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decided: December 1, 1977.



William H. Nast, Jr., Harrisburg, for appellant.

C. Joseph Rehkamp, Dist. Atty., New Bloomfield, for appellee.

Eagen, C. J., and O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Manderino, J., concurred in the result.

Author: Eagen

[ 475 Pa. Page 251]


Appellant William Robert Geiger pleaded guilty to murder generally in the shooting death on April 26, 1975, at Muriel's Horseshoe Bar, located on a rural highway in Watts Township, Perry County, of Muriel A. Knox, the establishment's proprietor. The court accepted the plea and, after a degree-of-guilt hearing, found Geiger guilty of murder of the second degree. Post-verdict motions were denied, and the court imposed a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. See 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 1102(b) (Supp. 1977-78). This direct appeal followed.

The evidence adduced at the degree-of-guilt hearing indicates the following essentially uncontradicted facts. Shortly before 3:00 p. m. on April 26, 1975, Geiger and Harry Richard Englert, Jr., were passengers in a brown Pontiac owned and operated by a 17-year-old female companion which stopped in the parking lot of Muriel's Horseshoe Bar. Geiger entered the bar alone, went to the restroom, and then returned to the car without ordering anything. He was observed by the bar's only customer at the time and by Knox. The customer observed through a window that Geiger and his two companions remained seated in the car for some time. He became suspicious and suggested to Knox that she write down the license number of the car, which she did. Englert subsequently entered the bar alone, ordered and paid for a beer, and went to the restroom. He then took one sip of his beer without sitting down, asked Knox where he could find a cheap motel, and left. The customer next observed the brown Pontiac with its three occupants backing toward the building. He left the bar, entered his own car, and drove to the nearby barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police to report what he had observed and request help.

Meanwhile, Englert told his female companion that "he knew that [she] didn't want him to do it but he had to," took the keys to the Pontiac and a 30-30 Winchester rifle, and, together with Geiger, re-entered the bar. Shortly thereafter,

[ 475 Pa. Page 252]

    a trooper from the barracks arrived at the parking lot, and through the window of the establishment he observed Englert, rifle in hand, jumping over the bar. He promptly called his station and requested assistance. Englert emerged from the front door followed by Geiger and pointed the rifle at the trooper, but he did not fire. Englert climbed into the front of the car, Geiger into the back, and Englert returned the keys to his female companion and told her to drive away. The Pontiac drove away with two police cars in hot pursuit, a second car containing two officers having arrived just as the pair entered the Pontiac. During the ensuing 7-mile chase, Englert repeatedly pointed the rifle out the window in the direction of the pursuing officers, though he did not shoot. Eventually one of the officers fired a shot through the Pontiac's rear window and windshield, and Englert dropped the rifle out of the car. The officers then forced the Pontiac off the road and arrested its occupants. Meanwhile, the body of Muriel Knox was discovered inside the bar lying near an open cash register containing pennies only; some dimes were scattered on the floor. The victim had been killed by a bullet which it was determined had been fired from the weapon dropped by Englert.

Geiger and Englert were each indicted and charged with murder of the first degree, robbery, and two counts of aggravated assault. Each filed a pretrial motion that the charge of murder of the first degree be quashed or, alternatively that it be reduced to murder of the second degree on the ground that the Commonwealth had no evidence of an intentional killing. See 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2502(a) (Supp. 1977-78). The judge denied both motions. At their arraignment both defendants demanded trial by jury. In explaining the applicable law to the defendants, the judge expressed the view that if they were convicted by a jury of murder of the first degree, they might be subject to the death penalty, but, because this Court had promulgated no procedural rules for imposition of the death penalty in non-jury trials or guiltyplea proceedings, the court had no power to impose the death penalty in these contexts. See 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 1311 (Supp. 1977-78).

[ 475 Pa. Page 253]

Subsequently, both defendants entered into plea-bargaining negotiations. Just prior to the scheduled jury selection, counsel for the defendants and the Commonwealth announced to the court that Geiger and Englert had both agreed to plead guilty to murder generally in exchange for the Commonwealth's promise to nol-pros the robbery and assault charges. The Commonwealth also agreed to certify that the homicide charge against Geiger rose no higher than murder of the second degree, but it indicated that it would seek to prove Englert guilty of murder of the first degree. After an extensive colloquy with each defendant to determine whether the pleas were knowing and voluntary, the judge accepted the pleas. At the conclusion of the consolidated ...

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