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November 18, 1952


Appeal, No. 155, March T., 1952, from order of Court of Oyer & Terminer of Allegheny County, Feb. Sessions, 1949, No. 85, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Steve Kurus. Order affirmed.


Peter F. Flaherty, for appellant.

Albert A. Fiok, Assistant District Attorney, with him James F. Malone, Jr., District Attorney, for appellee.

Before Stern, Stearne, Jones, Bell and Musmanno, JJ.

Author: Jones

[ 371 Pa. Page 634]


The appellant pleaded not guilty to an indictment charging him with the murder of his common law wife. At all times until sentence, he was represented by counsel privately employed by his sister. During the selection of the jury at trial, he changed his plea to guilty and the trial judge proceeded to hear testimony for the purpose of determining the degree of the crime. Finding the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree, the court sentenced him to not less than nine nor more than eighteen years in the penitentiary. After he had served approximately to years of the sentence, the defendant, acting in propria persona, petitioned the trial court for a writ of error coram nobis seeking thereby to withdraw his plea of guilty on the ground that he had acted in the premises under a misunderstanding of the nature and consequences of the plea. Specifically, he alleged that his counsel had deceived him in regard to the effect of the plea of guilty and that the hearing judge had overreached him by acting affirmatively on the plea after the defendant had testified in substantial denial of his guilt of the crime charged. Following a hearing on the petition, the court refused the writ and dismissed the petition. From that order, the defendant took this appeal in forma pauperis upon our allowance. He has been ably represented in this court by appointed counsel who has served gratuitously and who has earnestly argued the petitioner's contentions at length both orally and by brief.

It is open to serious doubt whether a writ of coram nobis properly lies in circumstances such as the petitioner avers. The situations in which such a writ is the appropriate legal instrument for the relief sought are extremely limited: see Commonwealth v. Harris, 351 Pa. 352, 327-329, 41 A.2d 688; also Commonwealth

[ 371 Pa. Page 635]

    unequivocally answered, -- "No, that is not true. I think no attorney at the Bar would tell any defendant that." On the basis of the credible testimony adduced at the hearing on the petition, the court below aptly characterized the petitioner's contention, relative to the alleged inducement of his counsel to enter a plea of guilty, as being "so ridiculous as to be absurd". It would require more than credulity to accredit that counsel told his client anything so obviously fallacious and readily susceptible of being so revealed. Upon resumption of the trial, following the recess, the defendant formally withdrew his plea of not guilty, was rearraigned and thereupon pleaded guilty. The court, commanding the defendant to stand up, addressed him as follows: "You are pleading guilty generally to this indictment. Is that what you want?" The defendant answered "Yes". The court then took testimony, including the defendant's, to determine the degree of the crime.

The contention that the defendant testified in virtual repudiation of his plea of guilty and that the court should therefore have vacated the plea and put him to trial before a jury upon a plea of not guilty is equally untenable. It is true that the defendant denied a specific intent to take the deceased's life, but it is also true that he not only did not deny, but actually admitted, that the lethal weapon (a knife) was clasped in his hand when it entered the body of the deceased with mortal effect. His denial of guilt was but his own interpretation of the legal consequences of his undisputed conduct which, naturally, he was anxious to have appear to the hearing judge in the light most favorable to him. According to the defendant's version of the fatal occurrence, -- during a wrangle with his wife she "... went over and grabbed something [i.e., the knife] off the mantle and she came after me...

[ 371 Pa. Page 637]

    and I reached for the knife, I grabbed for it, and finally I got it off her. I know I had the knife and I think I dropped it in my pocket and she ran down the hall and was yelling...." A young daughter of the deceased who was in the room at the time of the occurrence testified that the knife was never in her mother's hands throughout the altercation and further that the defendant "... stabbed her [mother] and threw her against the door and tried to hit her, stab her again." The defendant also told a nearby squire shortly after the affray that he had stabbed his wife. ...

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