decided: January 26, 1978.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
STANTON STORY, APPELLANT
Paul R. Gettleman, Welsh S. White, Leonard I. Sharon, Pittsburgh, for appellant.
Robert E. Colville, Dist. Atty., Robert L. Eberhardt, Charles W. Johns, Asst. Dist. Attys., Pittsburgh, for appellee.
Eagen, C. J., and O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Pomeroy, J., filed a concurring opinion. Nix, J., concurs in the result.
[ 476 Pa. Page 395]
OPINION OF THE COURT
On July 3, 1974, Patrick Wallace, a Pittsburgh police officer, was shot and killed. Appellant, Stanton Story, was later arrested and charged with the murder. After a jury trial, he was found guilty of murder of the first degree. Post-verdict motions were denied and a sentence of death was imposed.*fn1
In this appeal,*fn2 appellant contends he was denied a fair trial because the trial court permitted the Commonwealth to introduce irrelevant and prejudicial evidence concerning the victim's family life and professional reputation. We agree,*fn3 reverse judgment of sentence and grant appellant a new trial.*fn4
[ 476 Pa. Page 396]
At trial, the Commonwealth called Marilyn Wallace, the victim's widow, as its second witness. After appellant sought an offer of proof, the Commonwealth stated that it was calling Marilyn Wallace for the purpose of (1) introducing photographs of the victim and his daughter which Marilyn Wallace had taken when the family was on vacation; (2) describing the victim's family status; (3) relating that Marilyn Wallace had last seen her husband alive on the morning that he was killed; and (4) presenting other events of a personal nature. Appellant objected to the proposed testimony on the ground that it was irrelevant and highly prejudicial. The trial court overruled the objection and permitted Marilyn Wallace to testify.
Marilyn Wallace testified that she married the victim on January 22, 1966, and that they had a six year old daughter named Jennifer Ann, who attended school at the home for crippled children. She further testified that she was employed by the county police. Only after her husband's death did she begin working. She stated that her husband had been employed as a police officer for five years, that he was in the armed forces reserves and was attending college at the time of his death. Marilyn Wallace also testified that she last saw her husband alive on the morning that he was
[ 476 Pa. Page 397]
killed*fn5 and that she was notified of his death at about noon. She then identified two photographs of the victim with their daughter which she had taken when the family was on vacation in Canada. The photographs were admitted into evidence over objection and shown to the jury.
Appellant argues that Marilyn Wallace's testimony and the two photographs of the victim with his daughter were irrelevant and prejudicial. Appellant asserts that the evidence that the victim left a widow and a handicapped daughter, and that his widow was forced to work after her husband's death, created sympathy for the victim and his family and inflamed the jury.*fn6
[ 476 Pa. Page 398]
In Commonwealth v. Walzack, 468 Pa. 210, 360 A.2d 914 (1976), Mr. Justice Nix, writing for a majority of this Court, articulated the threshold inquiry in determining whether evidence is properly admitted into evidence.
"Any analysis of the admissibility of a particular type of evidence must start with a threshold inquiry as to its relevance and probative value. Commonwealth v. Jones, 459 Pa. 62, 66, 327 A.2d 10, 13 (1974); Commonwealth v. McCusker, 448 Pa. 382, 388, 292 A.2d 286, 289 (1972). We have cited with approval the test for relevance propounded by two leading evidentiary authorities, Wigmore and McCormick. Commonwealth v. Jones, supra; Commonwealth v. Lippert, 454 Pa. 381, 384, 311 A.2d 586, 587 (1973); Commonwealth v. McCusker, supra. Wigmore defines relevance in terms of two axioms, 'None but facts having rational probative value are admissible,' and 'All facts having rational probative value are admissible, unless some specific rule forbids.' 1 Wigmore, Evidence, § 9-10 at 289-95 (3rd Ed. 1940). McCormick suggests the following for determining relevance, '. . . [d]oes the evidence offered render the desired inference more probable than it would be without the evidence? . . . Relevant evidence then, is evidence that in some degree advances the inquiry, and thus has probative value, and is prima facie admissible.' McCormick, Evidence § 185 at 437-38 (2nd Ed. 1972)."
Id. 468 Pa. at 218, 360 A.2d at 918.
[ 476 Pa. Page 399]
Here, Mrs. Wallace's testimony concerning her husband's family status and personal life, and her description of the photographs of her husband with his child have no "rational probative value" to the issue whether appellant feloniously killed Patrick Wallace. Rather, this evidence injected extraneous considerations into the case and prejudiced appellant by creating sympathy for the victim and his family.
