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September 26, 1960


Appeal, No. 7, May T., 1959, from judgment and sentence of Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Jail Delivery of Mifflin County, August T., 1957, No. 2, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Dr. Samuel Lawrence Woodhouse, Jr. Judgment and sentence affirmed.


Michael von Moschzisker, with him Paul Fetterolf, for appellant.

R. Lee Ziegler, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Before Jones, C.j., Bell, Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Bok and Eagen, JJ.

Author: Eagen

[ 401 Pa. Page 244]


The defendant, Samuel Lawrence Woodhouse, Jr., shot and killed his sixteen year old adopted daughter, Elizabeth Love Woodhouse, who had suffered from Von Recklinghausen's disease from an early age. He was indicted and tried for her murder. The jury adjudged him guilty of murder in the first degree and fixed the punishment at life imprisonment. From the conviction, he appeals.

The defendant was born October 16, 1904, and became engaged in the general practice of medicine about the year 1932. On August 6, 1953, while his wife and mother were away from his home for the day, he went to the daughter's bedroom on the third floor and found her sleeping in bed. Having assured himself that she was asleep, he went downstairs to his drug room on the first floor, took four shells from a box of twenty-twos, returned to the third floor and inserted the four shells in the clip of a bolt action .22 rifle. He aimed the gun at the back of his sleeping daughter's head. The shot misfired. He went to the second floor to secure something to aid in removing the misfired cartridge. He reloaded the rifle, returned to his daughter's bedroom, and fired one shot into the back of her head. He placed her on the floor and folded her arms over her chest. He wiped the blood from the floor, replaced the two remaining shells in the box, and threw the discharged shell and the one that misfired into a creek located to the rear of the property.

[ 401 Pa. Page 245]

Then he treated two patients in the office of his home, one for poison ivy, the other for a puncture wound. He paid a young man for cutting the lawn. Sometime later, he checked his daughter's condition and, finding her still alive and breathing, injected two doses of 5 cc of methadone into her body to hasten death and alleviate suffering. He also injected a total of 25 cc of the same drug into his own body, intending to commit suicide. When his wife and mother returned home late in the afternoon, they found Betsy dead on the floor of her bedroom and the defendant draped over a swivel chair in his office. A local doctor was called, who administered first aid to the defendant and arranged his transfer, by ambulance, to a hospital. The State Police were summoned. At the hospital, defendant's attorney advised him against making any statement to the police.

On August 12th, the defendant was discharged from the hospital; and, with his attorney present at all times, the investigating officers were given their first opportunity to question him. He was taken to his home and he re-enacted the events of August 6th as, he said, they happened. His statements were stenographically recorded. Among other things, he said that he had been having trouble with his daughter for sometime as far as obedience was concerned. He also stated that "the plans to take Betsy's life had been in my mind for a year or more*fn1 and when my mother went with my wife, I realized here was my opportunity."

On February 18, 1954, upon petition of defendant's counsel, the court appointed a commission (under the provisions of the Mental Health Act of July 11, 1923, as amended, 50 PS ยง 1224), to inquire into the defendant's mental condition. After hearings, the commission

[ 401 Pa. Page 246]

    concluded that the defendant was mentally ill and recommended that he be institutionalized. On February 25, 1954, by court order, he was committed to the Farview State Hospital for the criminal insane. On September 29, 1955, Dr. John P. Shovlin, superintendent of this institution asked for the defendant's discharge therefrom stating that "he had sufficiently recovered ... to no longer need custodial care and remedial treatment." By agreement of defendant's counsel and the district attorney, the defendant's transfer to the county jail was deferred. On December 29, 1955, a supplemental petition was presented to the court as a result of which the defendant was ordered transferred to the Harrisburg State Hospital. One year and three months later, the superintendent of this hospital petitioned for his release on the ground that he had fully recovered. The trial began May 6, 1957.

The defendant did not take the stand on his own behalf at the trial. The only defense offered was insanity. His wife testified that the defendant appeared tired and worried about himself for several months before the day involved; that his daughter's disease gave him great concern and that she presented a personality problem which added to his worries; that he frequently indicated an intention to commit suicide; and, that he imbibed intoxicants freely. Other lay witnesses called by the defense testified that for at least a year before the shooting noticeable changes were apparent in the defendant, manifesting signs of unhappiness, irritability, moroseness, lack of memory and a worried attitude about his own health, that of his daughter, and her anti-social attitude.

The defense also introduced the testimony of three members of the medical profession, who for years had specialized in the science and practice of psychiatry.

[ 401 Pa. Page 247]

One of these experts first examined the defendant a little more than three months after the tragedy. He testified that, in his opinion, the defendant at the time of the killing and for sometime previous was suffering from a paranoid involutional psychosis or insanity, and that the defendant acted, at the time involved, under the delusions that he himself was suffering from a hopeless illness and that his daughter was disintegrating both physically and mentally. These delusions, he said, prevented the defendant from completely appreciating the quality of his act, when he killed his daughter.

