Commonwealth v. McCusker

Decision Date28 June 1972
Citation292 A.2d 286,448 Pa. 382
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. James McCUSKER, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

John J. Hickton, John M. Tighe, Pittsburgh, for appellant.

Robert W. Duggan, Dist. Atty., Carol Mary Los, Asst. Dist. Atty Pittsburgh, for appellee.



ROBERTS Justice.

We must decide today whether psychiatric evidence is admissible in a murder prosecution for the limited purpose of determining whether a defendant acted in the heat of passion. We are persuaded by the almost unanimous voice of professionally recognized authorities [1] that such evidence is competent and in certain circumstances admissible. Appellant did not raise the defense of complete insanity. Our decision today does not in any manner affect the M'Naghten test presently employed in this Commonwealth to determine a defendant's sanity. Commonwealth v. Melton, 406 Pa. 343, 178 A.2d 728 (1962), cert. denied, 371 U.S. 851, 83 S.Ct. 93, 9 L.Ed.2d 87 (1962).

Our holding is but a belated recognition of the tremendous advancements made in the field of psychiatry during the last several decades:

'The genius of the common law has been its responsiveness to changing times. . . . Drawing upon the past, the law must serve--and traditionally has served--the needs of the present. In the past century, psychiatry has evolved from tentative, hesitant gropings in the dark of human ignorance to a recognized and important branch of modern medicine. The outrage of a frightened Queen has for too long caused us to forego the expert guidance that modern psychiatry is able to provide.'

United States v. Freeman, 357 F.2d 606, 624--625 (2d Cir. 1966).

Appellant James McCusker was charged with the murder of his wife and brought to trial before a jury on June 17, 1968. The jury returned a verdict of second degree murder. Appellant filed post-trial motions which were denied. A judgment of sentence of not less than ten nor more than twenty years imprisonment was imposed and appellant institute this appeal. [2] Because the trial court refused to admit psychiatric evidence relevant to whether appellant acted in the heat of passion when he committed the act, we reverse the judgment of sentence and grant a new trial. [3]

The actual commission of the slaying was not contested by appellant, but instead he sought to prove that he acted in the heat of passion. [4] To advance this partial defense to murder appellant offered psychiatric evidence. In rejecting that proffered evidence the trial court relied on this Court's earlier closely divided cases which precluded the admission of such evidence. [5] Commonwealth v. Tomlinson, 446 Pa. 241, 284 A.2d 687 (1971); Commonwealth v. Weinstein, 442 Pa. 70, 274 A.2d 182 (1971); Commonwealth v. Rightnour, 435 Pa. 104, 253 A.2d 644 (1969); Commonwealth v. Phelan, 427 Pa. 265, 234 A.2d 540 (1967) and Commonwealth v. Ahearn, 421 Pa. 311, 218 A.2d 561 (1966), however, dealt with the issue of whether a defendant could introduce psychiatric evidence to show he lacked the capacity to deliberate and premeditate. Moreover those cases regarded the competency of psychiatric testimony with a rigidity which has been constructively criticized:

"If a doctor were to bleed his patients with leeches today, or if a psychiatrist were to attribute insanity to the moon, the hue and cry would be tremendous. And yet instance after instance may be pointed out wherein the law has remained, sometimes for hundreds of years, curiously rigid, despite the changes in scientific opinion upon which the law was based. Many rules in the criminal law are still affected by early views concerning psychology, which views are now outmoded or repudiated by newer discoveries through experimentation. A large number fail utterly to take cognizance of advances in education and educational methods." [6]

Upon reflection and further consideration we now conclude that psychiatric evidence, coming as it does from a 'recognized and important branch of modern medicine,' should be admissible at trial for the purpose of determining whether a defendant acted in the heat of passion.

The Commonwealth does not dispute the excellent quality of the evidence that appellant sought to introduce through the testimony of highly qualified professionals in the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. Among the two psychologists and two psychiatrists were two experts who examined appellant not at his behest but rather during the performance of their normal governmental duties at the Allegheny County Behavior Clinic. That Clinic routinely examines certain categories of offenders shortly following arrest. These four potential witnesses, including the clinical professional personnel and appellant's retained physicians, would have based their testimony on an exhaustive review of appellant's medical records, as well as their personal examinations and observations of appellant. Their testimony would have tended to establish that appellant was impassioned at the time of the offense. This passion, they were prepared to testify, had as its origins appellant's mental disorders as well as his recent awareness that his wife had entered into a meretricious relationship with his step-brother and her threat to retain custody of his only child.