In its offer of proof, the Commonwealth stated that it thought that the jury was "entitled to know this man was married, he was a father, he in fact was a family man." The prosecutor further stated that the victim "is more than a body" and that the prosecutor wanted the jury "to get some feel for this activity of his life." It is evident that the Commonwealth explicitly sought to create sympathy for the victim and his family and to inflame the jury against appellant. We condemn such trial tactics. As the Illinois Supreme Court has observed:
"[The] defendant, no matter how reprehensible his crime, was entitled to have jurors consider both the matter of his guilt and punishment, uninfluenced by the circumstance that decedent's widow had been left alone with children of tender ages as the result of the homicide."
People v. Bernette, 30 Ill.2d 359, 372, 197 N.E.2d 436, 444 (1964).
The Commonwealth relies on Commonwealth v. Ross, 413 Pa. 35, 195 A.2d 81 (1963), to argue that Marilyn Wallace's testimony and the photographs of the victim on vacation with his daughter on a beach were relevant to demonstrate "the natural development of the facts of the case." Ross provides no support for the Commonwealth's position. Ross was charged with the murder of a woman with whom he once resided. The woman's son was murdered at the same time. The Commonwealth called a pathologist to testify that he had performed an autopsy on the son and that the son had died from a gunshot wound. The defendant contended that it was prejudicial error to permit any testimony that the son died as a result of the shooting. In affirming the admission of this evidence, this Court noted that, ordinarily, evidence of the commission of a crime other than the
[ 476 Pa. Page 400]
one for which the defendant is being tried is not admissible. We stated that an exception to this rule is recognized where the criminal or bad act is used to show "'intent, scienter, motive, identity, plan or the accused to be one of an organization banded together to commit crimes of the sort charged, or that such prior conviction or criminal act formed a part of a chain, or was one of a sequence of acts, or became part of the history of the event on trial, or was part of the natural development of the facts. . . .'" Id. at 40, 195 A.2d at 83; quoting Commonwealth v. Williams, 307 Pa. 134, 148, 160 A. 602, 607 (1932) (emphasis altered).
The principle enunciated in Ross is designed to give the trier of fact background information when such information is necessary to understand the criminal episode which forms the basis of the charges against the accused. Here, evidence of the victim's family life and the photographs of the victim with his daughter shed absolutely no light on the criminal episode which resulted in Patrick Wallace's death. This evidence had no relevance to "the natural development of the facts" of this case.
Other jurisdictions which have addressed the issue whether evidence of a murder victim's family status is probative have held that such evidence is irrelevant and prejudicial to the accused. See Knight v. State, 273 Ala. 480, 142 So.2d 899 (1962); Walker v. State, 239 Ark. 172, 388 S.W.2d 13 (1965); Foster v. State, 266 So.2d 97 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1972); Wolfe v. State, 202 So.2d 133 (Fla.App.), appeal dismissed, 207 So.2d 457 (Fla.1967); People v. Bernette, 30 Ill.2d 359, 197 N.E.2d 436 (1964); People v. Miller, 6 N.Y.2d 152, 188 N.Y.S.2d 534, 160 N.E.2d 74 (1959).
In People v. Miller, supra, the brother of the murder victim testified concerning his identification of the victim at the morgue. He was asked whether the victim had a wife and children. The New York Court of Appeals held that it was prejudicial error to permit testimony that the victim had a wife and seven children, for such evidence had "no bearing on the materiality of the issues before the jury, [and] was calculated to appeal to the passion and sympathy
[ 476 Pa. Page 401]
of the jury . . . ." The court concluded that "[t]here could be no purpose to this line of testimony but to conjure up in the minds of the jurors undue prejudice against the defendant." Id. at 157, 188 N.Y.S.2d at 539, 160 N.E.2d at 77.
The Illinois Supreme Court held that the admission into evidence of the victim's family status was reversible error in People v. Bernette, supra. The court stated:
"A defendant's guilt must be established by legal and competent evidence, uninfluenced by bias and prejudice raised by irrelevant evidence and, in such connection this court has consistently condemned the admission of evidence that the deceased left a spouse and a family, inasmuch as such evidence has no relationship to the guilt or innocence of the accused or the punishment to be inflicted upon him, but serves ordinarily only to prejudice him in the eyes of the jury. . . ."
30 Ill. at 371, 197 N.E.2d at 443 (citations omitted).
In Knight v. State, supra, the Alabama Supreme Court observed:
"How many children the slain man had, their ages . . are irrelevant facts . . . . [T]o hold such evidence not prejudicial to the defendant is to disregard the realities of trial atmosphere and the emotional frailties of human nature."
