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COMMONWEALTH v. HELLER (03/24/52)

March 24, 1952

COMMONWEALTH
v.
HELLER, APPELLANT



Appeal, No. 75, Jan, T., 1952, from judgment and sentence of Court of Oyer & Terminer and General Jail Delivery and Quarter Sessions of Philadelphia County, June T., 1950, No. 1263, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Daniel Heller. Judgment and sentence affirmed.

COUNSEL

Benjamin R. Donolow, for appellant.

Richardson Dilworth, District Attorney, with him Armand Della Porta and Michael von Moschzisker, Assistant District Attorneys, for appellee.

Before Drew, C.j., Stern, Stearne, Bell, Chidsey and Musmanno, JJ.

Author: Stern

[ 369 Pa. Page 459]

OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE HORACE STERN

Defendant killed his wife and the jury found him guilty of murder of the first degree with penalty of life imprisonment. He appeals from his conviction.

The parties had been married for ten years and the wife was thirty years of age. At the trial defendant testified that she was a hypochondriac, extremely nervous, and continually expressing the fear that she would die in her sleep; the result was that she prevented his obtaining adequate rest and peace of mind. At six o'clock on the morning of May 18, 1950, leaving his wife still sleeping, he arose, dressed, went downstairs, drank a cup of coffee, and glanced over the morning newspaper. He then went upstairs again after arming himself with a heavy galvanized iron pipe which he had procured in the kitchen, and, standing by her bedside, he bludgeoned the head of his sleeping wife with such force as to crush her skull in two places, causing a hemorrhage of the brain and her immediate death. He felt her pulse and, finding it lifeless, he placed the pipe on the bed, covered his wife's body with the blankets, washed the blood from his arms and hands, removed his shirt and rolled it up together with his washrag and the pillow case on which he had slept, all of which were stained with blood, and placed them in the bathroom; he awakened his children, two boys aged respectively five and eight, helped them dress, took them to the house of his brother, went to some taprooms and procured drinks of whiskey, and then proceeded to a police station where he told the captain that he had just killed his wife. When asked by one of the detectives as to his reason for committing the crime he said that "maybe" it was something that occurred five or six or seven years ago, but ventured no further explanation. That afternoon he gave the

[ 369 Pa. Page 460]

    police a written and signed statement in which he detailed all that had occurred immediately prior to and following the killing, but claimed that he had no consciousness of what he was doing from the time he went up to the bedroom until he saw the blood and realized that his wife was dead.

The defense was that of insanity, but there was not a shred of testimony offered to support it other than the defendant's own assertion that he did not know at the time he killed his wife what he was doing, -- that his mind then went blank. There is no evidence in the record of any mental pathology of the defendant prior to the murder. He was employed by the Atlantic Refining Company and had never missed a day there from work. He says that he had occasional headaches, but admits that he never consulted a physician in regard to them. He produced several witnesses -- relatives, friends, fellow workmen -- none of whom testified to having noticed anything of importance that was abnormal in either his speech or his conduct; the most that those who worked with him said was that he sometimes seemed to be tired in the mornings, as though he had not slept well the night before. A psychiatrist, who testified on his behalf and who had examined him on November 1, six months after the murder, said that he found him in a state of "extreme depression and marked anxiety," -- a far cry from a diagnosis of insanity as of that time. He expressed the belief that defendant "became acutely mentally ill," that he was "in marked depression" at the time he killed his wife, basing this impression on what defendant had told him and "what he learned from others."*fn1 However,

[ 369 Pa. Page 461]

    when asked directly: "Did he know the difference between right and wrong on November 1?" the witness answered: "I don't know." When asked: "Did he know the difference between right and wrong on May 18?" his reply was: "I don't know." When asked: "Did he know the nature and quality of his acts on May 18?" his reply was: "I don't know if he did or not." The most that this expert finally ventured to say on defendant's behalf was: "I think he was in such disturbed state of mind that he was not entirely non compos mentis but certainly he didn't know what he was doing." Asked, finally, whether he had "cause to doubt whether defendant knew the difference between right and wrong on May 18th, 1950", he replied: "From what I gathered, I wouldn't think that he would when he had no sleep and had all this piled on his head." All this testimony, viewed as an entirely, falls considerably short of an unambiguous opinion that at the time of the ...


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