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COMMONWEALTH v. DAVIS (05/23/73)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: May 23, 1973.

COMMONWEALTH
v.
DAVIS, APPELLANT

Appeal from judgment of sentence of Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, March T., 1969, Nos. 531, 532, and 533, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Curtis Wilbur Davis.

COUNSEL

W. Donald Sparks, for appellant.

Vram Nedurian, Jr., Assistant District Attorney, with him Ralph B. D'Iorio, Assistant District Attorney, and Stephen J. McEwen, Jr., District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

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

Author: Roberts

[ 452 Pa. Page 173]

Appellant, Curtis Davis, was arrested in December of 1968 and charged with murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and robbery. A timely filed pre-trial motion to suppress evidence was denied. Thereafter, on September 25, 1969, appellant was adjudged guilty, by a jury, of murder, voluntary manslaughter and two counts of robbery. Appellant was sentenced, by the jury, to death on the murder conviction, and from ten to twenty years imprisonment, by the court, on the robbery convictions. Post-trial motions in arrest of judgment and for a new trial were denied. This direct appeal followed. We now reverse and remand for a new trial.

Appellant contends that the assistant district attorney committed reversible error by attempting to create an impermissible adverse inference in the minds of the jurors regarding appellant's exercise of his Fifth Amendment rights at trial.*fn1 Appellant alleges that this was accomplished by the prosecutor's persistent references in his closing argument, over objection, to the evidence against the defendant being "uncontroverted." Review of the record supports appellant's contention that the prosecution's repeated use of the words "uncontroverted" and "uncontroverted fact" created an adverse inference prohibited by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution,*fn2 Article 1, § 9 of the

[ 452 Pa. Page 174]

Pennsylvania Constitution,*fn3 and the Act of May 23, 1887.*fn4

It is well settled that the Fifth Amendment, made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 84 S. Ct. 1489 (1964), forbids either comment by the prosecution on the accused's silence at trial or instructions by the court that such is evidence of guilt. Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, 85 S. Ct. 1229 (1965). "Upon the present record, [we] believe that the prosecutorial comment about the 'uncontradicted' [or 'uncontroverted'] nature of the Commonwealth's case runs directly afoul of the Griffin prohibition." Commonwealth v. Allen, 445 Pa. 156, 159, 281 A.2d 634, 635 (1971) (Roberts, J., dissenting from an opinionless per curiam affirmance, joined by Eagen, J., and O'Brien, J.).

Here, where appellant neither testified at trial nor offered any other defense, the ". . . prosecutor's statement[s] implied that the . . . [defendant himself was] the only [one] who could and should have denied the charges against [him]. The jury might reasonably have inferred from [these] statement[s] that [his] failure to do so was evidence of [his] guilt." Commonwealth v. Reichard, 211 Pa. Superior Ct. 55, 60, 233 A.2d 603, 606 (1967). Such an inference is patently contrary to the mandate of Griffin, supra.*fn5

[ 452 Pa. Page 175]

As the First Circuit recently stated in United States v. Flannery, 451 F. 2d 880, 881-82 (1971): ". . . [W]e [have] held that for the government to say, in summation to the jury, that certain of its evidence was 'uncontradicted,' when contradiction would have required the defendant to take the stand, drew attention to his failure to do so, and hence was unconstitutional comment. Desmond v. United States, 1 Cir., 1965, 345 F. 2d 225. We do not adopt the reasoning of those courts which state, as it seems to us, ingenuously, that to say that the government's witnesses' testimony was uncontradicted is simply a statement of historical fact. There are many 'facts' which are benign in themselves. The difficulty is that such reference, when only the defendant could have contradicted, clearly calls to the jury's mind the fact that he failed to testify."*fn6 (Emphasis

[ 452 Pa. Page 176]

    added) (Footnotes omitted). Accord, United States v. Handman, 447 F. 2d 853 (7th Cir. 1971); United States ex rel. Leak v. Follette, 418 F. 2d 1266 (2d Cir. 1969), cert. denied, 397 U.S. 1050, 90 S. Ct. 1388; Rodriguez-Sandoval v. United States, 409 F. 2d 529 (1st Cir. 1969); Doty v. United States, 416 F. 2d 887 (10th Cir. 1968), vacated sub. nom., Epps v. United States, 401 U.S. 1006, 91 S. Ct. 1247 (1971); United States v. Lyon, 397 F. 2d 505 (7th Cir. 1968), cert. denied, sub. nom., Lysczyk v. United States, 393 U.S. 846, 89 S. Ct. 131; United States v. Parisi, 365 F. 2d 601, 607-09 (6th Cir. 1966), vacated sub. nom., O'Brien v. United States, 386 U.S. 345, 87 S. Ct. 1158 (1967); Peeples v. United States, 341 F. 2d 60, 64-65 (5th Cir. 1965), cert. denied, 380 U.S. 988, 85 S. Ct. 1362.

