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COMMONWEALTH v. REAGEN (04/20/72)

decided: April 20, 1972.

COMMONWEALTH
v.
REAGEN, APPELLANT



Appeal from order of Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, April T., 1968, Nos. 65 and 66, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Daniel M. Reagen.

COUNSEL

Frederick J. Lanshe, Public Defender, for appellant.

Wardell F. Steigerwalt, Assistant District Attorney, and George J. Joseph, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Jones, C. J., Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Chief Justice Jones. Mr. Justice Roberts concurs in the result.

Author: Jones

[ 447 Pa. Page 187]

On April 15, 1968, Daniel Reagen (appellant) pleaded guilty to a general charge of murder and an additional charge of robbery. After a hearing on the murder charge before a court en banc for the purpose of determining the degree of guilt, the appellant was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life imprisonment. Appellant also was sentenced to a term of ten to twenty years on the robbery charge.

In May of 1970, the appellant filed a petition for post-conviction relief, under the Post Conviction Hearing Act,*fn* alleging, inter alia, that he had not been informed of his appeal rights and that his guilty plea was not knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily entered. After a hearing at which appellant was represented by counsel, the court dismissed appellant's petition. An appeal was filed out of time and dismissed.

[ 447 Pa. Page 188]

We subsequently remanded for appointment of counsel and allowed the instant appeal.

Appellant's primary contention is that his guilty plea was not knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily made and is, therefore, void. Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 89 S. Ct. 1709, 23 L. ed. 274 (1969); Com. v. Marsh, 440 Pa. 590, 271 A.2d 481 (1970). In support of this contention, appellant argues that his guilty plea was motivated primarily by his fear of the death penalty. At the PCHA hearing both of appellant's trial counsel testified that they informed the appellant that, in their opinion, the death penalty would be the likely result of a jury trial. In addition, the record shows that the alternatives were fully and carefully explained to the appellant. Even if a fear of the death penalty was appellant's sole motive in pleading guilty, this fact in and of itself is not sufficient to render the guilty plea involuntary. The United States Supreme Court has said, in North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 31, 27 L. ed. 162, 91 S. Ct. 160 (1970): "We held in Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970), that a plea of guilty which would not have been entered except for the defendant's desire to avoid a possible death penalty and to limit the maximum penalty to life imprisonment or a term of years was not for that reason compelled within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment. Jackson established no new test for determining the validity of guilty pleas. The standard was and remains whether the plea represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant. [Citations omitted]. That he would not have pleaded except for the opportunity to limit the possible penalty does not necessarily demonstrate that the plea of guilty was not the product of a free and rational choice, especially where the defendant was represented by competent counsel whose advice

[ 447 Pa. Page 189]

    was that the plea would be to the defendant's advantage." We adopted this principle in Alford in Com. v. Henderson, 441 Pa. 255, 272 A.2d 182 (1971).

Despite our holding in Henderson, this Court, in the recent decision of Com. v. Wright, 444 Pa. 588, 282 A.2d 266 (1971), reversed a finding of first-degree murder after the entry of a guilty plea by the defendant. In so doing, the Court held that the defendant's plea was not knowingly and intelligently entered since it was based on erroneous information. In Wright, after a judgment of sentence of life imprisonment had been reversed, the defendant entered a plea of guilty. On appeal, he asserted that his guilty plea was motivated by both his counsel's and the court's statements that, notwithstanding his earlier sentence, he might still be sentenced to death in the second trial. In reversing this obvious error, the Court said: "[H]erein, Wright was ...


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