09 January 1939
Docket Number308
Citation333 Pa. 33,3 A.2d 353
PartiesCommonwealth v. Hipple, Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Argued November 29, 1938.

Appeal, No. 308, Jan. T., 1938, from judgment and sentence of O. & T. Sullivan Co., June T., 1938, No. 1, in case of Commonwealth v. Ernest M. Hipple. Judgment and sentence affirmed.

Indictment for murder. Before FARR, P.J., HUGHES and BOWN, JJ.

The opinion of the Supreme Court states the facts.

Plea of guilty. Defendant adjudged guilty of murder in the first degree and penalty fixed at death. Defendant appealed.

Errors assigned, among others, were various rulings on evidence.

Judgment and sentence affirmed, and record remitted for the purpose of execution.

Chas E. Mills, of Mills & O'Connor, with him Robert W Trembath, for appellant.

Wm. G. Schrier, with him Albert F. Heess, District Attorney, for appellee.




The defendant, Ernest M. Hipple, was indicted for the murder of Jennie D. Porter. He pleaded guilty. After a full hearing and due consideration of all the evidence the learned court below adjudged him guilty of murder in the first degree and fixed the penalty at death. Defendant appealed from the judgment and sentence imposed.

The chief error assigned is that the court committed an abuse of discretion in sentencing the defendant to death, the contention being that the punishment should not exceed that of life imprisonment. There are two other reasons assigned as error, to wit: a ruling of the court that a confession made by defendant on February 16, 1938, induced by the use of a so-called lie detector, was voluntary, and in admitting it in evidence; and in admitting evidence concerning the prior forging by defendant of the name of Jennie Porter on a check belonging to her.

Although the finding of first degree murder is not challenged, it is incumbent upon us to review the record to determine whether the essential elements of first degree murder are present. In doing so we accept as true all the evidence adverse to defendant, since the credibility of the witnesses was for the court below: Commonwealth v. Shawell, 325 Pa. 497. We have made such examination and find all the necessary ingredients of murder of the first degree present in the case.

To determine whether the appropriate penalty was imposed, we must consider the history of the past life of the defendant, as well as the facts of the crime. At the time of the murder, February 7, 1938, the defendant was twenty-one years of age; he left school when he reached the seventh or eighth grade to go to work; he worked very irregularly, sometimes caused doubtless by the fact that he could not get work to do; he was much given to hunting, which made him familiar with firearms; he had contracted a forced marriage and was the father of a child; he had the usual intelligence of one of his years who was born and reared in a mountainous and isolated community. In general, his life was that of a woodsman and mountaineer, and his meager livelihood was made principally by hunting and trapping, by fishing, and by hiring out to farmers for work in the fields.

In the same neighborhood in which defendant had spent his life lived Jennie D. Porter, the wife of John Porter, a woman of about seventy years of age. She and her husband had known defendant since his birth. He was a frequent visitor at their house and for a short time prior to the commission of this crime he had been a daily caller. He had learned that Mrs. Porter kept money in the house, this fact being common knowledge in the neighborhood. After her death $110 was found in her pocketbook hidden in the house. The defendant decided it was necessary to destroy her in order to get her money and, according to his own confession, he deliberately planned her murder four days in advance of the cruel act. He said: "I went down to Porters and went in and she was eating. The door was locked and she opened it up and left me in and said, 'Oh, it's you.' She sat down and started to eat again. I sat down on the chair in front of the feed bags. I sat there a few minutes. Everything seemed to blur a few minutes and then I shot her. She fell off the chair sideways toward the right. Then I set my gun down by the door that goes out towards the back. Then I drug her in the bedroom by the feet. Then I got scared and left. Q. When did you first decide to shoot Jennie Porter so you could get some of the money that you always thought she kept around the house? A. I had in mind for some time to try to get some money off Jennie in some way and when I asked my cousin Roy Guisewhite if he had any .22 cal. ammunition I had then made up my mind that the only way I could get the money would be to shoot her."

