Appeal from the judgment of sentence imposed on October 24, 1975, of the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County, Pennsylvania, at Criminal Action No. 60 September Term, 1974 and Nos. 170 and 173 December Term, 1974.
David O'Hanesian, Pittsburgh, for appellant.
Robert F. Hawk, Assistant District Attorney, Butler, for appellee.
Watkins, President Judge, and Jacobs, Hoffman, Cercone, Price and Van der Voort, JJ. Spaeth, J., did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Hoffman, J., concurs in the result. Price, J., dissents.
[ 249 Pa. Super. Page 23]
This is an appeal from the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County, Criminal Division, after conviction of the appellant, William Casper, by a jury of twelve counts including seven counts of the practice generally described as "macing", three counts of extortion, and one count each of conspiracy and solicitation. Appellant was sentenced to 1-2 years in prison and fined $11,500.00 for these offenses. This appeal followed.
[ 249 Pa. Super. Page 24]
Several assignments of error are asserted by the appellant in this appeal, but only one need concern us.
The defendant, William Casper, was the chairman of the Democrat Party of Butler County at the time of the alleged offenses. During his trial the Commonwealth produced evidence that the appellant had unlawfully solicited campaign contributions for the Democrat Party from employees of PennDot and from lessors of snow removal equipment with the state. He did this mainly through superintendents of the local PennDot offices. The sum of $120.00 was to be collected from employees who were equipment operators, $60.00 from laborers, and $100.00 per piece of equipment from the lessors. Various coercive measures were used to enforce these contributions such as refusing to approve lessor contracts, transferring employees to less desirable jobs, or giving employees less overtime. Appellant kept a close check on who co-operated and who did not and generally directed the entire operation through the local superintendents.
Prior to trial the appellant filed an Application for a Change of Venue claiming that intense local publicity as to this case had made it impossible for him to receive a fair trial in Butler County. This request was denied by the court below and the defendant proceeded to trial in Butler County. The defendant was convicted on March 6, 1975. The trial had been conducted on five separate days including February 20 and 21, 1975 and March 4, 5, and 6, 1975.
There can be no doubt that the trial of defendant was preceded by many events that cast this entire matter continuously before the public eye. A special grand jury investigation into the alleged "macing" was conducted during the fall of 1974. The testimony of the witnesses at the special investigating grand jury proceedings was reported in copious detail by two local newspapers in Butler County. From May of 1974 up to and including the time of the trial the story of Casper's involvement in the "macing" scheme dominated the news in Butler County. Defendant's picture appeared in the local newspapers several times beside news
[ 249 Pa. Super. Page 25]
stories about the scandal. There were at least 24 stories relative to the scheme in the local newspapers and the defendant's name appeared in print at least 36 times during this period in stories relative to the "macing" scheme. The news stories reported the activities of the special investigating grand jury's proceedings, the testimony adduced during these proceedings, the subsequent indictments returned against the defendant, the activities of a federal probe into PennDot "macing" activities in Butler County, as well as, the arrest of the defendant and the nature of the charges brought against him. In addition, editorials on the matter appeared in print, as well as, letters to the editor on the matter. In light of the above there is no doubt that this case received extreme and extensive publicity in Butler County. The issue here is whether this extensive publicity made it impossible for the defendant to obtain a fair trial in Butler County.
Striking the balance between the right to a fair trial and freedom of the press has long been a complex and troublesome problem. Freedom of thought and discussion and the public's right to know are very important rights in a democratic society. Therefore the news media must be given wide latitude in reporting material about criminal proceedings. Commonwealth v. Pierce, 451 Pa. 190, 303 A.2d 209 (1973). As Justice Eagen held in Pierce case, supra:
"A responsible press has always been regarded as the handmaiden of effective judicial administration, especially in the criminal field. Its function in this regard is documented by an impressive record of service over several centuries. The press does not simply publish information about trials but guards against miscarriage of justice by subjecting the police, prosecution, and judicial processes to extensive public scrutiny and criticism."
Justice Eagen then went on to say that the Court has been unwilling to place any direct limitations on the freedom traditionally exercised by the news media because what "transpires in the court room is public property". On the ...