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decided: March 16, 1965.


Appeal from order of Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County, Dec. T., 1963, M.D. No. 27, in case of Commonwealth ex rel. William Thomas Hilberry v. James F. Maroney, Superintendent.


William Thomas Hilberry, appellant, in propria persona.

William R. Balph, Jr., Assistant District Attorney, and Kenneth E. Fox, Jr., District Attorney, for appellee.

Bell, C. J., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Roberts. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Chief Justice Bell.

Author: Roberts

[ 417 Pa. Page 536]

William Hilberry stands confined for life under a sentence imposed for the brutal murder of his wife on April 4, 1952. In 1963, Hilberry sought a writ of habeas corpus, but the petition was denied without hearing. Since the case involves homicide, the appeal from the dismissal comes directly to us.*fn1

The grounds upon which the petition builds deal with the petitioner's sanity at crucial moments in the conviction and sentencing chain. Because of this, a complete statement of the proceedings is required.

Five months after the murder, in open court and with two court appointed attorneys, petitioner-appellant entered a plea of guilty. The record reveals that the following dialogue occurred at the time the plea was taken: "The Court: Mr. Hilberry, the Court has before it an indictment at No. 1 June Term, in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, 1952, wherein you are charged in two counts, the first count charging murder and the second count charging manslaughter, what is your desire at this time? Mr. Hilberry: Guilty. The Court: Is it your desire to now enter a plea to the indictment? Mr. White: That is the defendant's desire. The Court: And you are represented by Robert White and Gilbert Long? Mr. Hilberry: That is right."

The court directed the reading of the indictment and the clerk concluded with the traditional question to the accused: "How say you, are you guilty in the manner and form as you stand indicted?" to which petitioner replied, "Guilty." Petitioner subsequently

[ 417 Pa. Page 537]

    signed the indictment which his attorneys also signed as witnesses.

A month after the plea, the court en banc heard testimony to determine the degree of guilt and to fix the penalty. Petitioner did not testify. The court filed its opinion one month after the hearing, fixing the degree of guilt at murder in the first degree and setting the penalty at life imprisonment. On that same day, petitioner appeared with counsel in open court and sentence was pronounced. No statement was made by petitioner and none was requested of him.

Petitioner was spared a sentence of death because the court en banc determined that his mental condition and history were a substantial mitigating factor.*fn2

[ 417 Pa. Page 538]

During the hearing at which testimony was taken to determine the degree of guilt, four physicians who examined petitioner while he was in custody placed his mental age between that of an 8 to 12 year old child. Three of these physicians were of the view that he knew right from wrong. A fourth physician, the only psychiatrist, expressed the opinion that petitioner was not normal when born, that he suffered from organic deterioration of his faculties, and that he possessed the capacity of an eight year old child and less responsibility than such a child. The psychiatrist further concluded that while petitioner knew what other people said was right or wrong, he had no self feeling of what was right or wrong.

The court, writing in support of its sentence, made these observations: "[C]onsidering his history as we now know it, the fact that there could be no mercenary motive, he had nothing to gain but to end the nagging and berating of his wife, who was and had been suffering from depressive psychosis, cannot be overlooked and cast aside if human justice is to be conscientiously administered. The defendant's act in killing his wife under such circumstances certainly substantiates the medical and psychiatric evidence before us. Mentally retarded and immature, an individual of constitutional psychopathic state and emotionally unstable, with no understanding of the difference between right and wrong within himself, choosing to rid himself of ...

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