Nos. 1547 and 1580 April Term 1978, Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, Criminal Division, at No. 150 of 1978.
Marilyn C. Fisher, Erie, for appellant at No. 1580 and for appellee at No. 1547.
John H. Moore, Assistant District Attorney, Erie, submitted a brief on behalf of appellant at No. 1547 and for appellee at No. 1580.
Spaeth, Hoffman and Van der Voort, JJ.
[ 277 Pa. Super. Page 174]
Both the Commonwealth and the defendant have appealed. The appeals have been consolidated, and this opinion will consider both of them.
The defendant, Alphonso Moyer, was convicted by a jury of arson. He filed timely post-verdict motions in arrest of judgment and, in the alternative, for a new trial. At first, the lower court denied the motions. Upon Moyer's petition, however, the lower court reconsidered Moyer's claim that the Commonwealth had failed at trial to establish the corpus delicti of arson, and concluded that Moyer's two confessions had indeed been improperly admitted. The court then set aside the jury's verdict and ordered a new trial. On its appeal from that order, the Commonwealth argues that the corpus delicti was established, and that the admission of Moyer's confessions was therefore proper. On his appeal, Moyer argues that the lower court was correct in its conclusion that the corpus delicti was not established, but incorrect in ordering a new trial. According to Moyer, the court should have arrested judgment and discharged him.*fn1
[ 277 Pa. Super. Page 175]
Before the Commonwealth may introduce a defendant's confession, it must first establish by independent evidence that a crime in fact occurred. Commonwealth v. Cockfield, 465 Pa. 415, 350 A.2d 833 (1976); Commonwealth v. Ware, 459 Pa. 334, 329 A.2d 258 (1974); Commonwealth v. May, 451 Pa. 31, 301 A.2d 368 (1973); Commonwealth v. Leamer, 449 Pa. 76, 295 A.2d 272 (1972); Commonwealth v. Palmer, 448 Pa. 282, 292 A.2d 921 (1972). This means that before Moyer's confessions in the present case could be introduced, the Commonwealth had to establish the corpus delicti of arson, i.e., (1) that a fire occurred, and (2) that it had an incendiary origin. Commonwealth v. Moore, 466 Pa. 510, 353 A.2d 808 (1976); Commonwealth v. Cockfield, supra; Commonwealth v. Nasuti, 385 Pa. 436, 123 A.2d 435 (1956). "This rule is rooted in a hesitancy to convict one of crime on the basis of his statements only. 'The grounds upon which the rule rests are the hasty and unguarded character which is often attached to confessions and admissions and the consequent danger of a conviction where no crime has in fact been committed . . . .'" Commonwealth v. Ware, supra, 459 Pa. at 365, 329 A.2d at 274, quoting Commonwealth v. Turza, 340 Pa. 128, 134, 16 A.2d 401, 404 (1940).
[ 277 Pa. Super. Page 176]
In determining whether here the Commonwealth established the corpus delicti, certain basic principles must be applied. The corpus delicti could be proved by either direct or circumstantial evidence, just as any other fact, Commonwealth v. Leslie, 424 Pa. 331, 227 A.2d 900 (1967); Commonwealth v. Brusky, 219 Pa. Super. 54, 280 A.2d 826 (1971), the only qualification being that the proof of the corpus delicti had to be proof independent of Moyer's confessions. Moreover, the Commonwealth did not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that arson was committed. Commonwealth v. Patterson, 247 Pa. Super. 527, 372 A.2d 1214 (1977); Commonwealth v. Stokes, 225 Pa. Super. 411, 311 A.2d 714 (1973); Commonwealth v. Rhoads, 225 Pa. Super. 208, 310 A.2d 406 (1973). It was enough if the Commonwealth "established that the fire [ ] resulted from human intervention even though the evidence [was] consistent with both accidental and criminal conduct." Commonwealth v. May, supra, 451 Pa. at 33, 301 A.2d at 370. See also Commonwealth v. Cockfield, supra; Commonwealth v. Rhoads, supra. A corpus delicti, however, was not established "if the independent evidence [was] equally consistent with accident or criminality." Commonwealth v. Ware, supra, 459 Pa. at 366, 329 A.2d at 274. See also Commonwealth v. Moore, supra, 466 Pa. at 513, 353 A.2d at 809.
The Commonwealth produced six witnesses at trial, whose testimony may be summarized as follows.
On November 11, 1977, Clarence Schnaekel, Deputy Chief of the Erie Fire Department, was called to a fire at 1240 E. 20th Street. No one was at the residence when he arrived, and within half an hour, city firemen brought the fire under control. From his observations on the night of the fire, Schnaekel concluded that the fire originated inside the wall of the second floor bedroom, ...