Original jurisdiction. No. 356, Miscellaneous Docket, No. 9, petition for writ of habeas corpus in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ex rel. Rudolph Sheeler v. C. J. Burke, Warden, Eastern State Penitentiary. Plea of guilty to indictment for murder and sentence of life imprisonment vacated and set aside.
Louis B. Schwartz and Raymond J. Bradley, for Petitioner.
John H. Maurer, District Attorney and James W. Tracey, Jr., First Assistant District Attorney, for Commonwealth.
OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE JONES
Rudolph Sheeler, the relator, filed his original petition with this court for a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that he was being illegally restrained of his liberty in the Eastern State Penitentiary as a result of a life sentence imposed upon him by the Court of Oyer and Terminer of Philadelphia County on March 31, 1939, following his plea of guilty to an indictment (No. 574, March Sessions 1939, in said court) charging him
with the murder of James T. Morrow, a police officer of the City of Philadelphia, on November 23, 1936, in Northeast Philadelphia. The petitioner alleges that his plea and confession of the crime charged in the indictment were obtained and used in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and of Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution of Pennsylvania. We entered a rule to show cause why the prayer of the petition should not be granted on the district attorney of Philadelphia County who duly filed a responsive answer.
The petition and answer raised such important issues of material fact (for the resolution whereof on testimony taken at a hearing an appellate court lacks the requisite facilities) that we referred the matter to Honorable LOUIS E. LEVINTHAL, a judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, for the purpose of holding a hearing on the issues framed by the petition and answer with notice to all interested parties; the order further directed that a record of the hearing, including a transcript of the testimony taken, together with the hearing judge's findings of fact on the issues raised be returned to this court. Judge LEVINTHAL ably and thoroughly performed the duties imposed upon him by our order of reference and the matter is now before us for final disposition. The findings of the learned referee are, however, purely advisory. The instant petition is peculiarly a matter for this court's action in the exercise of our original jurisdiction which, by reason of the unusual circumstances pleaded, we invoked at the instance of the relator. The services performed by the referee were in aid of our discharge of our duties in the premises.
From the findings of the referee, who heard and saw the witnesses, we summarize and adopt the following
salient facts and conclusions which are amply supported by substantial evidence.
Sheeler was taken into custody by the police of Philadelphia on February 16, 1939, on suspicion of having participated with a confederate, one Howard, in the murder of Officer Morrow. He was held by the police incommunicado in City Hall under a fictitious name which they intentionally gave him. He was subjected to coercion, both physical and psychological, in an effort to force from him a confession that he had been a participant in the Morrow murder. During the time he was so held by the police, he was denied opportunity to communicate with family or friends and was taken from his cell-room many times for questioning by detectives for a total of 45 to 50 hours within the first week. At the end of that period, to wit, on the morning of February 23, 1939, he orally "confessed" that he was with Howard when the Morrow crime was committed. A little later the same morning, he signed a statement in which he vaguely narrated the commission of the crime. He was given a hearing before a magistrate on February 24th where he denied that his "confession" was voluntary. He was held without bail for further hearing on the ...