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decided: April 19, 1966.


Appeal from judgment of Court of Oyer and Terminer of Centre County, Oct. T., 1963, No. 2, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Dick Lavere Ahearn, also known as Richard Lavere Ahearn.


John R. Miller, Jr., with him Richard M. Sharp, for appellant.

John A. Harris, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

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

Author: Bell

[ 421 Pa. Page 313]

Defendant, while represented by three lawyers, pleaded guilty to the indictment charging him with murder. The Judge, sitting without a jury, found him guilty of murder in the first degree, and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Defendant's motion for a new trial and in arrest of judgment were dismissed by the lower Court. From the judgment of sentence defendant took this appeal.

This was one of the most brutal, senseless murders ever committed. The details are so gruesome that we shall only outline them.

Defendant met the victim, Betty Sharkey, for the first time in a Bellefonte bar on the evening of June 8, 1963. After several hours of drinking at various bars, they decided in the early morning hours of June 9th to look for a motel room to spend the night. Failing in their attempts to secure a room, the victim suggested that the defendant drive his car to a secluded field just off a secondary road in Patton Township, Centre County, in order to have sexual intercourse. When they arrived there they both removed their clothing and in the language of the defendant, he started "loving her up." For some unknown reason, she changed her mind about having intercourse and struck him with her pocketbook to prevent it. For some unknown

[ 421 Pa. Page 314]

    and unexplained motive or reason he punched Betty several times on her head and face with his fists, pushed her out of the car and then stabbed her with a penknife, inflicting some 90 wounds on her body. After this he dressed, then slashed her from her throat to her abdomen, drove his car over her body twice and then drove off, leaving her naked, lifeless body at this isolated spot. In a clever attempt to avoid detection, he washed and hid his bloodstained clothing and put on another suit.

When apprehended several hours later, he first denied any knowledge of the killing, but shortly thereafter acknowledged his guilt orally and in writing.

Defendant-appellant has two principal and several minor contentions; they are so interrelated that they will all be considered together.

We note at the outset that defendant did not take the witness stand; instead he relied upon the testimony of two psychiatrists and one psychologist who, in the last analysis, based their opinions to a large extent upon defendant's self-serving, unsworn, uncorroborated statements to them about his prior life and his actions and reactions, some of which are fantastic. Neither defendant nor his counsel nor his witnesses contend that he was insane under the M'Naghten Rule. Instead, he contends (1) that there was no motive for his crime, and (2) that because of his mental condition, which was induced by feeling the breasts of his victim, or by the tremendous pleasure he got from hearing women scream in agony when he beat them up,*fn* he could not form an intent to kill. In other words,

[ 421 Pa. Page 315]

    defendant contends that because of his mental condition, his excitement, and his reactions when women were involved, it was impossible for him to form a specific intent to take a human life, and consequently he could not be convicted of any crime higher than murder in the second degree. Defendant further contends that under a plea of guilty (a) there is a presumption of fact that the murder was only murder in the second degree and (b) that that degree must be so found by the Court unless the Commonwealth establishes, beyond a reasonable doubt, all the requisite elements of murder in the first degree, and (c) this the Commonwealth failed to do.

Neither defendant's psychiatrists nor any of his witnesses, we repeat, testified that defendant was insane under the M'Naghten Rule. The testimony of defendant's experts, if believed, would establish an irresistible impulse to violence in certain sexual situations. Psychiatric names or definitions vary or change almost as rapidly as "bridge conventions"; and the use of terms such as "irresistible impulse," or "diminished responsibility", or "inability to control oneself", or "temporary partial insanity", or various kinds of psycopaths, are not sufficient to change what the psychiatrists used to call and what, in legal language, has always been called, an irresistible impulse.

We note that defendant in his statement of the questions involved on this appeal, does not call or characterize his aforesaid actions and his emotional reactions by the name of "irresistible impulse", but thus phrases it: "Under the circumstances above, where defendant asserted neither the defense of insanity under the M'Naghten Rule, nor irresistible impulse, but that his actions were motivated by a deep-seated anxiety, arising from repeated traumatic, pre-adolescent sexual experiences which, by their repetitive character, produced a conditioned reflex type of conduct, which erupted

[ 421 Pa. Page 316]

    when triggered by specific stimuli, resulting in a mental state which temporarily destroyed his ability to premeditate and form specific intent, is such evidence admissible to disprove the existence of intent and premeditation?" Premeditation and a specific intent to kill are, as we shall see, essential elements of first degree (non-felony) murder.

