Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

COMMONWEALTH v. PIERCE (03/16/73)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: March 16, 1973.

COMMONWEALTH
v.
PIERCE, APPELLANT

Appeal from judgment of Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, Sept. T., 1969, Nos. 69 to 75, inclusive, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Alan D. Pierce.

COUNSEL

R. Stuart Jenkins, with him Schroeder, Jenkins & Raymond, for appellant.

Ralph B. D'Iorio, Assistant District Attorney, with him William R. Toal, First Assistant District Attorney, and Stephen J. McEwen, Jr., District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

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

Author: Eagen

[ 451 Pa. Page 191]

On January 16, 1970, the appellant, Alan D. Pierce, was convicted by a jury in Delaware County of murder in the first degree and the punishment was fixed at death.*fn1 A motion for a new trial was denied and sentence

[ 451 Pa. Page 192]

    was imposed as the jury directed. This appeal followed.

The prosecution stemmed from the attempted robbery of John Courtney and Joseph O'Brien, Esq., while they were walking along a public street in Media, about 8:30 p.m. on April 7, 1969.

Several assignments of error are asserted, but only one need concern us.

Prior to the trial Pierce filed a motion for a change of venue alleging he could not receive a fair trial by an impartial jury in Delaware County, because of the nature and quantity of the publicity which attached to the crime and his arrest. After a hearing the motion was denied. We have reviewed the evidence presented to the lower court in support of the application for a change of venue and now rule a change of venue should have been granted, and on this basis we reverse.

Because of the nature of the crimes and the fact that one of the victims was a seminarian and the other a practicing lawyer in Delaware County, the incident received wide coverage in the newspapers, and on radio and television. While much of the publicity was routine, factual, and wholly lacking in inflammatory content, a great deal of publicity about Pierce was emotionally charged and inflammatory, and clearly pointed to his guilt. A brief review of some of the inflammatory news coverage will show the quality of the publicity. In one story the police were quoted as stating Pierce had been arrested, and he verbally confessed to the double shooting. The story read: "[Police] He's the triggerman. . . . He admitted it and now he's crying and weeping." The story went on to state; "Police said Pierce's record dates to 1963 and included arrests for car theft, assault and battery and carrying a concealed

[ 451 Pa. Page 193]

    deadly weapon. . . . He reportedly served time in the state juvenile center in Dallas, Pa." Another story was entitled, "Two Youths Re-enact Media Street Attack." This story reported a staged re-enactment of the crime and read: "Speaking softly, Pierce who Police say has confessed to being the 'triggerman' described how the three youths encountered the victims and then indicated where the victims fell after their attack." Accompanying this story was a large picture of Pierce flanked by a policeman with a caption which read: "Alan Pierce indicates for C.I.D. Detective Edward Smith where one of the victims fell." Another article was titled, "Third Youth Held in Media, Chester Man, 20, Admits Being Gunman, Chief Says."

Striking the balance between the right to a fair trial and the equally important right of free press has long been a complex and troublesome problem. See generally Symposium -- A Free Press and a Fair Trial, 11 Vill. L. Rev. 677 (1966). The news media must be given wide latitude in reporting material about criminal trials, since the foundation of our society rests on freedom of thought and discussion. In Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, 86 S. Ct. 1507 (1966), Mr. Justice Clark, speaking for the majority of the United States Supreme Court, recognized the importance and the need for a free and responsible press stating: "The principle that justice cannot survive behind walls of silence has long been reflected in the 'Anglo-American distrust for secret trials.' In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 268, 68 S. Ct. 499, 92 L. Ed. 682 (1948). A responsible press has always been regarded as the handmaiden of effective judicial administration, especially in the criminal field. Its function in this regard is documented by an impressive record of service over several centuries. The press does not simply publish information about trials but guards against the miscarriage of justice by subjecting the police, prosecutors, and judicial

[ 451 Pa. Page 194]

    processes to extensive public scrutiny and criticism. This Court has, therefore, been unwilling to place any direct limitations on the freedom traditionally exercised by the news media for '[w]hat transpires in the court room is public property.' Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367, 374, 67 S. Ct. 1249, 1254, 91 L. Ed. 1546 (1947). The 'unqualified prohibitions laid down by the framers were intended to give to liberty of the press . . . the broadest scope that could be countenanced in an orderly society.' Bridges v. State of California, 314 U.S. 252, 265, 62 S. Ct. 190, 195, 86 L. Ed. 192 (1941)." Id. at 349-50, 86 S. Ct. at 1515-16. However, the publication of news accounts cannot interfere with the orderly administration of criminal justice. Mr. Justice Holmes stated the following in Patterson v. Colorado, 205 U.S. 454, 27 S. Ct. 556 (1907): "The theory of our system is that the conclusions to be reached in a case will be induced only by evidence and argument in open court, and not by any outside influence, whether of private talk or public print." Id. at 462, 27 S. Ct. at 558.*fn2 We rule the basic theory of our

[ 451 Pa. Page 195]

    system of criminal justice has been violated in the instant case. For the lower court to refuse a motion for a change of venue after the community had been informed by the authorities that Pierce was the confessed "triggerman" with a past record for violent crimes, as well as pictures of a staged re-enactment of the crime -- which is a confession in itself -- coupled with the other widespread publicity was a denial of due process of law.

