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UNITED STATES EX REL. LEON v. BANMILLER

December 31, 1959

UNITED STATES of America ex rel. George LEON
v.
William J. BANMILLER, Warden, Eastern State Penitentiary



The opinion of the court was delivered by: EGAN

George Leon, a prisoner at the Pennsylvania Eastern State Penitentiary, petitioned this Court for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. The District Attorney of Philadelphia County filed an answer. The matter was heard in open court on the petition, answer, and briefs and arguments of counsel for the respective parties.

On May 11, 1946, the petitioner was arrested for three offenses of armed robbery in Pennsylvania, two of which were committed between January and April, 1946. *fn1" In June 1946 a lunacy commission reported him to be insane and therefore unable to stand trial. He was committed to a state hospital for the criminal insane. Apparently there was no determination by the commission as to the petitioner's sanity or lack thereof at the time of the alleged offenses.

 In December 1950, on petition of the doctors at the hospital, he was declared sane; that same month he was tried by a jury in the Quarter Sessions Court of Philadelphia. Leon pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. In accordance with Pennsylvania law, the trial judge instructed the jury that insanity was an affirmative defense which must be established by the defendant by a preponderance of the evidence. The jury found the petitioner guilty as charged. The Judge sentenced him to a term of five to fifteen years in the Eastern State Penitentiary, effective May 11, 1946, thus giving him credit for the entire time he was in the State's custody. He was paroled in May 1951.

 He was returned to the Penitentiary in November 1955 as a parole violator, following his conviction in Connecticut of armed robbery committed while he was on parole. He has been in the Penitentiary ever since. His maximum sentence will expire in November 1965. His application for parole has been refused.

 In 1956 Leon petitioned Philadelphia Common Pleas Court No. 4 for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was denied, and the denial was affirmed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Commonwealth ex rel. Leon v. Martin, 1957, 184 Pa. Super. 236, 132 A.2d 774.

 A second habeas corpus petition was denied by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court No. 3 in October 1957. In February 1958, the Quarter Sessions Court denied Leon's petition for a writ of error coram nobis.

 In all three petitions the controlling question raised was the sanity of the accused at the time of commission of the offenses.

 In 1958 a third habeas corpus petition (which raised in addition to the issue of insanity the new question of undue delay in bringing the accused to trial) was denied by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court No. 6. Again the Superior Court affirmed. Commonwealth ex rel. Leon v. Banmiller, 1958, 187 Pa.Super. 558, 146 A.2d 69. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a petition for allowance of an appeal from the Superior Court's determination. 188 Pa.Super. xxix (1959). Petition for writ of certiorari was denied by the United States Supreme Court. 1959, 359 U.S. 1004, 79 S. Ct. 1144, 3 L. Ed. 2d 1033.

 The petitioner claims that he has been deprived of due process (1) by the 4 1/2 years delay between his arrest and his trial, and (2) by the procedure of submitting the question of the accused's sanity at the time of the offenses charged to the same jury determining the accused's guilt or innocence.

 The 4 1/2 year delay between arrest and trial resulted from the finding that the accused was insane and therefore unable to stand trial. Certainly the Commonwealth could not legally have tried him while he was not sane. In spite of this, was the effect of the delay such as to cause substantial prejudice to the accused's right to a fair trial in December 1950? We cannot so find.

 The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has had occasion to consider the effect on an accused's right to a speedy trial of a seven year delay caused by his mental incompetence. Williams v. United States, 1957, 102 U.S.App.D.C. 51, 250 F.2d 19. *fn2" In this case, the accused, in spite of his insanity plea, was convicted in May 1956, of assault with a deadly weapon, on an indictment returned in November 1949 for a shooting in September 1949.

 The Court said (250 F.2d at pages 21, 23-24):

 'To hold that delay occasioned by the accused's mental incompetence to stand trial always requires dismissal of his indictment would be to ignore the 'rights of public justice.' On the other hand, to resume the prosecution of the accused after long delay may in some circumstances violate his rights beyond the requirements of public justice. To sustain its right to try the accused seven years after the crime, the Government must show * * * that the accused ...


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