Commonwealth v. Simms

CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Citation228 Pa.Super. 85,324 A.2d 365
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. James SIMMS, Appellant.
Decision Date21 June 1974

JACOBS, Judge:

On the evening of October 21, 1971, the appellant, James Simms, was involved in an incident in a bar in Pittsburgh which culminated in appellant's shooting Francis Quinn in the knee. Following a trial by jury, the appellant was found guilty on all four counts with which he was charged: assault with intent to maim, aggravated assault and battery, pointing and discharging a firearm, and violation of the Uniform Firearms Act. On appeal to this Court, it is appellant's primary contention that the trial judge erred in his instructions to the jury relating to the appellant's mental capacity to commit the crimes charged. [1] Specifically he first contends that since he introduced evidence tending to show a lack of intent as to the criminal acts charged, he is entitled to an instruction on the doctrine of diminished responsibility. In addition, appellant maintains that since this evidence was in support of his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, the Commonwealth should bear the burden of proving sanity beyond a reasonable doubt. We find the trial judge's instructions on these points entirely consistent with present Pennsylvania law and therefore, affirm.

At the time the incidents giving rise to this case occurred, appellant was a law student at Duquesne Law School. He and some friends had stopped at a bar late one evening where they engaged in a game with a group of which Francis Quinn, the victim, was a member. A fight occurred between the appellant and another member of this group, the intensity of which is in dispute. The Commonwealth witnesses testified that it was a brief scuffle and the appellant received only a minor cut. The defense produced testimony of a melee of some violence in which the appellant was severely battered about the head and face. There was evidence from defense witnesses that immediately following the incident appellant acted strangely and spoke incoherently. Appellant himself testified that he remembered no details of the fight and nothing at all about the subsequent events.

Immediately following the occurrence in the bar, appellant left the premises, entered his car and drove away. When he returned after a brief interval he had a gun, and there is no dispute that he then shot the victim, wounding him in the knee. Friends of the victim testified that they acted immediately to disarm the appellant and in the struggle for the gun he suffered extensive injury. He was hospitalized for medical and psychiatric treatment for some time after the episode.

Appellant pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He based his defense on the contention that the injuries he received in the first fight impaired his cognitive functioning to such a degree that at the time he shot the victim he was unaware of what he was doing. A psychiatrist who examined him 2 days after the shooting diagnosed his condition as an organic brain syndrome and testified at the trial that such brain damage could prevent a person from judging the difference between right and wrong. The doctor further testified that the appellant's mental impairment, if sustained in the first fight in the bar, could render him unable to form the specific intent to shoot the victim. Other doctors, called by the Commonwealth, disagreed with this diagnosis and indicated there was no basis on which to form an opinion that any brain damage had occurred or that the appellant was at any time insane.

Appellant argues that in view of the psychiatric testimony presented the trial judge erred by instructing the jury solely on the M'Naghten [2] test for legal sanity. It is his contention that the circumstances of his case required the trial judge to instruct the jury to consider the psychiatrists' testimony not only in their determination of legal sanity, but also in their determination of the appellant's capability to form the requisite intent to commit the crime. As authority for his position, appellant advances the decision in Commonwealth v. McCusker, 448 Pa. 382, 292 A.2d 286 (1972).

McCusker holds that psychiatric evidence is admissible for the limited purpose of determining whether the accused acted in the heat of passion, even when no evidence is submitted for a defense of complete insanity under the traditional M'Naghten test. This holding rose out of a situation in which the defendant in a murder prosecution was attempting to prove by way of a defense that his unbalanced mental state caused him to respond violently to certain events and he was, therefore, guilty not of murder but only of voluntary manslaughter. The Court noted that proof of voluntary manslaughter required a showing that the defendant acted under the influence of a sudden passion, adequately provoked, in the commission of an intentional homicide. Although the adequacy of the provocation always remains an objective standard. the Court stressed that once the standard has been met the defendant still must prove that his response to the provoking event was to act in a heat of passion. Due to the subjective nature of the element of passion, the Court reasoned that the accused should be permitted to introduce evidence relevant to his state of mind at the time of the offense. Psychiatric testimony to the effect that the defendant's impassioned state was rooted in a mental disorder lends support to his contentions and is, therefore peculiarly relevant to this type of defense.

