People v. Coapman, 78

Decision Date07 December 1949
Docket NumberNo. 78,78
Citation40 N.W.2d 167,326 Mich. 321
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Davidson & Theut and George A. Beauchamp, Detroit, for defendant and appellant.

Stephen J. Roth, Attorney General, Edmund E. Shpherd, Solicitor General, Lansing, Clyde D. Underwood, Prosecuting Attorney for Oakland County, Bernard Girard, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Pontiac, for the People.

Before the Entire Bench.

CARR, Justice.

Defendant was convicted of first degree murder by a jury in the circuit court of Oakland county. The information against him charged that on, to-wit, the 10th of May, 1947, at the township of Orion in said county, the defendant 'feloniously, wilfully and of his malice aforethought, did kill and murder one Richard Edward Schweitzer.' Following the conviction sentence was imposed in accordance with the statute. Defendant has appealed, claiming that the corpus delicti was not properly established, that the circuit court of Oakland county did not have jurisdiction, and that errors occurring in the conduct of the trial require the setting aside of the verdict and sentence.

On the trial of the case it was the claim of the people that on July 5, 1947, the body of Richard Schweitzer, a young man approximately 20 years of age, was found half submerged in water in a bog or swamp in Oakland county. A few days later defendant was taken into custody, and on or about July 15th made a statement to the prosecuting attorney of Oakland county in which he in effect admitted his guilt of the offense for which he was subsequently prosecuted. On the trial this statement was introduced in evidence by the prosecution. Charles Coapman, a brother of defendant, was the principal witness against him. At the time of the trial in October, 1947, defendant was 31 and Charles was 22. The latter testified in substance that on May 10, 1947, about 11 o'clock in the forenoon, defendant came to the home of the witness in Grosse Pointe, and that following some conversation the two brothers and Schweitzer left in a 1946 Chevrolet automobile for the stated purpose of going to Port Sanilac, Michigan. Charles claimed that shortly after the parties had started on their trip an argument arose between defendant and Schweitzer, the former demanding a gun claimed to be in Schweitzer's possession, which the latter at first promised to give defendant. Later in the course of the argument he refused to do so.

According to the witness a further argument arose as to whether Schweitzer intended to give information to public authorities with reference to the breaking and entering of a gas station on or about May 8th preceding, in which offense the parties were involved. Charles testified in substance that Schweitzer's attitude was not satisfactory to defendant, that the latter struck Schweitzer with his fist on the chin or in the mouth, that at the time Schweitzer slumped forward, and that immediately thereafter defendant picked up a piece of lead from under the car seat and struck Schweitzer across the neck with it. Thereafter the body of Schweitzer was slid over the front seat into the rear of the car, defendant being unassisted by Charles in such action except as the latter, who, it is claimed, was driving the car, slowed down at defendant's direction to approximately five miles per hour.

The witness further testified that he drove, at the direction of defendant, to the location where the body of Schweitzer was subsequently found, that he then assisted defendant in removing the body from the car, that he (Charles) examined the body but could not discover a pulse beat, and that he stated to defendant at the time that Schweitzer was dead. Defendant replied, it is claimed, that he was 'going to make sure,' whereupon he removed a belt from the body of Schweitzer, put it around the neck, and pulled it tight for about five minutes. Defendant then removed certain articles from Schweitzer's pockets. The body was left lying on the ground at the edge of the swamp, and the two brothers proceeded on their way to Port Sanilac. On the return trip Schweitzer's jacket, which had been left in the back seat of the car, was hidden under a culvert near the city of Port Huron, where the officers, subsequently directed by Charles, found it prior to the trial. The witness further testified that after he and defendant returned to defendant's home in Detroit the inside of the car was washed to remove blood from the rubber matting and floor board. He also claimed that on May 15th following the alleged homicide he and defendant returned to the place above referred to in Oakland county and found the body of Schweitzer in the same position as when they left it five days previously.