273 Ala. at 491, 142 So.2d at 910.*fn7
[ 476 Pa. Page 402]
Ordinarily, in determining whether evidence is admissible at trial, the trial court must balance the probativeness of the evidence against its prejudicial impact. Commonwealth v. Ulatoski, 472 Pa. 53, 63 n.11, 371 A.2d 186, 191 n.11 (1977); J. McCormick, Evidence § 185, at 438-40 (2d ed. 1972). In this case, however, the evidence in question was totally irrelevant to the determination of appellant's guilt or innocence. It was therefore unnecessary for the trial court to determine whether the probativeness outweighed the prejudice. See Commonwealth v. Fell, 453 Pa. 531, 309 A.2d 417 (1973). We hold that the trial court erred in permitting the Commonwealth to present Marilyn Wallace's testimony and the photographs of the victim with his daughter. See 1 Wharton's Criminal Evidence § 164, at 304 (13th ed. 1972) ("Evidence which has the effect of inspiring sympathy for the . . . victim of the crime is prejudicial and inadmissible when otherwise irrelevant. Thus, in a prosecution for murder, it is not permissible to show that the victim had a family or a specific number of children . . .").
Appellant asserts that the Commonwealth continued its strategy of inflaming the jury against appellant when it presented evidence, in its case in chief, concerning the victim's professional reputation.*fn8 Appellant contends
[ 476 Pa. Page 403]
that it was improper for the Commonwealth to present evidence of the victim's reputation since appellant neither attacked the victim's reputation nor asserted that the killing was justified because the victim was the aggressor. We agree.
It is well established that the Commonwealth cannot offer evidence of the victim's reputation unless and until the victim's reputation is put in issue by the defense. Commonwealth v. Castellana, 277 Pa. 117, 121 A. 50 (1923), cited with approval in Commonwealth v. Donovan, 447 Pa. 450, 291 A.2d 116 (1972) (dictum); Walker v. State, supra; J. McCormick, Evidence § 193, at 461 (2d ed. 1972); 1 Wharton's Criminal Evidence § 236 (13th ed. 1972); 1 A.L.R.3d 571 (1965). Here, appellant did not attack the victim's reputation, and such evidence was therefore irrelevant to the issues before the jury.
The facts of this case are strikingly similar to those of Walker v. State, supra. In Walker, the defendant was
[ 476 Pa. Page 404]
accused of killing a police officer. The prosecution, in its case in chief, presented testimony by the chief of police that the victim was "a very efficient officer, well liked, and did his work without any complaints." 239 Ark. at 181, 388 S.W.2d at 18. The chief of police also testified that the victim had received an award from a civic club for courtesy. The Arkansas Supreme Court held that the admission of such testimony was error.
"This evidence was introduced by the State before the accused had offered any testimony. The accused had not attacked the fact that this young police officer was a man of good reputation. Our court has held . . . that such evidence offered by the prosecution should not be admitted until the accused has undertaken to attack the character of the deceased in that respect. . . .
Id. at 182, 388 S.W.2d at 18.
We believe the result in Walker is sound. Just as the evidence that the victim left a widow and child bears no relationship to the determination of guilt or innocence, so too the evidence that the victim was well respected by the people in the community in which he worked has no bearing on appellant's guilt or innocence. The evidence of the victim's reputation created sympathy for the victim and inflamed the jury. We hold that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of the victim's professional reputation.
The Commonwealth contends that any error in the admission of the testimony of Marilyn Wallace and Officer Scanlon, as well as the photographs of the victim with his daughter, was harmless. We do not agree.
1. Our inquiry must begin with the determination of the proper standard of proof to be employed in resolving whether a non-constitutional error in a criminal prosecution is harmless.
[ 476 Pa. Page 405]
Where a trial error violates the federal constitution, this Court, at a minimum, must employ the federal harmless error rule. See Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 21, 87 S.Ct. 824, 826-27, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967). A federal constitutional error cannot be found harmless unless an appellate court is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the error was harmless. Id. Where the trial error arises under state law, however, the proper standard for determining whether such an error is harmless is a question of state law.
Although this Court has previously held that an error involving state law may be harmless, our cases have not articulated a consistent standard for determining whether an error is harmless.*fn9 In order to eliminate any confusion which may exist,*fn10 we hold that the proper standard for determining whether an error involving state law is harmless is the same as the standard this Court applies to federal constitutional error: an error can be harmless only if the
[ 476 Pa. Page 406]
appellate court is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the error is harmless.*fn11
Several considerations persuade us that the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard is the proper standard to apply in determining the harmlessness of any criminal trial error. First, this standard is commensurate with the standard of proof in criminal trials -- that an accused cannot be convicted unless the trier of fact is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty as charged. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970). In order to maintain the integrity of this standard, appellate courts should utilize a comparable standard in determining whether an error was harmless. Professor Saltzburg has observed:
"It would make little sense to adopt the Winship standard, which is designed to prevent criminal convictions if there is even a reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors as to the guilt of the person charged, and then on appeal to emasculate that evidentiary standard when the trial court has violated evidentiary rules which might have influenced the jury by creating the requisite doubt. . . . [C]onvictions must be reversed where the appellate court cannot arrive at a conclusion about the impact of an error on the jury verdict with the same degree of certainty demanded at trial."
