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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. SONDRA HELM (05/01/79)

decided: May 1, 1979.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE,
v.
SONDRA HELM, APPELLANT



No. 193 January Term, 1977, Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Section, Trial Division, of Philadelphia County, Imposed on Bill of Information No. 1577 of April Term, 1976

COUNSEL

Frank M. Jackson, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Robert B. Lawler, Chief, Appeals Div., Asst. Dist. Atty. Cynthia H. Severinsen, Philadelphia, for appellee.

Eagen, C. J., and Roberts, Nix, Manderino and Larsen, JJ. O'Brien, J., did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Roberts and Larsen, JJ., concurred in the result.

Author: Manderino

[ 485 Pa. Page 317]

OPINION OF THE COURT

Appellant, Sondra Helm, was arrested and charged with murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. Appellant was tried before a judge, sitting without a jury on July 9, 1976. At trial, the prosecution certified that the murder charges rose no higher than murder in the third degree. The trial court found appellant guilty of voluntarily manslaughter. Post-verdict motions were denied, and a sentence of eighteen months to three years imprisonment was imposed. This direct appeal followed.

The charges against appellant arose out of the stabbing death of James Harvey. That stabbing took place at appellant's apartment on the afternoon of April 6, 1976. The prosecution's evidence consisted, in its entirety, of the testimony of a police officer as to the contents of a statement

[ 485 Pa. Page 318]

    given to him by appellant after her arrest on the evening of April 6, 1976, and of stipulations to the effect that James Harvey died on that date of a single stab wound to the chest. Appellant's statement said in relevant part,

"When we got back to the house Goobie [a friend of appellant's] came into the house to try some Chianti Wine and he did. We was talking for a while then Goobie left. My daughter came in from school and I was getting ready to fix [Harvey's] chicken and call my mother to tell her I was coming over in a half hour or an hour. Dee, my daughter, came in and was sitting next to [Harvey] in the kitchen eating a steak. He took a couple bites of her steak and she told him he wasn't going to eat it all. I told him he could wait for the chicken because it was almost ready. Then he started accusing me of things and then I asked for my keys and told him to get his things. He said, 'Oh, did Goobie tell you to get your keys?' He started insinuating things that wasn't true and started hitting me and knocking me down on the kitchen floor. He pulled my hair and hit my head on the floor. I told him to get the hell off of me, get his clothes and go back to where he used to stay. I went in the bedroom and we had some more words and he knocked me down and hit me in my face. My daughter told him it didn't make sense for him to hit me and I was carrying his baby. He said how he know it was his. I said, 'Is that what you really mean?' He didn't answer. I said, 'Give me my keys and you can go ahead.' He asked me, 'Is that what your friend said, get your keys?' I said, 'No, didn't nobody tell me to get anything cause don't nobody tell me what to do. I just want you to stop hitting me.' He threw my keys to the kitchen back door and I was going to get them and he grabbed me. I pushed his hand away and my daughter said, 'You're not going to hit my mother anymore.' I was looking in the drawer for a knife cause I wasn't going to get hit anymore. He was standing by the sink on the left-hand side. I was on the right-hand side and Dee was in the middle. I grabbed the knife. He reached out to hit

[ 485 Pa. Page 319]

    me and I came up with the knife and hit him. I didn't realize I had hit him until I saw the blood.

"Question. Where did you go after the stabbing?

Answer. He wanted me to go to the hospital with him but I can't drive a stick. So he drove. I asked him to get somebody to drive but he said he'd rather do it, just for me to come with him. He drove until he couldn't drive any further and stopped at the Community Bar cause he had to go to the bathroom. I tried to find somebody to drive. I stopped some boys and told them to call the emergency wagon and it came up.

"Question. Mrs. Helm, how many months pregnant are you?

Answer. Six months."

The detective also testified that he had verified that appellant was pregnant at the time of the incident.

Following the close of the prosecution's presentation of evidence, the trial court denied appellant's demurrer, and she took the stand and testified. Appellant said that the argument started over two men, George and Goobie. She said that Harvey knocked her away from the stove to the floor while she was frying chicken and that she got up and ran into the bedroom where he followed her. She asked for the apartment keys. According to her testimony, Harvey knocked her to the bedroom floor and began choking her and hit her head against the floor. She said she got up and went back to the kitchen. Harvey followed, although her daughter was between them. Appellant asked for the keys again and Harvey threw them on the floor. Appellant testified that her daughter then said, "You're not going to hit my mother again." With that, according to appellant, the victim "went to lunge" at her; the drawer was open and she grabbed the steak knife. She continued, "Well, I didn't even know I had stabbed him because it seemed to me I just brushed past him. Then I seen the blood and the knife just

[ 485 Pa. Page 320]

    jumped out of my hand." Appellant also testified that Harvey carried a switchblade knife and that she was afraid for her health and safety and that of her unborn child. She did not say that she saw the switchblade knife that afternoon, however.

Appellant's teenage daughter also testified for the defense. She corroborated her mother's testimony that the argument started over two men, George and Goobie, and her testimony was in basic agreement with her mother's as to what transpired. Only one difference existed between appellant's testimony and that of her daughter: appellant testified that she did not see the knife during the fight although she knew he normally carried one, while her daughter testified that at one point during the fight, when her mother was ...


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