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decided: July 1, 1974.


Appeal from judgment of sentence of Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County, No. 462 of 1970, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. John Hamilton Demmitt, Jr.


Richard E. Davis, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant.

Joseph M. Stanichak, Assistant District Attorney, with him Joseph S. Walko, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Jones, C. J., Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice O'Brien. Concurring Opinion by Mr. Justice Nix.

Author: O'brien

[ 456 Pa. Page 477]

On the morning of July 12, 1970, sometime after 1 a.m., appellant, John Hamilton Demmitt, Jr., left his home and went to the plant of the Ward School Bus Company, where he was employed as a security guard. Upon arriving at the plant, Mr. Demmitt approached one George Stopp, a fellow employee, who also worked as a security guard. Mr. Stopp invited Mr. Demmitt to join him in making the rounds.

As the two men were completing their tour of the plant, Mr. Demmitt suddenly pulled out his revolver and shot Mr. Stopp five times. There was no apparent motive. Nothing was stolen. The two men had not been arguing. In fact, when appellant was asked by the police whether there were any reasons or motive for what he did, appellant replied: "A. No sir, I liked the man. I liked him very much. And I don't think you'd find anyone in this world who could ever say anything against him. I admired this man. He was a very good person. But I do silly, stupid, crazy things from time to time, and this is the worst thing that I've ever done, of course. And I really do need help. I know I'm mentally ill, and I tried telling people this so I could get committed but no one would commit me. So now they have to. Someone's got to help."

That afternoon, Sunday, July 12, the police began their investigation of the shooting. They began by examining the revolvers of all of the men employed as security guards at the plant. They noticed that appellant's revolver had been recently fired. Questioned about this, appellant explained that he had been target shooting two days earlier. The next day, July 13, appellant was discovered lying face down near a roadway in the nearby town of Fallston. His eyes were closed, his holster was empty, there was a slight scratch on his face, and his turned-on flashlight was approximately ten feet from him, pointing directly toward him. Appellant

[ 456 Pa. Page 478]

    was taken to a nearby hospital, where he explained to the attending physician that he had been beaten from behind by a man with a lead pipe. However, an examination disclosed no bruises and no objective findings that corroborated his story.

On July 14, while appellant was still in the hospital, after a ballistics test had disclosed that the bullets in the body of the deceased matched those from appellant's now-missing gun, appellant was placed under arrest. After being given full warnings, he confessed to the killing and admitted that his story of an alleged beating was merely "play acting." He further admitted that he tossed his revolver in the river when he realized he was under suspicion for the shooting.

At his trial for the murder of George Stopp, appellant's defense was one of insanity. In support of that defense, he offered the testimony of Dr. Bernard J. Willis, an employee of the Commonwealth and assistant superintendent of Farview State Hospital, where appellant had spent nine months as incompetent to stand trial before the trial began. According to the testimony of Dr. Willis, the appellant was "seriously, severely insane at the time. I think he did not know the nature and quality of his act. I don't think he was in a state where he could exercise any control over his behavior; I think he was completely disassociated, absolutely insane. . . . In my opinion he did not know the difference between right and wrong."

The opinions of three other psychiatrists were offered to corroborate the findings of Dr. Willis. Although those doctors could not testify that appellant was "insane" at the time of the murder since they had not examined him near that time, their testimony indicated that appellant had been under treatment prior to the killing for a serious condition of schizophrenia and he was still suffering from that condition at the time of trial. Some of the psychiatric witnesses further

[ 456 Pa. Page 479]

    verified appellant's claim that he frequently ...

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