Saltzburg, The Harm of Harmless Error, 59 Va.L.Rev. 988, 992 (1973) (footnote omitted).*fn12
Second, there are sound reasons for applying the same standard for determining harmless error whether the error
[ 476 Pa. Page 407]
violates state or federal law. State rules often implicate constitutional values, and the violation of a state rule may rise to the level of a federal constitutional violation. The protection of constitutional rights, as well as the development of a coherent doctrine of harmless error, militate in favor of the application of the same standard for constitutional and non-constitutional errors. Because it may be unclear whether a well established state rule is also constitutionally mandated,*fn13 separate harmless error standards might prove to be unworkable. Moreover, a more relaxed harmless error standard for errors perceived as violations of state rules, but which might also be violations of the federal Constitution, would leave constitutional values inadequately protected.
Third, it is irrelevant whether an error is constitutional or non-constitutional in determining whether the error is prejudicial to the accused. Constitutional errors are not inherently more injurious to an accused than errors under state law.*fn14 There is no reason why a state court
[ 476 Pa. Page 408]
should apply a stricter harmless error standard to federal constitutional rules than to state rules, especially since the purpose of most state rules is to assure a fair trial.*fn15
Finally, there is the danger that a lenient harmless error rule may denigrate the interests and policies which both constitutional and non-constitutional rules promote. We are convinced that the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard reaches the proper balance of competing considerations implicated in the harmless error rule. The harmless error rule derives from the notion that although an accused is entitled to a fair trial, he is not entitled to a perfect one. Thompson, Unconstitutional Search and Seizure and the Myth of Harmless Error, 42 Notre Dame Lawyer 457 (1967). The harmless error rule can save the time, effort and expense of unnecessary retrials where the defendant has not been prejudiced by an error. Id. But courts must be careful in applying the harmless error rule, for if the violation of a rule is too readily held harmless, the importance and effectiveness of
[ 476 Pa. Page 409]
the rule is denigrated. We believe that the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard reaches the most reasonable balance between the consideration of judicial economy and the important policies which underlie constitutional and non-constitutional rules.
2. Having articulated the proper standard of proof in determining whether an error is harmless, we must now address the proper definition of harmlessness, for any theory of harmless error must include both the standard of the degree to which an appellate court must be convinced that an error is harmless and the definition of harmlessness. We adopt the standard that an error cannot be held harmless unless the appellate court determines that the error could not have contributed to the verdict. Whenever there is a "'reasonable possibility'" that an error "'might have contributed to the conviction,'" the error is not harmless. Commonwealth v. Davis, 452 Pa. at 178, 305 A.2d at 719, quoting Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. at 24, 87 S.Ct. at 828.
The principle that an error is harmless if it did not contribute to the verdict only sets the stage for the harmless error inquiry. As former Chief Justice Traynor has observed:
"There are countless possible variations of error. There are also countless possible exponential factors that may determine what effect, if any, error in the course of litigation may have upon a judgment."
R. Traynor, The Riddle of Harmless Error 16 (1970). It is therefore hardly surprising that the focus of this Court's inquiry into the impact of trial errors has varied depending upon the circumstances of the case.
In numerous cases, this Court has focused solely on the prejudicial impact of the erroneously admitted evidence, considering other, properly admitted evidence only in relation
[ 476 Pa. Page 410]
to this inquiry.*fn16 When the record reveals that an error did not prejudice the defendant,*fn17 or that the prejudice was so minimal that, beyond a reasonable doubt, it did not influence the jury,*fn18 we have held the error harmless. In
[ 476 Pa. Page 411]
other cases, we have reversed because the prejudice was more than de minimis.*fn19
This Court has also examined the properly admitted evidence to determine whether the erroneously admitted evidence was merely cumulative of other, untainted evidence.*fn20 An error which, viewed by itself, is not minimal, may nonetheless be harmless if properly admitted evidence is substantially similar to the erroneously admitted evidence.*fn21
[ 476 Pa. Page 412]
The Commonwealth does not argue that the error in admitting evidence concerning Officer Wallace's family life and professional reputation was harmless because the impact of the error was de minimis*fn22 or the improperly admitted evidence was merely cumulative. Rather, the Commonwealth argues that any error in the admission of this evidence was harmless in light of overwhelming evidence of appellant's guilt.
