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COMMONWEALTH v. MEAS (07/01/64)

THE SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


July 1, 1964

COMMONWEALTH
v.
MEAS, APPELLANT.

Appeal, No. 114, Jan. T., 1964, from judgment of Court of Oyer and Terminer of Berks County, Dec. T., 1962, No. 15, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Joseph John Meas.Judgment reversed.

COUNSEL

Edward G. Wink, with him R. Solomon Bear, for appellant.

W. Richard Eshelman, District Attorney, with him Ralph J. Althouse, Jr., Assistant District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Before Bell, C.j., Cohen, Eagen, O'brien and Roberts, JJ.

Author: Eagen

[ 415 Pa. Page 42]

OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE EAGEN

Joseph John Meas, the appellant, twenty-seven years of age, after trial, was convicted by a jury of murder in the first degree. Punishment was fixed at death. Following the denial of post trial motions and imposition of sentence in accordance with the jury's verdict, this appeal was filed.

From the evidence offered by the Commonwealth, the jury could find the following facts:

On August 8, 1962, about ten o'clock p.m., the defendant accosted Janis Chmielewski, aged fourteen years, at a drinking fountain on the Glenside Playground in the City of Reading. He choked her into unconsciousness and removed all of her clothing. Some blocks away, he took a chaise lounge*fn1 from a residential carport, placed the unconscious girl thereon and proceeded to wheel the lounge towards a fairway of the golf course of the Berkshire Country Club. He proceeded down Berkshire Drive through a highly populated area for several blocks, but seeing people in the area, turned off onto a dirt road which ran along the edge of the golf course and led to the Schuylkill River. In the darkness, he failed to see an abrupt turn in the roadway and fell, together with the lounge, down a steep slope or embankment running along the westerly side of the river. He then removed his own clothing, placed the unconscious girl on the mattress portion of the lounge and walked into the river pushing the mattress with him.

[ 415 Pa. Page 43]

In the meantime, the police were called by one of the individuals in the neighborhood who had seen the defendant wheeling the lounge down Berkshire Drive. When the officers arrived on the bank of the river, the defendant was observed standing out some distance in the water. He was then seen returning to the westerly bank, retrieving his clothing, and wading out again into the river. The police fired a warning shot. The defendant was next seen momentarily pausing at the spot where he had first been observed, kicking his legs up and down, and then hurrying to the opposite bank of the river and disappearing into the darkness.

A search of the river disclosed the presence of the mattress a short distance down stream. Later on, the lifeless, naked body of the victim was found face down in the water in the area of the river where the defendant had first been observed.

A medical examination and autopsy on the body disclosed: the presence of multiple lacerations, abrasions and scratches; several marks at the base of the throat indicating pressure had been applied before death in the area of the windpipe to stop respiration; discoloration around the nipples of the breast; and traces of blood underneath the fingernails. The cause of death was drowning.*fn2 She had not been sexually assaulted.

The defendant was taken into custody at his home within a short time. He bore scratches on his legs, arms and chest which were of recent origin.

The defense at trial was legal insanity.*fn3 A qualified psychiatrist testified that Meas suffered from

[ 415 Pa. Page 44]

    schizophrenia and pseudo neurosis; that the illness was of long duration; that on the night in question he suffered a complete breakdown and did not appreciate the quality of his acts or know the difference between right and wrong.

Other evidence indicated the existence of prior mental illness. Shortly after graduating from high school, Meas had set fire to several buildings in his neighborhood with no plausible motive present. He had assisted the fire department in fighting these fires. After pleading guilty to arson, he was sentenced to a state penitentiary and subsequently released on parole, as of December 12, 1961. One of the conditions thereof was that he undergo psychiatric treatment. He was still under parole and treatment on the date of this unfortunate occurrence.

A study of the record leads to the conclusion that a new trial is mandatory. The instructions of the trial court to the jury were prejudicially erroneous in important respects.

The case was tried and submitted to the jury on one theory, that a felonious homicide was involved, namely, that the killing was committed in the attempt to commit a rape. While the evidence was clearly sufficient to warrant this conclusion, it was also adequate to support a finding of common law murder.

With the one theory uppermost in mind, the trial judge in several instances throughout the charge emphasized to the jury that only one of two verdicts would be warranted: guilty of murder in the first degree; or, not guilty by reason of insanity. An example of the repeated instructions in this respect, which were the final words of instruction in the charge, is as follows: "[your] task now is to go out, make up your minds as to whether or not this man, and as I have told you that is solely for you to say, is guilty of murder in the first degree or not guilty by reason

[ 415 Pa. Page 45]

(1963). Nor did any further instructions of the court on the meaning of "reasonable doubt" correct the error.

It must further be noted that the trial judge completely omitted any instructions as to the standards to be applied in weighing the credibility of the witnesses at trial.

Finally, since the case must be retried, we are impelled to discuss the instructions of the court in that portion of the proceeding wherein the question of penalty was submitted to the jury.

The charge in this respect was extremely brief. The court correctly instructed the jury that the fixing of the penalty was solely its responsibility. His further remarks were limited to a reference to the defendant's prior convictions for arson and a specific statement that in fixing the penalty the jury should remember that he was a convicted felon.

The brevity of the instructions was probably influenced by our discussion in Commonwealth v. McCoy, 405 Pa. 23, 172 A.2d 795 (1961). However, in that case, while limiting the scope of the evidence admissible in the proceeding as to penalty, we did not intend thereby to restrict the jury to a consideration of that evidence alone, in determining the penalty to be imposed. All of the facts established by the evidence should be carefully considered in weighing this question and the jury should so understand. That this be done is graphically demonstrated by the facts of this case.

Mr. Chief Justice BELL dissents.

Disposition

Judgment reversed and new trial ordered.


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