The opinion of the court was delivered by: BODY
On March 12, 1962 relator, while represented by counsel of his own choice, entered pleas of guilty to murder generally on Bills of Indictment Nos. 420 and 421, August Term 1961, in the Court of Quarter Sessions of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.
Approximately one hour after relator had so pleaded, a court of three judges was impanelled, and after having heard testimony, unanimously adjudged relator guilty of murder in the first degree. On March 12, 1962 the Court imposed concurrent terms of life imprisonment which relator is now serving at the Eastern State Correctional Institution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At no time did relator or his counsel request leave to withdraw the guilty pleas. No motion for new trial was ever filed; nor was an appeal from the judgment of sentence entered.
In his instant petition for a writ of habeas corpus relator has alleged several grounds which he claims entitle him to the issuance of the writ. The principal contention raised in the petition is that his rights to due process were violated in that the trial judge, before accepting relator's guilty plea, failed to inquire whether he understood the nature and consequences of his plea. Relator's second major contention is that his counsel failed to inform him properly of his rights and was, therefore, incompetent. Relator has further accused Mr. Gershenfeld of having forced him to plead guilty by falsely assuring him that he would receive a maximum sentence of ten to twenty years if such plea was entered.
These hearings were held by this Court during which relator, his father, and George Gershenfeld, Esquire, relator's trial counsel, all testified. Following these hearings oral argument was presented by both parties on the legal questions presented by the petition; furthermore, the parties were liberally afforded adequate time in which to file extensive briefs.
The facts, as they appear from both the state and federal court records, are briefly as follows:
On April 11, 1961 relator, armed with a.38 caliber revolver, shot and killed his estranged wife, Georgia Crosby, and her paramour, Robert Cliett, shortly after he had found them in Flagrante delicto at his wife's apartment. Apparently the relationship between the decedents had been going on for some time with relator's knowledge. On the day of the homicide, relator had calmly waited until the decedents had finished their act of sexual intercourse, at which time he discussed with his wife a support order which was then outstanding against him. The parties began to argue. A woman in a nearby apartment heard three shots, followed by two more shots a minute or two later, which were accompanied by the screams of the parties' three small children. The woman then ran to the Crosby apartment where she found the bodies of Mrs. Crosby and Mr. Cliett and summoned the police.
On August 15, 1961 the Grand Jury returned four bills of indictment. In two, he was charged with murder and in two with manslaughter. From the time of his arrest until after his sentence, he was represented by George Gershenfeld, Esquire. Mr. Gershenfeld had been a practicing member of the bar for eleven years and past-president of the National Association of Immigration and Naturalization Lawyers. The instant case was his first homicide trial, although he had tried many civil and criminal cases prior to this time.
On February 28, 1962 Crosby appeared for trial which was continued for two weeks when Crosby indicated he had not decided how to plead. He again appeared for trial on March 12, 1962 before the Honorable Peter F. Hagan and pleaded guilty to murder generally on Bills No. 420 and 421. The trial judge did not question relator with regard to his understanding of the plea before accepting it. Nor did Mr. Gershenfeld question relator in open court because, according to his testimony, he had already discussed the matter fully with relator and saw no need to repeat it at that time. The Commonwealth stated that it would not certify the case and would press for the penalty of life imprisonment. A court of three judges sat to determine the degree of murder involved.
Relator testified on his own behalf before the three-judge panel. He claimed that shortly after he had begun quarreling with his wife, she told Cliett to "get him". Cliett, who was of the same medium build as relator, supposedly advanced towards him with a wooden slat whereupon relator began firing wildly at Cliett.
Mr. Gershenfeld did not ask the court for leave to withdraw the guilty pleas; nor did the judges do so on their own motion. At this time relator did not complain that he was forced to plead guilty or that he failed to understand what he was doing in entering such a plea.
The court deliberated briefly, and unanimously adjudged him guilty of murder in the first degree, and sentenced him to ...