Commonwealth v. Johnson

Decision Date23 May 1973
Citation452 Pa. 130,305 A.2d 5
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Samuel Lee JOHNSON, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

James R. Adams (Submitted), Philadelphia, for appellant.

Arlen Specter, Dist. Atty. (Submitted) Richard A. Sprague, 1st Asst. Dist. Atty., James D. Crawford, Deputy Dist. Atty Milton M. Stein, Chief, Appeals Division, Maxine J. Stotland Asst. Dist. Atty., Philadelphia, for appellee.



NIX, Justice.

Appellant Samuel Lee Johnson, was arrested on September 14, 1970, and indicted for murder, aggravated robbery, forcible rape burglary and conspiracy. In May of 1971, after a motion to suppress his confession was denied, a jury found appellant guilty on all of the above charges except forcible rape, to which a demurrer was sustained. Following the denial of post-trial motions, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on the indictment charging murder, ten to twenty years on both the aggravated robbery and burglary indictments, each sentence to run concurrently with the sentence imposed on the murder indictment, and sentence was suspended on the conspiracy bill. This direct appeal followed from the imposition of sentence. [1]

The first assignment of error is directed to the lower court's admission of an alleged written statement of the appellant. The challenge is bottomed upon alternative bases: First, that the testimony offered during the suppression hearing was so conflicting that the record does not sustain the finding of the court below that the statement was voluntary. Secondly, it is urged that the written statement merely represents a 'conglomeration of extracts from two hours of conversation, the major part of which we know absolutely nothing about.'

Considering first the claim that the record is so contradictory and incomplete that as a matter of law the court should have suppressed the statement, we find that argument to be without support on this record. While there are some conflicts in the testimony as to the circumstances surrounding the challenged statement, they were not of such proportion of quality that a hearing judge would have been forced to reject the Commonwealth's position that the statement was voluntary and not coerced. After reviewing the record we are satisfied that there was ample basis for the lower court's finding that the statement was the product of the will of appellant and not coerced.

In reviewing the findings of a suppression court, we have recently observed that '(t)he question is one of fact initially to be determined by the trial court and where, as here, the suppression court's findings have ample support in the record, we cannot say that the court erred as a matter of law in concluding the confession was admissible.' Commonwealth v. Sharpe, 449 Pa. 35, 44, 296 A.2d 519, 524 (1972). See Commonwealth v. Stafford, Pa., 301 A.2d 600 (1973); Commonwealth v. Eiland, 450 Pa. 566, 301 A.2d 651 (1973); Commonwealth v. Harmon, 440 Pa. 195, 269 A.2d 744 (1970). The evidence offered by the Commonwealth clearly established that appellant was fully advised of his constitutional rights and was subjected to neither improper inducements or promises, nor to threats of force or coercion from the interrogating officers. The record is barren of any evidence of either physical or psychological coercion that would render the statement inadmissible.

The second claim, which suggests that the statement was not an accurate reflection of the words of the appellant, goes not to the competency of the questioned statement but rather to the credibility to be given to that document. See, e.g., United States v. Myers, 384 F.2d 737, 742 (3d Cir. 1967); Commonwealth v. Carluccetti, 369 Pa. 190, 203--204, 85 A.2d 391 (1952). It was therefore within the province of the jury to accept or reject its contents after a proper charge from the court. There has been no objection suggesting that the court improperly or inadequately instructed the jury on the question of credibility. From the testimony it is evident that during the interrogation statements were made that were not recorded. However, there has been no demonstration that any subject matter was deleted which materially changed or distorted the appellant's version of the occurrence. Appellant was afforded the opportunity to read the statement and did in fact sign each page signifying his knowledge of and agreement with the contents. The accuracy of the contents of the questioned statement was properly placed before the jury and there is no reason shown why this Court should disturb their determination.

Appellant also contends that the refusal of the trial court to permit his counsel to ask certain questions on voir dire constituted reversible error. During the voir dire examination of the prospective jurors, the court refused to allow defense counsel to propound the following questions:

'Q. Do you have any strong view-points against the drinking of alcoholic beverages?

'Q. Do you have any fixed opinion about the credibility of psychiatrists and their opinions?

'Q. . . . Have you ever served on any type of jury before this?' It is well-settled that

'(t)he examination of jurors under voir dire is solely for the purpose of securing a competent, fair, impartial and unprejudiced jury. . . . Neither counsel for the defendant nor for the Commonwealth should be permitted to . . . ask direct or hypithetical questions designed to disclose what a juror's present impression or opinion may be or what his attitude or decision will likely be under certain facts which may be developed in the trial of the case. While considerable latitude should be permitted on a voir dire, The inquiry should be strictly confined to disclosing qualifications of a juror and whether a juror has formed a fixed opinion or may be otherwise subject to disqualification for cause.'

Commonwealth v. McGrew, 375 Pa. 518, 525, 100 A.2d 467, 470 (1953) (emphasis added). See, Commonwealth v. Biebighauser, 450 Pa. 336, 346, 300 A.2d 70, 75 (1973); Commonwealth v Hoss, 445 Pa. 98, 107, 283 A.2d 58, 63, 64 (1971); Commonwealth v. Swanson, 432 Pa. 293, 299, 248 A.2d 12, 15 (1968); Commonwealth v. Lopinson, 427 Pa. 284, 297--298, 234 A.2d 552, 560--561 (1967). The scope of voir dire...

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