Any analysis of the admissibility of a particular type of evidence must start with a threshold inquiry as to its relevance and probative value. A leading commentator has suggested the following desideratum for relevancy: '(D)oes the evidence offered render the desired inference More probable than it would be without the evidence? . . . Relevant evidence, then, is evidence that in some degree advances the inquiry, and thus has probative value, and is prima facie admissible.' McCormick, Evidence § 152 at 318--19 (1954) (emphasis in original); 1 Wigmore, Evidence §§ 9--10 at 289--95 (3rd ed. 1940).

Appellant sought to establish the general and well-recognized requirements for a jury finding of voluntary manslaughter. Specifically he attempted to establish that as a result of adequate provocation he acted in the heat of passion when he killed his wife. Our law is quite explicit that the determination of whether a certain quantum of provocation is sufficient to support the defense of voluntary manslaughter is purely an objective standard. [7] To establish sufficient provocation appellant relied on three events immediately preceding the slaying: his awareness within the last month before the crime that his wife had entered into a meretricious relationship with his step-brother; his knowledge within minutes of the crime that his wife was perhaps pregnant with his step-brother's child; and his wife's threat immediately before the crime that she was going to leave defendant and take with her his only child.

In making the objective determination as to what constitutes sufficient provocation reliance may be placed upon the cumulative impact of a series of related events. [8] The ultimate test for adequate provocation remains whether a reasonable man, confronted with this series of events, became impassioned to the extent that his mind was 'incapable of cool reflection.' [9]

Having found in a given situation that an accused was confronted with sufficient provocation, the focus then shifts to defendant's response to that provocation. The relevant inquiry is threefold: did the defendant actually act in the heat of passion when he committed the homicide; did the provocation directly lead to the slaying of the person responsible for the provocation; [10] and was there insufficient 'cooling time' thus preventing a reasonable man from using his 'reasoning faculties' and 'capacity to reflect.' [11] Absent any of these elements an accused's defense of provocation must fail and he is not entitled to a verdict of voluntary manslaughter.

As an aid to the jury in making the above three determinations this Court has traditionally allowed an accused to offer testimony in an effort to establish his state of mind at the time of the crime. [12] Applying the established principles of relevancy to a murder prosecution where a defendant asserts that he acted in the heat of passion, it seems clear that any evidence--lay or psychiatric--pertinent to that defense should be admissible. The principal vice of rejecting psychiatric testimony, as the trial court did here, is that it excludes from the consideration of the factfinders evidence of probative value vital to a determination of defendant's state of mind.

Here the sole and dispositive issue in controversy at trial was appellant's state of mind at the time of the slaying. The Commonwealth's theory was that appellant acted with malice, while appellant sought instead to prove that he acted without malice and in the heat of passion. Surely the admission of relevant and probative psychiatric evidence would have aided the jury in resolving those conflicting claims. The admissibility of relevant psychiatric testimony on the issue of whether defendant acted in the heat of passion does not, of course, intrude upon the jury's traditional function of determining for itself the credibility and weight which it will accord that testimony.

Our courts have admitted psychiatric evidence to determine, under the M'Naghten test, whether defendant was sane at the time of the crime. [13] Thus we receive psychiatric evidence where its potential effect may be to support a finding of insanity--and thus provide a basis for a not guilty verdict. Similarly psychiatric evidence is admitted and indeed virtually controlling when the determination to be made is defendant's mental capacity to stand trial. [14] Finally, such evidence has long...

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  • Commonwealth of Pa. v. Hutchinson
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • August 22, 2011
    ...638, 649 (2009); Commonwealth v. Ragan, 560 Pa. 106, 743 A.2d 390, 396 (1999) (citing 18 Pa.C.S. 2503(a)); Commonwealth v. McCusker, 448 Pa. 382, 292 A.2d 286, 288 & n. 4 (1972). Emotions encompassed by the term “passion” include “anger, rage, sudden resentment or terror which renders the m......

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