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decided: May 4, 1973.


Appeal from judgment of sentence of Court of Common Pleas, Trial Division, of Philadelphia, April T., 1971, No. 1192, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Gregory Campbell.


Leonard Sosnov, Assistant Defender, with him Jonathan Miller, Assistant Defender, and Vincent J. Ziccardi, Defender, for appellant.

James Shellenberger, Assistant District Attorney, with him James T. Ranney and Milton M. Stein, Assistant District Attorneys, Richard A. Sprague, First Assistant District Attorney, and Arlen Specter, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Jones, C. J., Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Pomeroy. Mr. Justice Nix concurs in the result. Concurring Opinion by Mr. Justice Roberts. Mr. Justice Manderino joins in this concurring opinion.

Author: Pomeroy

[ 451 Pa. Page 466]

On February 8, 1972, appellant entered pleas of not guilty to four separate indictments charging murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and unlawfully carrying a firearm without a license. All charges arose out of the shooting of one Wesley Nichols in the early morning hours of December 24, 1970. A jury trial was waived. Two days after the commencement of trial before a judge, and while presentation of the Commonwealth's case was still in progress, appellant notified the court that he wished to change his plea to guilty of voluntary manslaughter. An on-the-record colloquy ensued, at the conclusion of which the plea was accepted. In due course appellant was sentenced

[ 451 Pa. Page 467]

    to 18 months to 10 years imprisonment.*fn1 This direct appeal from the judgment of sentence was then brought.

Appellant's sole contention is that his plea of guilty to voluntary manslaughter was not knowing and intelligent, because it was made without an awareness of the nature of that offense. He bottoms this argument on Pa. R. Crim. P. 319(a) which provides in pertinent part: "The judge . . . shall not accept [a guilty plea] unless he determines after inquiry of the defendant that the plea is voluntarily and understandably made. Such inquiry shall appear on the record." In Commonwealth ex rel. West v. Rundle, 428 Pa. 102, 106, 237 A.2d 196 (1968), we stated, as a matter of advice to trial courts, that the examination of a defendant before acceptance of a plea should include, inter alia, "an attempt to satisfy itself that the defendant understands the nature of the charges, his right to a jury trial, the acts sufficient to constitute the offense for which he is charged and the permissible range of sentence." (Emphasis added).

Appellant contends initially that the trial judge gave him a faulty explanation of voluntary manslaughter and that this misled him into believing that his plea admitted only that he had shot and killed Nichols, and that he would not be precluded from showing that this had been done in self-defense. The court in its recitation to the defendant of the charges against him, during the colloquy after the plea had been tendered, defined voluntary manslaughter as "the intentional killing of another human being with malice, with legal provocation, where there exists passion, to the extent that you cannot form what we call the sufficient mens rea to be held accountable." (Emphasis added). The accepted

[ 451 Pa. Page 468]

    definition, of course, is that "voluntary manslaughter consists of an intentional and unlawful killing of a human being without malice, either express or implied, but committed under the influence of sudden passion. Commonwealth v. Flax, 331 Pa. 145, 200 A. 632 (1938)." Commonwealth v. Connor, 445 Pa. 36, 38, 282 A.2d 23 (1971). While the trial judge's statement was technically incorrect, we have little hesitancy in concluding that the defendant was not misled. The legal conception of malice is not easy for a layman to grasp, and the distinction between those homicides in which malice is a requisite element and those in which it is not is sometimes hard to express. The crucial elements of the offense of voluntary manslaughter, namely, that it is an intentional killing which is perpetrated while under the influence of overriding passion, were sufficiently conveyed to appellant.

A reading of the entire colloquy also satisfies us that appellant was not misled by the court's statement that voluntary manslaughter does not involve "sufficient mens rea to be held accountable". The term "mens rea" was not explained to the defendant. The court did, however, emphasize that defendant was pleading guilty to an unlawful killing, and that it was a crime more serious than involuntary manslaughter, which was ...

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