This Court has stated that an error may be harmless where the properly admitted evidence of guilt is so overwhelming and the prejudicial effect of the error is so insignificant by comparison that it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the error could not have contributed to the verdict.*fn23 Commonwealth v. Davis, 452 Pa. 171, 178-79, 305
[ 476 Pa. Page 413]
A.2d 715, 719 (1973); accord, Schneble v. Florida, 405 U.S. 427, 430, 92 S.Ct. 1056, 1059, 31 L.Ed.2d 340 (1972). Under this approach, a reviewing court first determines whether the untainted evidence, considered independently of the tainted evidence, overwhelmingly establishes the defendant's guilt. If "'honest, fair minded jurors might very well have brought in not guilty verdicts,'" an error cannot be harmless on the basis of overwhelming evidence. Commonwealth v. Davis, 452 Pa. at 181, 305 A.2d at 721, quoting Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 26, 87 S.Ct. 824, 829, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967). Once the court determines that the evidence of guilt is overwhelming, it then decides if the error was so insignificant by comparison that it could not have contributed to the verdict.
We have cautioned that
"a conclusion that the properly admitted evidence is 'so overwhelming' and the prejudicial effect of the . . . error is 'so insignificant' by comparison, that it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the error is harmless, is not to be arrived at lightly."
Commonwealth v. Davis, supra, 452 Pa. at 178-79, 305 A.2d at 720. Accordingly, we have been reluctant to find an error harmless on the basis of overwhelming evidence.
Our cases support the proposition that in deciding whether an error is harmless because there is properly admitted overwhelming evidence of guilt, the untainted evidence relied upon must be uncontradicted.*fn24 This follows
[ 476 Pa. Page 414]
the test applied by Mr. Justice Rehnquist for the Court in Schneble v. Florida, 405 U.S. 427, 431, 92 S.Ct. 1056, 1059, 31 L.Ed.2d 340 (1972), where the improper admission of a co-defendant's confession was held harmless because the evidence supporting the prosecution's theory was "overwhelming" and "not contradicted by any other evidence in the case."
In Commonwealth v. Henderson, 456 Pa. 234, 317 A.2d 288 (1974), this Court, per Mr. Justice Eagen (now Chief Justice), held an error not harmless under the overwhelming evidence test because there was evidence in the case which contradicted
[ 476 Pa. Page 415]
the guilt of the defendant. In that case, we distinguished Commonwealth v. Camm, 443 Pa. 253, 277 A.2d 325, cert. denied, 405 U.S. 1046, 92 S.Ct. 1320, 31 L.Ed.2d 589 (1972) (holding an error harmless), because in Camm "there was no evidence that could have supported acquittal." 443 Pa. at 268-69, 277 A.2d at 333, quoted at 456 Pa. at 242, 317 A.2d at 293. In Henderson, however, "There was . . . evidence to support an acquittal," and thus the untainted evidence could not be considered overwhelming.
In Commonwealth v. Lasch, 464 Pa. 259, 346 A.2d 547 (1975), the Commonwealth argued that the improper admission of Lasch's pre-trial statement to the police was harmless error, relying on the testimony of an eyewitness and a second individual to whom Lasch allegedly made an incriminating admission. Lasch did not testify at trial and offered no evidence disputing the testimony of the Commonwealth witnesses. This Court nevertheless held that the error was not harmless, reasoning that the defendant's cross-examination cast doubt upon the credibility of the two witnesses. Accord, Commonwealth v. Davis, supra.
In Commonwealth v. Tucker, 452 Pa. 584, 307 A.2d 245 (1973), the Commonwealth improperly cross-examined its own witness. The Commonwealth argued that there was overwhelming evidence of Tucker's guilt, based upon his in-custody statement implicating himself in the crime. We held that, because the accuracy of this statement was disputed, the evidence of guilt was not overwhelming.
The requirement that the "overwhelming" evidence relied upon be uncontradicted follows from the principle that an error cannot be harmless if "'honest, fair minded jurors might very well have brought in not guilty verdicts.'" Commonwealth v. Davis, supra, 452 Pa. at 181, 305 A.2d at 721, quoting Chapman v. California, supra, 386 U.S. at 18, 87 S.Ct. at 829. A jury has the duty to weigh the evidence and resolve conflicts therein. E. g., Commonwealth v. Murray, 460 Pa. 605, 334 A.2d 255 (1975). Unless the evidence is
[ 476 Pa. Page 416]
uncontradicted a fair minded juror may well choose to credit the defendant's, rather than the Commonwealth's evidence.