Prior to McCusker, Pennsylvania courts considered psychiatric evidence in only two instances: to determine legal insanity as grounds for complete acquittal and to arrive at an appropriate sentence for a particular defendant. See Commonwealth v. Tomlinson, 446 Pa. 241, 284 A.2d 687 (1971), and the cases cited therein. Evidence on the subject of insanity was admitted for the consideration of the jury or judge only as limited by the M'Naghten test. The test permits the trier of fact to determine whether the accused labored under such defective reason that he was incapable of knowing what he was doing at the time he committed the offense or, if he did know what he was doing, that he did not know it was wrong. Commonwealth v. Woodhouse, 401 Pa. 242, 164 A.2d 98 (1960). Legal insanity, established under this formula, is grounds for complete acquittal in Pennsylvania. If, however, the fact finder determines that the defendant was capable of understanding the nature and quality of his acts and the difference between right and wrong, [3] the psychiatric testimony cannot be used to refute the elements of the crime charged. See Commonwealth v. Vogel, 440 Pa. 1, 268 A.2d 89 (1970) (opinion by Justice, now Chief Justice, JONES). This has been the long established law in Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court has repeatedly refused to abandon the M'Naghten rule in favor of some other test for insanity. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Melton, 406 Pa. 343, 178 A.2d 728 (1962); Commonwealth v. Woodhouse, supra. It has with equal tenacity rejected the use of psychiatric testimony as a partial defense negating the element of intent in specific intent crimes. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Tomlinson, supra; Commonwealth v. Weinstein, 442 Pa. 70, 274 A.2d 182 (1971), and cases cited therein. Although pressed with theories of diminished capacity or diminished responsibility as supplements to the M'Naghten rule, psychiatric testimony has not been accepted to prove the lack of specific intent to commit a criminal act.

McCusker does not represent a departure from this line of cases. After specifically reasserting adherence to M'Naghten's test, the Court in McCusker distinguishes those cases which refuse to recognize something less than legal insanity to prove incapacity to intend a criminal act. The opinion directs itself to an entirely separate consideration: the particular defendant's mental condition during the perpetration of a homicide and whether that condition constituted a heat of passion sufficient to reduce his offense from murder to manslaughter. Holding psychiatric testimony relevant and admissible as an aid to proving this highly subjective element provides an additional use for such testimony which is consistent with established principles of Pennsylvania law. '(T)his Court has traditionally allowed an accused to offer testimony in an effort to establish his state of mind at the time of the crime.' Commonwealth v. McCusker, supra, 448 Pa. at 391, 292 A.2d at 290.

In spite of the explicit rejection of the doctrine of diminished responsibility, the appellant in the present case feels that the rationale of McCusker logically extended compels the adoption of the concept expressed in that doctrine. He argues that it is anomolous to permit consideration of psychiatric testimony to prove that the defendant in a murder charge acted without malice and in the heat of passion, while limiting such evidence in other crimes involving malice. He maintains that according to McCusker evidence of mental abnormality should be evaluated to disprove the element of malice present in two of the crimes with which he was charged: assault with intent to maim and aggravated assault and battery. If it could be proven that he acted without malice in committing the acts constituting these crimes, his conviction could be reduced to simple assault and battery. Of course, the other two crimes charged, pointing and discharging a firearm and violation of the Uniform Firearms Act, having no elements of malice, would remain unaffected. This argument is based on a misunderstanding of the term 'malice.'

Malice as it is defined in law is not simply a general description of an actor's frame of mind. It is susceptible to precise...

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  • Com. v. Simms
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • June 21, 1974
    ...324 A.2d 365 228 Pa.Super. 85 COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. James SIMMS, Appellant. Superior Court of Pennsylvania. June 21, 1974. Page 366 [228 Pa.Super. 87] JACOBS, Judge: On the evening of October 21, 1971, the appellant, James Simms, was involved in an incident in a bar in Pittsburgh ......

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