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COMMONWEALTH v. WOODS (11/26/73)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: November 26, 1973.

COMMONWEALTH
v.
WOODS, APPELLANT

Appeal from judgment of Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County, No. 461 of 1971, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Ronald Homer Woods.

COUNSEL

Thomas P. Ruane, Jr., Public Defender, for appellant.

Lawrence D. McDaniel, Assistant District Attorney, with him Richard D. Cicchetti, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

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

Author: Jones

[ 454 Pa. Page 251]

Appellant, Ronald Homer Woods, was tried by a jury and found guilty of the second-degree murder of his wife, Carolyn Meyers Woods, on December 11, 1971. Post-trial motions were denied and a sentence of imprisonment for ten to twenty years was imposed. This appeal followed.

[ 454 Pa. Page 252]

Appellant alleges three trial errors which, he claims, warrant the grant of a new trial: (1) the trial court erred in admitting into evidence photographs of the victim; (2) the court erred in admitting into evidence statements and admissions of the appellant; and (3) the court improperly denied appellant's demurrer to the evidence. Since we agree that the receipt of the photographs into evidence constituted reversible error, we need not address appellant's other allegations of error.*fn1

The law is well-settled in this Commonwealth that the admission of photographs of the body of the deceased in a homicide case is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge, and, unless there is an abuse of discretion, there is no reversible error. Commonwealth v. Dickerson, 406 Pa. 102, 176 A.2d 421 (1962). See also Commonwealth v. Smalls, 449 Pa. 15, 295 A.2d 298 (1972); Commonwealth v. Sullivan, 446 Pa. 419, 286 A.2d 898 (1971) (opinion in support of affirmance), Commonwealth v. Chasten, 443 Pa. 29, 275 A.2d 305 (1971); Commonwealth v. Wilson, 431 Pa. 21, 244 A.2d 734 (1968), cert. denied, 393 U. S. 1102 (1969). "[T]he proper test to be applied by a trial court in determining the admissibility of photographs in homicide cases is whether or not the photographs are of such essential evidentiary value that their need clearly outweighs the likelihood of inflaming the minds and passions of the jurors." Commonwealth v. Powell, 428 Pa. 275, 278-79, 241 A.2d 119, 121 (1968).

The four objectionable photographs offered by the Commonwealth depicted the nude, extensively burned body of appellant's wife. These photographs were in the words of the trial judge "somewhat gruesome" and

[ 454 Pa. Page 253]

    showed the feet and legs, the abdomen and the lower portion of the chest of appellant's wife to be completely charred, with very little tissue remaining. Even though recognizing that "[s]uch exhibits are not to be excluded merely because they are horrid or gruesome," Commonwealth v. Snyder, 408 Pa. 253, 257, 182 A.2d 495, 496 (1962), we find that under the test set forth in Powell, supra, the trial judge abused his discretion by permitting the admission of these photographs.

The photographs in this case had no "essential evidentiary value." The only testimony in reference to the photographs was that of the police officers who were present when they were taken and who testified to the effect that the photographs represented the scene as they saw it shortly after the deceased's body was discovered. The Commonwealth's theory was that appellant had choked his wife to death; the burning of the body was therefore not a necessary part of the Commonwealth's case.*fn2 Nor were the photographs used in this case for purposes of identifying the victim.

The facts of the present case are in some elements strikingly similar to those involved in Commonwealth v. Biebighauser, 450 Pa. 336, 300 A.2d 70 (1973).*fn3 In

[ 454 Pa. Page 254]

    that case, however, the photographs received did show evidence of strangulation and were therefore marginally relevant to the corpus delicti. Nevertheless, the Court in Biebighauser had "serious doubt as to the correctness of the trial judge's determination of the character of the pictures as an essential evidentiary adjunct of the medical testimony. . . ." 450 Pa. at 348, 300 A.2d at 76. The Court held, however, that in that case a new trial was not mandated since: "two factors combine[d] to satisfy us that any prejudice which resulted was not sufficient to compel a new trial. First, the two photographs were shown to the jury for at most a total of three or four minutes out of a total trial time of 6 1/2 days; they were accompanied by immediate and complete cautionary instructions [footnote omitted], and they were not sent out with the jury. Second, appellant's defense was that of insanity, not that he had not in fact killed the deceased, nor that the severity was less than first degree. . . . While inflammatory photographs may prejudice a defendant who is challenging the degree of guilt, and perhaps also his perpetration of the crime, it is possible that they may redound to the benefit of a defendant asserting insanity." 450 Pa. at 348-49, 300 A.2d at 76-77.

In contradistinction to Biebighauser, the photographs here were not even marginally relevant.*fn4 Even

[ 454 Pa. Page 255]

    assuming the relevancy of these photographs, the resultant prejudice to the appellant far outweighed any probative value. One of appellant's theories of defense at trial was that his wife's death was accidental.*fn5 In his defense at trial, appellant did not specifically deny the act of taking to the dump and burning his wife's body.*fn6 These acts, though not the subject of this prosecution, did in themselves cast opprobium upon appellant, and allowing the photographs of the incinerated body to go to the jury could only have served to inflame their minds and prejudice them against him. Furthermore, the limiting factors upon which the Court based its finding of insufficient prejudice to require a new trial in Biebighauser were absent in the present case.*fn7 The trial judge abused his discretion by admitting

[ 454 Pa. Page 256]

    the photographs and for this reason alone appellant is entitled to a new trial.

Judgment reversed and a new trial ordered.

Disposition

Judgment reversed and new trial ordered.


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