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COMMONWEALTH EX REL. HILBERRY v. MARONEY (03/14/67)

decided: March 14, 1967.

COMMONWEALTH EX REL. HILBERRY, APPELLANT,
v.
MARONEY



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

COUNSEL

William Thomas Hilberry, appellant, in propria persona.

Kenneth E. Fox, Jr., District Attorney, for appellee.

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

Author: Eagen

[ 424 Pa. Page 494]

On September 5, 1952, William Thomas Hilberry plead guilty generally to murder in Lawrence County. A hearing before the court was held on October 8 and 9, 1952, and subsequently he was adjudged guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1965, in habeas corpus proceedings, Hilberry challenged the validity of his conviction and sentence, alleging that at the time thereof he was mentally incompetent and unable to comprehend his acts. The question presented by this appeal is, whether or not the court below correctly dismissed the proceedings and properly found, after hearing, that Hilberry's allegations of incompetency at the times involved were without merit.*fn1

There can be no doubt that, if Hilberry were mentally incompetent at the time he entered his plea, the

[ 424 Pa. Page 495]

    same should be set aside and declared of no effect. See Commonwealth v. Moon, 383 Pa. 18, 117 A.2d 96 (1955). And the test to be applied in determining the legal sufficiency of his mental capacity to stand trial, or enter a plea at the time involved, is not the M'Naghten "right or wrong" test, but rather his ability to comprehend his position as one accused of murder and to cooperate with his counsel in making a rational defense. See Commonwealth v. Moon, supra, and Commonwealth ex rel. Hilberry v. Maroney, supra, at 544. Or stated another way, did he have sufficient ability at the pertinent time to consult with his lawyers with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and have a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him. See Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960). Otherwise, the proceedings would lack due process: Bishop v. United States, 350 U.S. 961 (1956). Moreover, if he lost his senses subsequent to the plea but before the judgment, the sentence could not validly be imposed until after his recovery. See Commonwealth v. Ragone, 317 Pa. 113, 176 A. 454 (1935).

Hilberry plead guilty to killing his wife by cutting her throat with a razor. He did not testify at trial. At the habeas corpus hearing he testified that he has now no recollection of the crime, his arrest, his trial attorneys, entering the plea of guilty, the plea and sentence proceedings, or in fact anything that occurred for a three-year period, at or about that time. Hilberry's statement of present lack of memory, even if true, would certainly not establish lack of mental competency at the controlling times, but there is other significant testimony in the record*fn2 which could lend

[ 424 Pa. Page 496]

    credence to and support such a finding. This may be summarized as follows:

The crime was committed on April 4, 1952. About eight years before, i.e., in June 1944, Hilberry was discharged from service in the United States Navy as "unfit for service" based upon the conclusion that he was suffering from "a profound personality disorder."*fn3 Dr. Dunaway, a psychiatrist, told the trial court that in her opinion Hilberry was not born with normal mental capacity, that his mentality before trial was that of a five to eight-year old and his ability to distinguish between right and wrong would be limited and similar to one of that age level. There was testimony of a layman that the night before the killing Hilberry acted in an irrational manner. Following his sentence, he was committed to the Western Pennsylvania Correctional Diagnostic and Classification Center on November 18, 1952. Within a few weeks thereafter, a resident physician of that institution recommended that a lunacy commission be appointed to examine Hilberry, and on December 30, 1952, such a commission was appointed by the court. As a result of the commission's findings and report to the court on January 8, 1953, that Hilberry was then ...


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