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COMMONWEALTH v. WOODS (11/26/73)

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 ...


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