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COMMONWEALTH v. HARRIS (07/01/68)

decided: July 1, 1968.

COMMONWEALTH
v.
HARRIS, APPELLANT



Appeal from order of Court of Oyer and Terminer of Philadelphia County, Nov. T., 1952, No. 503, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Curtis Harris.

COUNSEL

John W. Packel, Assistant Defender, with him Louis Lipschitz and Melvin Dildine, Assistant Defenders, and Herman I. Pollock, Defender, for appellant.

Welsh S. White, Assistant District Attorney, with him Alan J. Davis, Assistant District Attorney, Richard A. Sprague, First Assistant District Attorney, and Arlen Specter, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Bell, C. J., Musmanno, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Eagen. Mr. Justice Jones took no part in the consideration or decision of this case. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Chief Justice Bell. Mr. Justice Musmanno joins in this dissenting Opinion.

Author: Eagen

[ 431 Pa. Page 116]

On April 21, 1953, the appellant, Curtis Harris, plead guilty generally to an indictment charging him with the crime of murder. After a hearing before a three-judge court, he was found guilty of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to life imprisonment. At the time of the plea and throughout the proceedings, Harris was represented by James W. Tracey, Esq., and Charles A. Lord, Esq., court-appointed counsel. No appeal was entered from the judgment and no request was ever made of the court to withdraw the plea.

On April 28, 1966, Harris filed a petition for post-conviction relief alleging that his guilty plea was not intelligently entered because at the time he was mentally defective and lacked sufficient mental capacity competently and intelligently to plead to the charge. After a hearing, the court below dismissed the petition and this appeal followed. We reverse.

Unless a person is mentally competent, he should not be required to either stand trial or plead to a criminal indictment. Commonwealth v. Scovern, 292 Pa. 26, 140 A. 611 (1927). And if a person who is mentally incompetent pleads guilty to a criminal indictment, the plea is a nullity. Commonwealth v. Moon, 383 Pa. 18, 117 A.2d 96 (1955); Commonwealth ex rel. Hilberry v. Maroney, 424 Pa. 493, 227 A.2d 159 (1967). And, as we stated in Hilberry, supra, at 495, 227 A.2d at 160: "The test to be applied in determining the legal sufficiency of his mental capacity to

[ 431 Pa. Page 117]

    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, [417 Pa. 534, 207 A.2d 794 (1965)] 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 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)."

An examination of the instant record convinces us that at the crucial time Harris lacked sufficient mental capacity to either stand trial or enter a plea to the indictment. His guilty plea was therefore of no effect and the judgment of sentence entered thereon is invalid.

These facts established by the record speak for themselves and demonstrate the basis for our conclusion.

The crime arose out of a robbery of a drug store in Philadelphia by Harris, Harry Johnson and Willie Odom; eighteen, sixteen and fourteen years of age respectively. Harris was armed with a revolver given him by another youth some time before. Odom remained outside as a lookout. As Harris and Johnson entered the store and announced "this is a hold-up, let's have the money," the proprietor became frightened and started to run away. Johnson then yelled to Harris ...


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