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decided: July 14, 1978.


Nos. 97 and 125 March Term, 1976, Appeal from the Judgments of Sentence in the Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County, Pa., Criminal Division, at Nos. CC7406219A and CC7407520A


Paul F. Laughlin, Thomas G. Michalek, Laughlin & Michalek, 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. Manderino, J., filed a concurring opinion in which Nix, J., joins. Roberts, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Eagen, C. J., dissents and would affirm the judgment of the court below.

Author: Pomeroy

[ 480 Pa. Page 133]


On March 4, 1975, appellant, Hayford Christian, was convicted by a jury of murder of the second degree, burglary, rape and deviate sexual intercourse. After denial of post-trial motions, appellant was sentenced to imprisonment for life on the murder charge. Consecutive sentences of ten to twenty years imprisonment were imposed on each of the remaining charges. From these judgments Christian appeals.*fn1

[ 480 Pa. Page 134]

The record discloses that early on the morning of July 9, 1974, Agnes Mattes, a seventy-nine year old resident of Jefferson Borough, Allegheny County, was forcibly removed from her home and taken to a nearby isolated swamp where she was raped and sodomized. Her body was discovered later the same day, face down in the swampy area. The medical evidence established that the cause of death was drowning. Christian was arrested and charged with the murder and rape on September 27, 1974.

The evidence against appellant was largely circumstantial and consisted of the following: Testimony by a female neighbor of appellant that at approximately 2:00 A.M. on the morning of July 9, following a party in the housing complex where they resided, Christian had made sexual advances to her which she had refused; testimony that Christian had not returned to his residence during the early morning hours of July 9; witness reports that Christian had been seen on the morning of July 9 coming from the area in which the crime occurred; evidence that Christian's clothes were covered with a murky substance, possibly matching the mud from the swampy area in which the body was found, but that the articles of clothing had been immediately cleaned before the police investigators were able to examine them on the day of the crime; and testimony of a prisoner who overheard the appellant make an incriminating statement while incarcerated and awaiting trial.

Appellant raises a number of alleged trial errors as grounds for a new trial. One of these is that the trial court unduly restricted the voir dire examination, a contention that we find meritorious. We, accordingly, reverse the judgment of sentence and award a new trial.*fn2

[ 480 Pa. Page 135]

Prior to trial, counsel for each side submitted proposed voir dire questions to the trial court. Among appellant's requested inquiries were the following:

"(1) Have you had any dealings or experiences with Negro persons that might make it difficult for you to sit in impartial judgment on this case?

"(2) This case involves a rape-murder, the defendant in this case is black, do you feel that blacks have sexual drives that differ from whites?

"(3) There may be some evidence in this case that early on the night when this murder was committed the defendant, who is black, evidenced affection for a white girl. Do you believe that there is anything wrong with a black man showing affection to a white woman?

"(4) Do you feel that anyone so evidencing affection would be more likely to commit a crime than anyone else?"

Question (1) was allowed but the remaining three questions were refused. Appellant made prompt objection to this ruling and preserved the issue for appellate review. The issue now presented is whether this ruling denied Christian a fair trial.

There is no doubt that voir dire is a crucial stage in a criminal proceeding and one which affords counsel an opportunity to determine juror qualifications as well as establish a

[ 480 Pa. Page 136]

    basis for the effective exercise of peremptory challenges.*fn3 While the right of a litigant to inquire into juror qualifications has been generally recognized,*fn4 the scope of such inquiries is, nevertheless, a matter within the discretion of the trial court and that court's rulings will be reversed only upon a finding of an abuse of discretion. Commonwealth v. Futch, supra; Commonwealth v. Brown, 464 Pa. 625, 347 A.2d 716 (1975); Commonwealth v. Segers, 460 Pa. 149, 331 A.2d 462 (1975); Commonwealth v. Dukes, 460 Pa. 180, 331 A.2d 478 (1975); Commonwealth v. Johnson, 452 Pa. 130, 305 A.2d 5 (1973). A ...

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