The principle is in accord with the proper function of an appellate court. An appellate court is ill equipped to resolve conflicts in the evidence or make findings of fact. See generally Commonwealth v. Rose, 463 Pa. 264, 344 A.2d 824 (1975); Commonwealth v. Oates, 448 Pa. 486, 295 A.2d 337 (1972). As former Chief Justice Traynor has written:
"The appellate court is limited to the mute record made below. Many factors may affect the probative value of testimony, such as age . . . intelligence, experience, occupation, demeanor, or temperament of the witness. A trial court or jury before whom witnesses appear is at least in a position to take note of such factors. An appellate court has no way of doing so. It cannot know whether a witness answered some questions forthrightly but evaded others. It may find an answer convincing and truthful in written form that may have sounded unreliable at the time it was given. A wellphrased sentence in the record may have seemed rehearsed at trial. A clumsy sentence in the record may not convey the ring of truth that attended it when the witness groped his way to its articulation. What clues are there in cold print to indicate where the truth lies? What clues are there to indicate where the half-truth lies?"
R. Traynor, The Riddle of Harmless Error 20-21 (1970). Resolution of conflicts in the evidence in order to ascertain if the evidence of guilt is overwhelming would involve a usurpation of the factfinder's function.
We recognize that a guilty verdict indicates that conflicts in the evidence were resolved in favor of the Commonwealth. However, the jury may have relied on the tainted evidence, while unsure of the verity of the untainted evidence. Similarly, the corroboration provided by the tainted evidence may have led the jury to accept the untainted evidence. Unless the evidence claimed to be overwhelming is uncontradicted we cannot conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a jury would have resolved the conflicts in the
[ 476 Pa. Page 417]
same manner absent the improperly admitted evidence. Thus, we hold that, in applying the overwhelming evidence test to determine if an error is harmless, a court may rely only on uncontradicted evidence. The uncontradicted evidence of guilt must be so overwhelming, and the prejudicial effect of the improperly admitted evidence so insignificant by comparison, that it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the error could not have contributed to the verdict.
Our review of the record convinces us that the Commonwealth has not established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the error in admission of evidence concerning Officer Wallace's family life and professional reputation was harmless. The evidence claimed to be overwhelming was in fact disputed.
The Commonwealth's case consisted primarily of: (1) the testimony of the victim's partner, Officer Scanlon, identifying appellant as the killer; (2) a statement allegedly made by appellant shortly after his arrest, in which appellant admitted participation in the crime but denied firing the fatal shot;*fn25 and (3) the testimony of appellant's uncle placing appellant in Pittsburgh about an hour and a half before the killing.*fn26 Appellant took the stand in his own
[ 476 Pa. Page 418]
behalf and testified that he was in Charlotte, North Carolina on the day of the killing. Several defense witnesses corroborated this alibi.
In addition to presenting the alibi defense, appellant challenged Officer Scanlon's identification testimony. On cross-examination, and by introducing conflicting evidence, appellant attacked Officer Scanlon's credibility and ability to see.*fn27 Appellant also flatly denied making the statement to the police in which he allegedly admitted participation in the crime. Finally, appellant introduced evidence to impeach
[ 476 Pa. Page 419]
the officer who claimed he heard this oral statement,*fn28 and evidence to rebut certain details of the statement.*fn29
Thus, we cannot conclude that the evidence of guilt was so overwhelming, and the error of admitting the prejudicial testimony so insignificant by comparison, that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Judgment of sentence reversed and a new trial granted.
POMEROY, Justice, concurring.
I agree with the majority that the trial court erred in allowing the admission into evidence of the testimony of the victim's wife and the photographs of the victim with his crippled daughter. It was also, I think, improper to allow the Commonwealth to present evidence of the victim's good reputation in the community when there had been neither an attack by the defendant on the victim's reputation nor a defense asserted based on the victim's quarrelsome nature. Compare Commonwealth v. Irwin, 475 Pa. 616, 381 A.2d 444 (1977). And, I too am unable to conclude that these errors were harmless. Thus I agree that appellant is entitled to a new trial and concur in the order of the court.
[ 476 Pa. Page 420]
My divergence from the majority opinion has to do with the concept of harmless error which it expresses, and which I venture to think is itself seriously harmful to our system of criminal jurisprudence. I remain of the view*fn1 that trial errors which do not violate a constitutional right of the accused are not subject to the stringent "Chapman" test*fn2 embraced by Mr. Justice ROBERTS in his opinion for the majority. Hence this opinion.