After he was taken into custody Charles made certain statements to the officers investigating the death of Schweitzer, which statements were not, the record indicates, consistent in all details with the alleged confession made by the defendant. Such inconsistencies were sufficient to raise some question as to whether the felonious homicide, if it was such, had been committed in Wayne county or in Oakland county. Apparently for the purpose of obviating any question as to venue that might subsequently be raised, the prosecuting attorney of Oakland county filed a petition with the attorney general of the State under C.L.1929, § 17121, as amended by P.A.1935, No. 151, C.L.1948, § 762.3, Stat.Ann. § 28.846. Said section contains the following provision: 'When it shall appear to the attorney general that a felony has been committed within the state of Michigan, and that it is impossible to determine within which county it occurred, said offense may be alleged in the indictment to have been committed, and may be prosecuted and punished in such county as the attorney general shall designate.' The prosecutor's petition set forth the finding of the body of Schweitzer, that the condition of such body indicated that death had resulted from felonious acts, that the residence of Schweitzer had been in Wayne county, and that from the facts in possession of the prosecutor it was impossible to determine at the time whether the homicide had been committed in Oakland county or in Wayne county. Thereupon the attorney general, acting in accordance with the provision of the statute above quoted, designated Oakland county for the prosecution of the alleged offense. Proceedings were thereafter taken in accordance with such designation.

The confession of the defendant made on or about July 15th to the prosecuting attorney of Oakland county, which, as above noted, was introduced in evidence on the trial, corroborated the testimony of Charles Coapman in many respects. In such statement defendant admitted that he, Charles, and Schweitzer, were together in the automobile and that an altercation arose between himself and Schweitzer. It was his claim, however, that he demanded that Schweitzer pay him $10 which he said Schweitzer owed him, and that in the course of the argument Schweitzer made derogatory remarks concerning a girl friend of defendant's. Defendant further claimed that the affray between himself and Schweitzer took place outside the car, that he knocked Schweitzer down, that Schweitzer arose and apparently endeavored to run away, that defendant pursued him, struck him and again knocked him down, and that such action was repeated. He stated also that he took Schweitzer's belt, placed it around the neck, and drew it tight. Defendant claimed further in this statement that while he was pulling the belt he noticed that the back of Schweitzer's neck and his ears began to turn a 'reddish purple.' The further statements made by defendant justify the inference that he thought when he left Schweitzer at the edge of the swamp that Schweitzer was dead as a result of strangulation. It further appears that defendant made other statementrs not consistent with the above confession. On the trial of the case he repudiated the confession and claimed in substance that Charles Coapman had had a fight with Schweitzer and had inflicted injuries on him, culminating in the alleged use of the belt by Charles.

A post-mortem examination of the body of Richard Schweitzer was held, but it appears from the testimony of the physician who conducted it that the body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition at the time that the results obtained were not certain and definite. The physician's testimony indicates that he concluded death had not resulted from a fractured skull, or from drowning. For the reason above suggested, he was unable to express any opinion as to whether the claimed blows on the mouth and neck of Schweitzer, or either of them, were fatal. In answer to a hypothetical question he indicated his opinion to be that the use of the belt in the manner claimed by Charles Coapman in his testimony might have caused death by strangulation.

Counsel for defendant contend that the corpus delicti was not proved by testimony aliunde the alleged confession of defendant. Emphasis is placed on the fact that the medical witness, above referred to, was unable to state positively from the post-mortem examination that the death of Schweitzer had resulted from violence. The rule has been repeatedly recognized by this court that the commission of the crime charged should be established before a confession by the accused is received in evidence. It may be noted in this connection that the record in the case at bar does not disclose that any objection was made to the introduction of defendant's confession. The proposition that the corpus delicti may not be shown by the uncorroborated testimony of the accused is not open to question in this State. People v. Kirby, 223 Mich. 440, 194 N.W. 142. In People v. Trine, 164 Mich. 1, 129 N.W. 3, it was held that the fact that a crime has been committed may be shown by circumstantial evidence, and that the making of a prima facie case opens the door to proof to connect...

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