Another such expert, who first examined the defendant two months and ten days after the killing, opined that, at the time in question and for two years previously, the defendant had suffered from a severe psychosis; that the mental illness came with the defendant's change of life and was accompanied by serious delusions. He further expressed the belief that, while the defendant had some awareness that the act of killing was wrong, his insanity was so strong and his judgment so clouded that in his mind the act had to be done regardless.

The third such witness was a medical member of the commission, who examined the defendant approximately six and one-half months following the commission of the crime. His diagnosis that the defendant was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia differed from that of the two experts mentioned above. He stated, however, that in his opinion the defendant had been mentally ill for more than a year before the day he first examined him and that, during this period, he did not appreciate the complete quality of his actions and that, due to delusions from which he suffered, at times the defendant failed to know the difference between right and wrong.

[ 401 Pa. Page 248]

All three psychiatrists expressed surprise at the defendant's rapid recovery. During their previous medical examinations, they definitely concluded the prognosis was very poor.

In rebuttal, the Commonwealth called lay witnesses, who had excellent opportunities to talk with and observe the defendant within a short period following the shooting. Two saw him in his office almost immediately after the unfortunate occurrence. They testified that the defendant appeared calm and rational and that there was nothing in his speech, manner or conduct indicating any abnormality or mental disturbance.

The trial judge permitted defense counsel great latitude of proof to sustain the insanity plea. All evidence relevant to the defendant's mental condition was admitted. The psychiatrists were permitted to explain their conclusions in their own terms and in complete freedom. In a very comprehensive charge, the court carefully and fairly defined the issues and explained to the jury the significance of the defense of insanity, its import and ramifications. The trial judge charged in part: "In all crimes where the defense of insanity is set forth, the defendant must show the crime committed was the result of that insanity. In other words, there must be some relation between the insane delusions he may have and the crime he commits. It is not enough to prove, to escape the consequences of his act, that he has some mental infirmity, some disease of the mind. He must go further and show that this disease of the mind is such as to render him incapable of knowing what he was doing, or if he did know what he was doing, the disease of the mind made him unable to judge that what he did was wrong. ... If the defendant although as alleged, labored under insanity at the time of the shooting, understood the nature of

[ 401 Pa. Page 249]

    his act, then and there had knowledge that it was wrong and had mental power sufficient to apply that knowledge to his own case and knew if he did act he would do wrong and receive punishment, he would be responsible."

The jury, as indicated before, rejected the defense and found the defendant criminally responsible.

In support of the request for a new trial, defendant's counsel urge in strong and able fashion that the rule of law given to the jury by the trial judge in this case in regard to the legal test of responsibility, where the defense is insanity, was prejudicial error. It is urged that the rule laid down in M'Naghten's case and followed in this trial is unsound, confusing, antiquated and based on notions of mental disorders which are discredited by modern science. It is submitted that Pennsylvania should adopt the broad version of the "Irresistible Impulse" test and that the trial judge erred in not charging the jury in these terms.

Insanity did not become a defense in England until the beginning of the fourteenth century. And, until the seventeenth century, the authorities on the subject were so very general in terms as to be of little concrete value. As a result of great public interest in a trial involving a killing perpetrated by one Daniel M'Naghten, The Queen v. M'Naghten, 10 Cl. & Fin. 200, 8 Eng.Rep. 718 (1843), a debate ensued in the House of Lords, concerning the status of the law in regard to the question of the unsoundness of mind which would excuse the commission of a felony. As a result, five questions were submitted to the fifteen judges of England regarding the existing law of insanity. The answers of the judges gave being to the now long famous "M'Naghten Rule," namely, that "to establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly

[ 401 Pa. Page 250]

    proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from the disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it that he did not know he was doing what was wrong."*fn2 The judges, who formulated this rule, did not consider it as an innovation, but rather, as a restatement of the law long in vogue in England as well as in this country.

Shortly thereafter, this rule was adopted as the law in Pennsylvania (Commonwealth v. Mosler, 4 Pa. 264 (1846)), and has become firmly established and imbedded in the body of the law of this Commonwealth ever since: Commonwealth v. Calhoun, 238 Pa. 474, 86 Atl. 472 (1913); Commonwealth v. Szachewicz, 303 Pa. 410, 154 Atl. 483 (1931); Commonwealth v. Lockard, 325 Pa. 56, 188 Atl. 755 (1937); Commonwealth v. Neill, 362 Pa. 507, 67 A.2d 276 (1949); Commonwealth v. Heller, 369 Pa. 457, 87 A.2d 287 (1952); Commonwealth v. Moon, 383 Pa. 18, 117 A.2d 96 (1955); Commonwealth v. Carluccetti, 369 Pa. 190, 85 A.2d 391 (1952); Commonwealth v. Lance, 381 Pa. 293, 113 A.2d 290 (1955); Commonwealth v. Patskin, 375 Pa. 368, 100 A.2d 472 (1953); Commonwealth v. Novak, 395 Pa. 199, 150 A.2d 102 (1959).

It has been stated, reiterated and reaffirmed again and again. In Commonwealth v. Neill (1949), supra, Mr. Justice HORACE STERN, later Chief Justice, speaking for a unanimous court, said at 514: "... insanity within the legal meaning of that term, [is] ...

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