On this record, where appellant did not testify and offered no other witnesses or evidence at trial, it would be an act of sophistry to conclude that the remarks of the assistant district attorney could have been taken as anything other than a reference to the fact that appellant, and appellant alone, failed to rebut the evidence against him. The prosecutor's attempt to have the jury equate appellant's guilt with his silence at trial was improper. Such comments, even by implication, are violative of Griffin, supra. See also Handman, supra.

Not only were appellant's rights under the United States Constitution violated, but also his rights under Article 1, § 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the Act of May 23, 1887*fn7 which implements it. It is well settled that any comment by the prosecution or the court violates the Act of 1887 if it ". . . draws attention to or focuses on the fact that no one except the defendant can rebut the Commonwealth's case. . . ."

[ 452 Pa. Page 177]

    error either to prove that there was no injury or to suffer a reversal of his erroneously obtained judgment." Chapman v. California, supra, 386 U.S. at 18, 20-23, 87 S. Ct. at 828 (citing 1 Wigmore, Evidence, § 21 (3d ed. 1940).*fn8

Keeping these precepts in mind, we must determine whether "there is a reasonable possibility" that the constitutional error "might have contributed to the conviction." Chapman v. California, supra, 386 U.S. at 24, 87 S. Ct. at 828. If there is such a possibility, the constitutional error is reversible. But if there is no reasonable possibility that the constitutional error might have moved "the minds of an average jury"*fn9 toward conviction, then it can be said that the error was harmless.

Cases subsequent to Chapman have established one exception to the general proposition that if there is a reasonable possibility that the constitutional error might have contributed to the conviction, the error cannot be harmless. That exception is presented by those cases where the "properly admitted evidence of guilt is so overwhelming, and the prejudicial effect of the . . . [constitutional error] is so insignificant by comparison, that it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the . . . [constitutional error] was harmless error." Schneble v. Florida, supra at 430, 92 S. Ct. at 1059; see Harrington v. California, 395 U.S. 250, 89 S. Ct. 1726 (1969).

It should be emphasized that a conclusion that the properly admitted evidence is "so overwhelming," and the prejudicial effect of the constitutional error is "so

[ 452 Pa. Page 179]

    insignificant" by comparison, that it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the error is harmless, is not to be arrived at lightly. For the effect of such a conclusion is to affirm a conviction where it is conceded that an error of constitutional proportions contributed in some degree to the conviction. In addition, such a conclusion operates to undermine "the deterrent effect of such cases as Mapp v. Ohio; Griffin v. California; Miranda v. Arizona; United States v. Wade; and Bruton v. United States, on the actions of both police and prosecutors, not to speak of trial courts. . . ." Harrington v. California, supra, 395 U.S. at 255, 89 S. Ct. at 1729 (Brennan, J., dissenting) (citations omitted).

Applying these standards to the present case, we do not believe that the Commonwealth has established beyond a reasonable doubt that the constitutional error present in this case was harmless. The Commonwealth, during its closing address to the jury, thoroughly exploited appellant's exercise of his Fifth Amendment right not to take the witness stand. The prosecutor argued that "under the uncontroverted facts the Commonwealth has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant is guilty of murder in the first degree and robbery." (Emphasis added.) The prosecutor also repeatedly used the term "uncontroverted" or "uncontroverted facts" at least three other times in referring to portions of the Commonwealth's evidence.*fn10

[ 452 Pa. Page 180]

This argument was obviously calculated to move the jury toward conviction: "Indeed, the very persistence of the government in making these remarks is proof that it attached much importance to them." Rodriguez-Sandoval, supra at 531. We must conclude that there is a reasonable possibility that the prosecutor's unconstitutional argument "might have contributed to the conviction."*fn11

