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COMMONWEALTH v. JOHNSON (10/03/68)

decided: October 3, 1968.

COMMONWEALTH
v.
JOHNSON, APPELLANT



Appeal from orders of Court of Oyer and Terminer of Wyoming County, June T., 1953, No. 11, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. William John Johnson.

COUNSEL

James E. Davis and Thomas DeWitt, Public Defenders, for appellant.

Roy A. Gardner, for appellee.

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

Author: Roberts

[ 431 Pa. Page 523]

In 1954 appellant William John Johnson went to trial before a judge and jury on an indictment charging him with murder in the first degree. Near the close

[ 431 Pa. Page 524]

    of the Commonwealth's case, the prosecution introduced into evidence two confessions whose existence was unknown to both of appellant's counsel until that very moment. Defense counsel thereupon requested a recess, conferred with their client briefly in the court ante-room, then returned to announce that the plea would be changed to guilty. Subsequently, appellant was found guilty of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to life imprisonment. No direct appeal was taken.

Once in prison, Johnson began flooding the Court of Oyer and Terminer of Wyoming County with hand drawn habeas corpus petitions. He filed a total of eight, all of which were dismissed without hearing. Finally, in 1965 appellant filed his ninth pro se petition. This one went undecided for over a year, before it was finally dismissed; in its stead was substituted a petition under the Post Conviction Hearing Act. Counsel was appointed, and an evidentiary hearing held. Appellant contended that his guilty plea was motivated by an involuntary confession, and that the plea itself was not knowingly and intelligently entered. Relief was denied and appellant appealed to this Court.

Apparently not content to await the outcome of his appeal, while it was pending before us Johnson inundated the lower court with four more habeas petitions all of which were dismissed without hearing. When the fourth one was dismissed, however, appellant requested counsel (the same one who filed his previous appeal to this Court) and instructed him to prosecute a second appeal. This was done, resulting in appellant having two cases before us at the same time. Accordingly, counsel petitioned this Court to have Johnson's first appeal continued, alleging that the second one, involving solely an alleged violation of appellate rights under Douglas v. California, 372 U.S. 353, 83 S. Ct.

[ 431 Pa. Page 525814]

(1963), required our immediate attention. When the Commonwealth did not oppose this request, a continuance was granted.

Subsequently, however, the Commonwealth petitioned to have the continuance vacated and the two appeals consolidated. This petition was opposed by appellant, who continued to insist that the Douglas claim should be heard first. On February 22, 1968, this Court, believing that no prejudice would attend the consolidation, granted the Commonwealth's motion. Accordingly, both of Johnson's appeals are before us at this time. We shall discuss them in chronological order.

At the evidentiary hearing on the first of Johnson's two petitions under the Post Conviction Hearing Act, appellant testified that the confessions obtained by the police resulted from a combination of drugged food and appellant's own mental condition. The court below quite permissibly rejected Johnson's tale of drugged hamburgers and coffee, especially given the testimony of one of the original interrogating officers, who stated at the collateral hearing that he had purchased all the food consumed during the interrogation session, that he observed it being prepared, and that no drugs were placed in any of the hamburgers or cups of coffee. In ...


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