The day following the commission of the crime the defendant was taken into custody by the State Police, and nine days thereafter, during which time he was frequently questioned about the crime with apparently no results, he made a full confession. Several hours prior to this happening a lie detector was applied to the defendant by the officers. Its operation was explained to him, and he was told that he could lie to the officers but he could not lie to the machine. The defendant inspected it, asked to have it applied again so that he might see it work, which was done, and it was then he broke down and stated that he committed the crime. He was immediately returned to the jail from the place where he was examined, and two hours later the officers went to him and asked him if he desired to correct his previous statements and to tell the whole truth, to which he replied that he did, whereupon he made a full confession in which he acknowledged his guilt.

The principal assignment of error stated that the court below abused its discretionary power in inflicting the extreme penalty. The defense insists that he should have the benefit of the lesser punishment, namely, life imprisonment, for the reason that he does not have the mentality of the average person but only that of a moron. It is admitted that his mentality is such that he was capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong. This was conceded by the defense, both in the opening address and in the testimony of Doctor Fish, its chief witness. The latter concluded that the defendant fulfilled "the definition of what Webster's Dictionary regards as a moron." He added: "A moron is an individual whose brain advances only to the age of eight years. He never exceeds the mentality of a child of twelve years." Dr. Fish, and the mother, sister and wife of the defendant were the only witnesses called by the defense to throw light upon his mental capacity. Dr. Fish saw the defendant for the first time the day on which he took the stand and he spent only one hour in obtaining the history of his life and making his examination. He admitted under cross-examination that he talked only to the defendant and his mother, that he did not speak with his school teachers or neighbors, and that he was unfamiliar as to how the defendant conducted himself towards those people.

The Commonwealth called four school teachers who had taught the defendant. Mr. L. W. Williams, one of the school teachers knew the defendant all his life. He testified that he...

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32 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Hill
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • March 1, 2012
    ...1291 (1983), aff'd,507 Pa. 193, 489 A.2d 747 (1985). See: Commonwealth v. Jones, 341 Pa. 541, 19 A.2d 389 (1941); Commonwealth v. Hipple, 333 Pa. 33, 3 A.2d 353 (1939). See also: Commonwealth v. Hughes, 521 Pa. 423, 443 n. 8, 555 A.2d 1264, 1274 n. 8 (1989). See generally: Annot., Admissibi......
  • Com. v. Danforth
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    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • June 14, 1990
    ...Commonwealth v. Graham, 408 Pa. 155, 182 A.2d 727 (1962); Commonwealth v. Johnson, 372 Pa. 266, 93 A.2d 691 (1953); Commonwealth v. Hipple, 333 Pa. 33, 3 A.2d 353 (1939); Commonwealth v. Spardute 278 Pa. 37, 122 A. 161 (1923); Commonwealth v. Cressinger, 193 Pa. 326, 44 A. 433 (1899); Commo......
  • Com. v. Schneider
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • July 24, 1989
    ...1291 (1983), aff'd, 507 Pa. 193, 489 A.2d 747 (1985). See: Commonwealth v. Jones, 341 Pa. 541, 19 A.2d 389 (1941); Commonwealth v. Hipple, 333 Pa. 33, 3 A.2d 353 (1939). See also: Commonwealth v. Hughes, supra --- Pa. at ---- n. 8, 555 A.2d at 1274 n. 8 (1989). See generally: Annot., Admiss......
  • Commonwealth v. Cunningham
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • February 28, 1977
    ... ... prior to the pre-polygraph interview ... [ 3 ] The use of a polygraph examination in the ... interrogation process, standing alone, does not render a ... confession involuntary. Commonwealth v. Jones, 341 Pa. 541, ... 19 A.2d 389 (1941); Commonwealth v. Hipple, 333 Pa. 33, 3 ... A.2d 353 (1939). Nevertheless, its use may be considered as ... part of the totality of the circumstances when determining ... the voluntariness of the confession. Part III, infra ... [ 4 ] In Pennsylvania, even if the suppression ... court determines a confession is ... ...
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