David P. Posatko, Legal Aid Services, Scranton, for appellant.
James D. Crawford, Sp. Asst. Deputy Atty. Gen., Marc Kapustin, Deputy Atty. Gen., Philadelphia, for appellee.
Jones, C. J., and Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ.
On January 21, 1954, the appellant pleaded guilty to the murder of Johanna Kutz in Tunkhannock, Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, and was convicted of murder in the first degree. On the same day, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, but no post-trial motions were filed, and no appeal was taken. The appellant, nevertheless, attacked his conviction in numerous collateral petitions, one of which, filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Hearing Act,*fn1 resulted in an appeal to this Court: Commonwealth v. Johnson, 431 Pa. 522, 528, 531, 246 A.2d 345 (1968). We determined, in that decision, that the plea of guilty was both voluntary and intelligent, but we remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing as to whether the appellant had been informed of his right to appeal (431 Pa. at 535, 246 A.2d 345). The remanded petition was denied by the lower court on July 14, 1969. Instead of appealing that order, another PCHA petition was filed, but this was denied without a hearing on August 4, 1969.
The appellant next sought federal habeas corpus relief, resulting in a decision by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to stay federal proceedings pending an appeal nunc pro tunc from the order of July 14, 1969. United States ex rel. Johnson v. Cavell, 3 Cir., 468 F.2d 304, 308 (1972). It was subsequently adjudged, in an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Wyoming County dated March 6, 1973, upon stipulation of the Commonwealth, that the appellant had been denied his right to appeal his conviction. We granted leave to appeal nunc pro tunc.*fn2
Since the appellant pleaded guilty to the charge of murder, the issues reviewable on an appeal from his conviction of murder in the first degree are limited to the voluntariness of the plea, the legality of the sentence, the jurisdiction of the trial court, the effectiveness of counsel, and the sufficiency and admissibility of the evidence to raise the crime to the level of first degree. Commonwealth v. Hill, 457 Pa. 1, 319 A.2d 886, 890 (1974); Commonwealth v. Robinson, 442 Pa. 512, 514, 276 A.2d 537 (1971), and cases cited. As mentioned above, we have already determined that the appellant's
plea was voluntary. Further, once the trial court determined the degree of guilt to be murder in the first degree, life imprisonment was, of course, a legal sentence.*fn3 Consequently, the only issue remaining to be adjudicated, and the only one raised on this appeal, is whether the evidence was sufficient to support that determination. To that we now turn.
The evidence upon which the trial judge determined the appellant's guilt to be murder in the first degree was that presented to the jury following the appellant's initial plea of not guilty. After the third day of trial, the appellant withdrew his initial plea and pleaded guilty to murder. Counsel for the appellant then agreed that the evidence adduced at trial be considered in determining the degree of guilt and the imposition of sentence.*fn4 That evidence indicated that the victim, an elderly woman, was found in her home lying dead with an electric cord around her neck. The cord, which had been cut from a lamp in the house, was tied to a staircase bannister, lifting her head off the floor. The decedent had suffered blows to the side of the head, but death was caused by strangulation.
Numerous witnesses placed the appellant near the decedent's house when the crime was committed. Blood stains and hair on the appellant's clothing were identified with the blood and hair of the decedent, and the appellant was seen with an object later identified to be a door handle which had been removed from the decedent's kitchen door. Shortly after the crime, the appellant appeared at a local bank, attempting to cash a check ...