We also do not believe that the evidence against appellant in this case can be characterized as "overwhelming." The only witness who could definitely identify appellant at the trial had been unable to identify appellant at a pre-trial lineup. One other witness was unable to identify appellant at all. The murder weapon was linked to appellant only by showing that it was found at an apartment belonging to a woman described by one witness as appellant's girl friend, an apartment to which appellant had a key and near which appellant's car was observed some two and one-half hours after the shooting. Ownership of the weapon was never proved by the Commonwealth. The only other evidence against appellant was a tan hood and a dark jacket, found at the same apartment, which were by no means unique but which were similar to the hood and jacket which two eyewitnesses described the perpetrator as wearing. Although the case against appellant was reasonably strong, it nevertheless is certainly a case in which "honest, fair-minded jurors might very well have brought in not guilty verdicts."

[ 452 Pa. Page 181]

    of the defendant to testify or any indication that only the defendant could do the controverting, is an adverse comment on the defendant's exercise of his Fifth Amendment right seems to me to be stretching things unduly. The holding converts the use of a factual, colorless word into a pejorative adverse commentary. To go farther and declare, as does the Court, that the thrice repeated use of "uncontroverted" in a lengthy summation argument "thoroughly exploited" the exercise of the defendant's right not to testify seems to me to be an insupportable extravagance. If, as the Court's opinion states, to view the word uncontroverted thus innocently is an "act of sophistry", so be it.

Contrary to the implication of the majority opinion, the federal courts are far from unanimous in finding error where the prosecutor comments on the uncontroverted nature of the evidence and only the defendant could have contradicted it. The opposite, and in my mind better, view has been expressed at some length by Judge Friendly in United States ex rel. Leak v. Follette, 418 F. 2d 1266, 1268 (2d Cir. 1969), cert. denied, 397 U.S. 1050: "Neither the language, the history, nor the policy of the self-incrimination clause affords support for the surprising proposition that in declaring that no person 'shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,' the authors of the Bill of Rights intended to prohibit proper advocacy concerning the strength of the prosecution's case. This is quite different from specific comment on the defendant's failure to take the stand. The remarks of the prosecutor and the judge in Griffin were held to violate the privilege because the California rule permitting them was 'in substance a rule of evidence that allows the State the privilege of tendering to the jury for its consideration the failure of the accused to

[ 452 Pa. Page 183]

    testify.' 380 U.S. at 613, 85 S. Ct. at 1232. The thought was that 'when the court solemnizes the silence of the accused into evidence against him,' id. at 614, 85 S. Ct. at 1233, the state is in practical effect exercising the compulsion the Fifth Amendment forbids. As against this, presumably no one would argue that the self-incrimination clause in any way inhibits the state's production of evidence, even evidence which no one but the defendant can successfully contradict. If the state is free to do this, it must also be free to engage in normal advocacy so long as it does not point a finger at the accused's remaining silent in the courtroom. It is one thing to prevent the state from making capital of the defendant's invocation of the constitutional privilege but quite another to say that an accused who avails himself of it is entitled to impose on the prosecution shackles that would be unavailable to a man who testifies in his own defense. The Fifth Amendment was not aimed at the kind of 'compulsion' generated by the evidence and fair argument about it. Indeed it was a recognition of the plight of the defendant who was unable to take the stand that led to the enactment of statutes by almost every state, beginning with Maine in 1864, and by the United States, Act of March 16, 1878, 20 Stat. 30, now 18 U.S.C. § 3481, making him competent to testify on his request; generally, these statutes also provided, in the language of the federal act, that 'his failure to make such request shall not create any presumption against him.' See Reeder, Comment on Failure of Accused to Testify, 31 Mich. L. Rev. 40 (1932)." Accord, United States v. Lipton, 467 F. 2d 1161 (2d Cir. 1972), cert. denied, 410 U.S. 927; United States v. Cox, 428 F. 2d 683 (7th Cir. 1970), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 881; Doty v. United States, 416 F. 2d 887 (10th Cir. 1968), vacated sub. nom.; Epps v. United States, 401 U.S. 1006 (1971);

[ 452 Pa. Page 184]

Fourteenth Amendments. See also my dissenting opinion in Commonwealth v. Bedford & Hughes, 451 Pa. 325, 304 A.2d 453 (1973). On this ground alone I concur in the Court's grant of a new trial.


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