It has long been a recognized principle that appellate courts will affirm criminal convictions despite error in the trial court so long as the error did not affect the appellant's right to a fair trial. See generally 1 Wigmore, Evidence § 21 (3rd Ed. 1940). This recognition of improper but "harmless" trial court rulings lies in the generally accepted view that "[A] defendant is entitled to a fair trial but not a perfect one." Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 135, 88 S.Ct. 1620, 1627, 20 L.Ed.2d 476, 484 (1968), quoting Lutwak v. United States, 344 U.S. 604, 619, 73 S.Ct. 481, 97 L.Ed. 593, 604 (1953). Thus an appellate court should seek to avoid the "setting aside convictions for small errors or defects that have little, if any, likelihood of having changed the result of the trial." Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 22, 87 S.Ct. 824, 827, 17 L.Ed.2d 705, 709 (1967). The standard by which the prejudicial effect of trial errors might be gauged, however, has been the subject of considerable debate in recent years.*fn3
[ 476 Pa. Page 421]
At an earlier stage of our legal history it was generally held that even the most technical and trivial of trial errors would give rise to a new trial.*fn4 Errors of constitutional magnitude would normally require automatic reversal.*fn5 Then, in the now famous case of Chapman v. California, supra, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that errors of a constitutional dimension did not require automatic reversal so long as there was no "reasonable possibility that the evidence complained of might have contributed to the conviction." 386 U.S. at 24, 87 S.Ct. at 828, 17 L.Ed.2d at 710, quoting Fahy v. Connecticut, 375 U.S. 85, 84 S.Ct. 229, 11 L.Ed.2d 171 (1963). The opinion in Chapman, however, expressly reserved to the individual states the standard by which errors of a non-constitutional nature might be judged.*fn6 The test which Pennsylvania courts should apply in such a situation is here in issue. I cannot agree with Mr. Justice ROBERTS that a "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" standard should be adopted as the proper gauge of harmlessness.
In support of the adoption of the Chapman test for state evidentiary purposes, Mr. Justice ROBERTS concludes that such a stringent test is necessary because (1) it will maintain
[ 476 Pa. Page 422]
the integrity of the standard of proof in criminal trials;*fn7 (2) the difficult distinction between constitutional and non-constitutional errors will no longer have to be made in deciding whether an error is or is not harmless; (3) the dichotomy in the treatment of errors of constitutional and non-constitutional magnitude is meaningless and should be abrogated; and (4) the danger that a defendant's right to a fair trial might be denigrated can thereby be avoided. Such considerations are of importance in considering what the standard for the review of trial court errors should be; they do not, however, in my view support the position of Mr. Justice ROBERTS. As Mr. Justice Rutledge noted in Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750, 760, 66 S.Ct. 1239, 1245, 90 L.Ed. 1557, 1564 (1945), the general object of the harmless error doctrine is
". . . to preserve review as a check upon arbitrary action and essential unfairness in trials, but at the same time to make the process perform that function without giving men fairly convicted the multiplicity of loopholes which any highly rigid and minutely detailed scheme of errors, especially in relation to procedure, will engender and reflect in a printed record."
I believe that adoption of a Chapman standard for the review of trial court errors of a non-constitutional nature, rather than striking a balance among these interests, will inevitably result in the needless reversal of convictions in which guilt has been conclusively established.
First, I do not believe that a standard of review of trial court errors that is less stringent than the Chapman test endangers the Winship requirement that the prosecution prove all elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The Winship rule applies not to every iota of evidence introduced in a trial, but rather to the sum of the evidence bearing on an element of the crime; that is, when looking at the record as a whole, can it be said that the Commonwealth has proved every fact necessary to constitute the crime with
[ 476 Pa. Page 423]
which the defendant is charged beyond a reasonable doubt? It is entirely possible for the Winship standard to be met despite the fact that some minor error has occurred. Second, unlike Mr. Justice ROBERTS, I have confidence in the ability of our appellate courts to distinguish, when necessary, between errors of constitutional and non-constitutional dimension. See e. g., Commonwealth v. McDowell, 460 Pa. 474, 333 A.2d 872 (1975); Commonwealth v. Ransom, 446 Pa. 457, 288 A.2d 762 (1972); Commonwealth v. Mills, 447 Pa. 163, 286 A.2d 638 (1971); Commonwealth v. Blackman, 446 Pa. 61, 285 A.2d 521 (1971). Third, while I share Mr. Justice ROBERTS' dislike of differing standards of review for errors of constitutional and non-constitutional proportions, I see no virtue in eradicating the differences by further extending a rule which has been criticized as unduly rigid.*fn8 And finally, while I agree that a defendant's right to
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a fair trial must be insured, I disagree that a standard less strict than Chapman will necessarily denigrate such a right. We certainly have a commensurate duty to avoid the waste of time, money and resources entailed in an overly zealous reversal of trials which are basically fair.*fn9
It remains to discuss the standard which I believe strikes the proper balance among the many considerations of the harmless error controversy, and then to apply such standard to the case at bar.
