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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. JAMES WEBB (09/22/80)

decided: September 22, 1980.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE,
v.
JAMES WEBB, APPELLANT



Nos. 115 and 200 January Term 1978, Appeals from the Judgments of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, of Philadelphia at Nos. 1038-1041 January Term 1977, Entered: No. 115 in the Supreme Court on March 17, 1978 No. 200 in the Superior Court on March 17, 1978; certified to the Supreme Court on May 2, 1978

COUNSEL

Daniel M. Preminger, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Robert B. Lawler, Chief, Appeals Division, Michelle Goldfarb, Asst. Dist. Attys., Philadelphia, for appellee.

Eagen, C. J., and O'Brien, Roberts, Nix, Larsen, Flaherty and Kauffman, JJ.

Author: Eagen

[ 491 Pa. Page 332]

OPINION

In a non-jury trial, James Webb was found guilty of murder of the first degree, arson, aggravated assault, simple assault, and risking a catastrophe. Post-verdict motions were denied, and Webb was sentenced to life imprisonment on the murder conviction; not less than ten nor more than twenty years imprisonment, concurrently, on the arson conviction; not less than two and one-half nor more than five years imprisonment, concurrently, on the simple and aggravated assault convictions. Webb then filed these appeals.*fn1

[ 491 Pa. Page 333]

The first assignment of error is the trial court's denial of a pre-trial motion to suppress the evidence of statements made by Webb to investigating police officers while he was in the hospital. It is argued these statements were involuntary and should not have been admitted as evidence because Webb's physical and mental condition at the pertinent time precluded a free and voluntary choice. Our scope of review is limited to determining whether the factual findings of the suppression court are supported by the record and whether the legal conclusions drawn therefrom are in error. Commonwealth Page 333} v. Hall, 475 Pa. 482, 380 A.2d 1238 (1977). The suppression court found the following facts in reference to the challenged evidence.

Webb was admitted to the hospital at 12:30 a. m. on December 16, 1976 in fair condition but suffering from second degree burns to the face, ears, and hands. The attending physician prescribed percodan, a painkiller which does not reduce an individual's sensorium,*fn2 to reduce Webb's discomfort. Webb was advised, if the pain persisted or increased, he could have a sedative; but he made no such request. The attending physician spoke with Webb several times on December 16, and 17, 1976 and concluded Webb's sensorium was clear and well-oriented. A detective, at 10:35 a. m. on December 17, 1976, requested and received permission from the attending physician to speak with Webb. The detective advised Webb he was to be questioned about the arson death of Clarence Keyes which occurred on December 15, 1976. The detective read the Miranda*fn3 warnings, and, after Webb indicated he understood the warnings and was willing to answer questions, he was questioned by the detective until about 10:53 a.m. Although in discomfort, Webb appeared lucid, alert and cooperative, and not under the influence of narcotic medication. Webb was considerably improved on December 18, 1976, and his sensorium remained clear and well-oriented. Another detective interviewed Webb in the hospital on December 18, 1976 from about 9 a.m. to 9:35 a.m. after obtaining permission from the supervising nurse. Webb was again advised he was going to be questioned about the arson murder, was warned of his rights, and again indicated he understood. Webb answered some questions but then invoked his constitutional privilege to remain silent, and the interview ended. We find ample support for the foregoing findings of fact in the record.

[ 491 Pa. Page 334]

Turning now to the suppression court's conclusions of law, we must determine, considering the totality of the circumstances surrounding Webb's questioning, whether his statements were a result of factors which overwhelmed his ability to exercise a reasoned choice. Commonwealth v. Hunt, 263 Pa. Super. 504, 398 A.2d 690 (1979).

The suppression court concluded the Commonwealth proved by a preponderance of the evidence that, on December 16 and 17, 1976, Webb's physical condition did not interfere with his ability to exercise an unfettered will. This conclusion is fully supported by the following facts. On both December 17 and 18, 1976, Webb was informed of his constitutional rights and indicated he understood those rights before submitting to the detectives' questioning. The drugs used in his treatment did not affect his ability to think clearly. His pain was apparently tolerable since he was offered a sedative but declined it. Finally, numerous conversations with the attending physician led that physician to conclude his sensorium was not impaired. Moreover, Webb exercised his right to remain silent during the second period of questioning. Given these facts, we are not persuaded the ...


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