It has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court that under normal circumstances a claim of a due process violation requires a showing of identifiable prejudice to the accused. Nevertheless, there are certain procedures employed by the states which involve such a probability of prejudice that they are deemed inherently lacking in due process. See Sheppard v. Maxwell, supra; Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. 532, 85 S. Ct. 1628 (1965); Turner v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 466, 85 S. Ct. 546 (1965); Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723, 83 S. Ct. 1417 (1963); and by this Court, see Commonwealth v. Stewart, 449 Pa. 50, 295 A.2d 303 (1972). We hold that the nature of the accounts released by the police were so "inherently prejudicial" that Pierce need not have shown a nexus between the publicity and actual jury prejudice, and hence, he did not have the burden of showing identfiable prejudice.

We find the instant case analagous to the United States Supreme Court case of Rideau v. Louisiana, supra. In Rideau, the police staged a filmed interview

[ 451 Pa. Page 196]

    with the accused in which he admitted committing a bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder, and the "interview" was shown over the local television stations. In condemning such a practice, Mr. Justice Stewart, speaking for the majority of the Court, stated: "In the view we take of this case, the question of who originally initiated the idea of the televised interview is, in any event, a basically irrelevant detail. For we hold that it was a denial of due process of law to refuse the request for a change of venue, after the people of Calcasieu Parish had been exposed repeatedly and in depth to the spectacle of Rideau personally confessing in detail to the crimes with which he was later to be charged. For anyone who has ever watched television the conclusion cannot be avoided that this spectacle, to tens of thousands of people who saw and heard it, in a very real sense was Rideau's trial -- at which he pleaded guilty to murder. Any subsequent court proceedings in a community so pervasively exposed to such a spectacle could be but a hollow formality." 373 U.S. at 726, 83 S. Ct. at 1419. We believe that much of what was said in Rideau is applicable herein. In the instant case, as in Rideau, we believe that the deliberate release of the information that Pierce was the confessed "triggerman" in the double shooting, as well as the staged reenactment of the crime "in a very real sense was [Pierce's] trial at which he pleaded guilty to murder." All the information released by the authorities clearly pointed to Pierce's guilt, and any prospective juror exposed to this publicity must surely have formed a definite opinion as to Pierce's guilt or innocence. Moreover, some of the information, such as the accused's past criminal record, was not admissible at trial, but it was available to the prospective jurors through the news account.*fn3 In the constitutional sense a fair trial

[ 451 Pa. Page 197]

    necessarily demands the evidence developed against the accused shall come from the witness stand in a public tribunal with the full judicial protection of such rights as: counsel, cross-examination, confrontation, and the right against self-incrimination.*fn4 These safeguards could not have been afforded the appellant, they

[ 451 Pa. Page 198]

    were precluded from being fully effective by the pretrial news coverage.

It is not only the fact that the publicity was "inherently prejudicial" that troubles us about this case -- it is also the source of the publicity. The information in this case was not reported as a result of independent research by the representatives of the news media -- it came directly from the police. It was the authorities who released the fact that Pierce was the confessed "triggerman" with a past record, and the police who staged the "re-enactment" of the crime. Moreover, the District Attorney's Office is not free from some blame for the aroused tone of the community because his office released statements such as: "I am waiting for the misguided social worker to begin a fast and vigil at the hospital beds of these most recent victims of savage lawlessness. When the robbers are captured, I promise them a swift and very special treatment." The District Attorney's Office also refused to produce witnesses at an arraignment because of alleged telephone threats to the victims of "ultimate death".

Statements such as those of the police and the prosecutor in this case create an even more substantial risk of a denial of a fair trial, because of the position in the community these individuals hold, and also suggest an official disregard of safeguards inherent in a fair trial. Officers of the Commonwealth and the police have a special duty and responsibility to all of the citizens of the Commonwealth. They must never lose sight of the fact that an accused has a right to a fair trial by an impartial jury, that only a jury can "strip a man of his liberty", and a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and that all men are guaranteed basic rights under the Constitution.

In Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 55 S. Ct. 629 (1935), the Supreme Court spoke of the special

[ 451 Pa. Page 199]

    duty of a United States Attorney; we believe the language appropriately applies to any officer involved in a criminal investigation or prosecution. The Court stated: "The United States Attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done." Id. at 88, 55 S. Ct. at 633.*fn5 This standard was violated in the present case.

[ 451 Pa. Page 200]

In accordance with these views, we rule that in this Commonwealth policemen and members of the staffs of the office of District Attorneys shall not release to the news media: (a) the existence or contents of any statement or confession given by the accused, or his refusal to give a statement or to take tests; (b) prior criminal records of the accused, including arrests and convictions; (c) any inflammatory statements as to the merits of the case, or the character of the accused; (d) the possibility of a plea of guilty; (e) nor shall the authorities deliberately pose the accused for photographs at or near the scene of the crime, or in photographs which connect him with the scene of the crime. See generally ABA Project on Minimum Standards for Criminal Justice, Standards Relating to Fair Trial and Free Press. ยงยง 1.1 and 2.1 (Approved Draft 1968).

We hold that anything short of compliance with these standards can operate to deprive an accused of due process of law, as this type of material did in the instant case. Moreover, we strongly suggest that trial courts employ the precautions set forth in Sheppard v. Maxwell, supra, and Commonwealth v. Hoss, 445 Pa. 98, 283 A.2d 58 (1971).

Judgment reversed and a new trial is ordered.

Disposition

Judgment reversed and new trial ordered.


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.