In determining whether a trial error has in fact prejudiced a defendant's rights, an appellate court generally has three options from which to choose. See Government of Virgin Islands v. Toto, 529 F.2d 278 (3rd Cir. 1976); Traynor, supra at 34. First, a court might affirm if convinced that it is more probable than not that the error did not affect the jury's verdict. Such a test, however, is no doubt too lax and,
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as Chief Justice Traynor has noted, allows an appellate judge to stray into an inquiry as to the correctness of the result reached below rather than focusing on the effect the error might have had on the jury. See Traynor, supra at p. 35. Second, a court might affirm where it is convinced that it is highly probable that the error did not contribute to the verdict. See Government of Virgin Islands v. Toto, supra ; U. S. v. Savage, 430 F.Supp. 1024 (M.D.Pa.1977). Lastly, a court might affirm where it is almost certain that the error in no way affected the verdict. This, of course, is the standard adopted in Chapman.
In choosing among these alternatives, I am guided largely by the reasoning of Chief Justice Traynor. With him, I am convinced that the middle course -- a standard of high probability -- strikes the best balance between the state's interest in efficient and realistic operation of the judicial system and the defendant's right to a fair trial. In Chief Justice Traynor's words:
"What about the appellate court, when it is called upon to determine whether or not an error affected the judgment? How much of a true believer should it be? What degree of probability should it require that the judgment is contaminated? Should it affirm if it believes that it is more probable than not that the error did not affect the judgment? Highly probable that it did not? Almost certain that it did not?
"The nebulous test of reasonableness is unlikely to foster uniformity either in the application of standards, should there be any, or in the pragmatic exercise of discretion. Discretion is at least under better control within tests that focus on the degree of probability as more probable than not, highly probable, or almost certain. I should welcome a test of high probability for harmlessness. Given an error that affected a substantial right, the judgment below is suspect. Unless the appellate court believes it highly probable that the error did not affect the judgment, it should reverse.
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"Any test less stringent entails too great a risk of affirming a judgment that was influenced by an error. Moreover, a less stringent test may fail to deter an appellate judge from focusing his inquiry on the correctness of the result and then holding an error harmless whenever he equated the result with his own predilections.
"There are objections also to the two tests that are more stringent than that of high probability. If the test were the mere presence of error, appellate courts could reverse, as many did in the nineteenth century, for any error, no matter how trivial. The end result was public disaffection with the judicial process. Almost as stringent is a test that would require reversal unless the court was almost certain that the error did not affect the judgment. This test, adopted by Baron Parke in Crease v. Barrett, still prevails in England. It is also the test prescribed by the United States Supreme Court when error is of constitutional dimension."*fn10 Traynor, pp. 34-35 (footnotes omitted).
I think the time has come for us to articulate a standard by which non-constitutional error will be judged in the Pennsylvania appellate process. The standard, in my view, should be that such an error will result in the reversal of a conviction where the reviewing court cannot say, with a high degree of probability, that the error has not influenced the determination of the jury; otherwise, the judgment should be affirmed.
When the evidence in this case is reviewed with the above standard in mind,*fn11 I cannot conclude that it is highly
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probable that the errors which crept into this case did not contribute to the verdict of guilty against Stanton Story. It is true that the prosecution adduced proof quite apart from that here challenged which, while not overwhelming, was ample to establish Story's guilt. On the other hand, the Commonwealth's case was tainted from the outset by totally irrelevant material in the form of the testimony of the widow of Patrick Wallace, the victim, the photograph of the victim on the beach with his young child, the fact that the
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child was crippled, and the fact that Wallace, a police officer, enjoyed a splendid reputation. These factors were calculated to excite the sympathy of the jury, and formed a mental picture in the minds of the jurors before they heard any of the operative facts of the case.*fn12 I think it quite possible that these images did in fact have the purpose intended; they made impossible the unemotional approach with which jurors should undertake the difficult and important task of reaching objective and reasoned verdicts. By insisting on creating this kind of "profile" of the slain man, the prosecution, with the permission of the court, engaged in the kind of "overkill" which unhappily causes verdicts to be set aside in the interest of assuring, not a perfect trial, but a trial which meets the ordinary standards of fairness. It is for this reason that I concur in the judgment of the Court.