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COMMONWEALTH v. PASKINGS (04/20/72)

decided: April 20, 1972.

COMMONWEALTH
v.
PASKINGS, APPELLANT



Appeals from judgment of sentence of Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, March T., 1965, Nos. 322 and 324, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Gloria V. Paskings.

COUNSEL

Esther F. Clark, with her Seletz and Clark, for appellant.

O. W. Higgins, Assistant District Attorney, with him Anna Iwachiw Vadino and Ralph B. D'Iorio, Assistant District Attorneys, and Stephen J. McEwen, Jr., District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Jones, Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy and Barbieri, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Pomeroy. The former Mr. Chief Justice Bell took no part in the consideration or decision of this case. The former Mr. Justice Barbieri took no part in the decision of this case.

Author: Pomeroy

[ 447 Pa. Page 352]

Early in the morning of October 24, 1964, the home of Luther and Mary Roberts in Chester, Pennsylvania, caught fire, resulting in the deaths of four of their seven children. Appellant was arrested and later indicted for arson and murder. A trial on both indictments commenced June 15, 1965. As the close of the Commonwealth's case, appellant entered pleas of guilty, whereupon a court en banc returned a verdict of first degree murder and sentenced her on June 28, 1965, to an indeterminate term in the State Industrial Home for Women at Muncy. Sentence on arson was suspended.

Appellant subsequently filed three petitions under the Post Conviction Hearing Act, the last resulting on November 22, 1968 in a resentence of life imprisonment because the Muncy Act*fn1 had been declared unconstitutional. On December 30, 1968 a fourth PCHA petition was filed alleging inter alia that appellant would not have pleaded guilty had she known that the Muncy Act was unconstitutional. A hearing was held, and on September 30, 1969 a new trial was ordered.

Testimony at the new trial, which commenced on April 6, 1970 elicited the following: Appellant had been involved in October, 1964 in a meretricious relationship with Luther Roberts for approximately five years. On the evening of October 23, 1964, they had a quarrel at her apartment at which time blows were exchanged and Luther returned home to his wife. Later that evening a fire broke out in the cellar of the Roberts' house, but it was quickly extinguished and no one was injured. Appellant was in the vicinity at the time, but denied having set the fire when accused by Mrs. Roberts. Early the next morning, a second fire occurred and took the lives of the four small Roberts children.

[ 447 Pa. Page 353]

The Commonwealth's evidence included oral statements made by appellant to the Chester police, the State Police, and to members of the Volunteer Fire Department in which she confessed that on the day of the fire she went to the Roberts' house, struck a match, put her hand in the window in the shed in the rear, and ignited some paper. Further testimony showed the incendiary nature of the fire. Appellant took the stand and denied setting the fire or making the oral statements. The jury returned a verdict of first degree murder and arson. On January 8, 1971, after denial of post-trial motions, penalty on the murder bill was fixed at life imprisonment. Sentence on the arson indictment was again suspended. This appeal followed.*fn2

The denial of a new trial is challenged on four grounds. Appellant's first objection is to the time and manner of her arraignment, which took place on the day of the trial and in the presence of the entire jury panel. Rule 317(b) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure providing "Arraignment in all cases shall be mandatory and shall take place at least ten days before trial unless provided otherwise by local court rule or waived by a defendant who has counsel of his own choice" (emphasis added), is inapplicable to this case. The accused had been arraigned previously on the same indictment. As we said in Commonwealth v. Phelan, 427 Pa. 265, 272-3, 234 A.2d 540 (1967): ". . . the purpose and necessity of an arraignment is to fix the identity of the accused, to inform him of the nature of the charges against him and to give him the opportunity of informing the court of his plea thereto (citations omitted). Due process of law does not require

[ 447 Pa. Page 354]

    that any technical form of procedure be followed so long as the identity of the accused is definite, sufficient notice of the charges is given, and ample opportunity to plead afforded (citations omitted)." Appellant's identity as the accused and the charges against her unquestionably were known as a result of the first arraignment and subsequent legal proceedings. She had counsel from the time of her December 30, 1968 PCHA petition who shared in this awareness. The fact that appellant's plea was ...


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