The defendant and the Commonwealth differ so widely about the pertinent and correct legal principles involved in this case and the trial Judge seemed so doubtful about several applicable principles of law, as well as the effect of psychiatric testimony, that we shall briefly review and reiterate the established law in Pennsylvania. In this way we shall answer all of defendant's contentions.

It is well established that if a defendant pleads guilty to murder, he must plead guilty to murder generally, and cannot plead guilty to either murder of the first degree or murder of the second degree. A plea of guilty to an indictment for murder constitutes an admission or confession of guilt of the crime of murder, with the degree of murder to be determined, and the penalty fixed, by the Court. The law is not clearly settled as to whether on such a plea there is a presumption or an inference of second degree murder -- the distinction between a presumption of fact and an inference is often slight and shadowy. Nevertheless, all the cases agree that after a plea of guilty to murder, the burden is upon the Commonwealth to produce direct and/or circumstantial evidence which, from the facts and circumstances and all reasonable inferences therefrom is legally sufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the killing amounted to murder in the first degree: Commonwealth ex rel. Andrews v. Russell, 420 Pa. 4, 215 A.2d 857; Commonwealth v. Kurus, 371 Pa. 633, 637, 92 A.2d 196; Commonwealth v. Samuel Jones, 355 Pa. 522, 525, 50 A.2d 317.

[ 421 Pa. Page 317]

In Commonwealth v. Finnie, 415 Pa. 166, the Court epitomized the law of murder (pages 170-172): "In Commonwealth v. Carroll, 412 Pa., supra [525, 194 A.2d 911] the Court, quoting from Commonwealth v. Gooslin, 410 Pa., supra, pertinently said (pages 530-531): '. . . "Murder", . . . "is defined as an unlawful killing of another with malice aforethought, express or implied." The legislature divided murder into two classifications, murder in the first degree and murder in the second degree; and provided that (1) all murder perpetrated by poison or lying in wait; or by any other kind of wilful, deliberate [and] premeditated killing, or any murder which shall be committed in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate certain specified felonies [arson, rape, robbery, burglary, or kidnapping], is murder in the first degree and (2) every other kind of murder is murder in the second degree: Act of June 24, 1939, [P. L. 872, as amended].

"'"'Malice express or implied is [the hallmark] the criterion and absolutely essential ingredient of murder. Malice in its legal sense exists not only where there is a particular ill will, but also whenever there is a wickedness of disposition, hardness of heart, wanton conduct, cruelty, recklessness of consequences and a mind regardless of social duty: [ Commonwealth v. Kirkland, 413 Pa. 48, 195 A.2d 338; Commonwealth v. Carroll, 412 Pa., supra; Commonwealth v. Kravitz, 400 Pa. 198, 161 A.2d 861; Commonwealth v. Buzard, 365 Pa. 511, 76 A.2d 394; Commonwealth v. Boden, 399 Pa. 298, 159 A.2d 894.] Legal malice may be inferred and found from the attending circumstances. [Malice is present if the defendant had an intent (to kill or) to do the deceased serious bodily harm: Commonwealth v. Drum, supra; Commonwealth v. Dorazio, 365 Pa. 291, 74 A.2d 125.]

"'"'"The test of the sufficiency of the evidence -- irrespective of whether it is direct or circumstantial --

[ 421 Pa. Page 318]

    is whether accepting as true all the evidence upon which, if believed, the jury could properly have based its verdict, it is sufficient in law to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged, . . . [citing numerous authorities]. . . ."'"'

"'In Commonwealth v. Kravitz, 400 Pa. 198, 161 A.2d 861, the Court said (page 208): "'. . . ". . . Proof by eye witnesses or direct evidence of the corpus delicti or of identity or of the commission by the defendant of the crime charged is not necessary. 'It is clearly settled that a man may be convicted on circumstantial evidence alone, and a criminal intent may be inferred by the jury from facts and circumstances which are of such a nature as to prove defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt: [citing numerous authorities].'"'"

"'In Commonwealth v. Tyrrell, 405 Pa. 210, 174 A.2d 852, the Court said (pages 212-213): "The essential difference in a non-felony murder-killing between murder in the first degree and murder in the second degree is that murder in the first degree requires a specific intent to take the life of another human being :*fn** Commonwealth v. Ballem, 386 Pa. 20, 123 A.2d 728; Commonwealth v. Dorazio, 365 Pa., supra; Commonwealth v. Malone, 354 Pa., supra; Commonwealth v. Chapman, 359 Pa. ...

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