No. 1344 Philadelphia, 1981, No. 1435 Philadelphia, 1981 (Consolidated Appeals) Appeal from the Order of May 13, 1981 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Trial Division, Criminal Section No. 79-11-528.
James B. Jordan, Assistant District Attorney, Media, for Commonwealth, appellant (at No. 1344) and appellee (at No. 1435).
Norris E. Gelman, Media, for appellant (at No. 1435) and for appellee (at No. 1344).
Wickersham, Rowley and McEwen, JJ. Wickersham and Rowley, JJ., concur in the result.
[ 327 Pa. Super. Page 237]
Catherine Spear Fried, hereinafter defendant, was convicted by a jury of first degree murder. Post-verdict motions were timely filed and argued before a court en banc which granted defendant a new trial on the grounds that the Commonwealth had failed to establish the corpus delicti of murder beyond a reasonable doubt prior to introducing
[ 327 Pa. Super. Page 238]
certain admissions made by the defendant. The Commonwealth has appealed from the order of the court en banc, and argues that the corpus delicti was properly established and that the admissions made by the defendant were, therefore, properly admitted. The defendant has also filed an appeal, alleging that since the court en banc correctly concluded that the corpus delicti was not established, it was error to order a new trial as such a conclusion requires that she be discharged.*fn1 While we agree that appellant is entitled to a new trial, we do so for reasons other than those expressed by the court en banc.*fn2
[ 327 Pa. Super. Page 239]
It is well-settled that before the Commonwealth may introduce a confession or admission made by an accused, it must first establish by independent evidence that a crime has in fact been committed. Commonwealth v. Smallwood, 497 Pa. 476, 483, 442 A.2d 222, 225 (1982); Commonwealth v. Byrd, 490 Pa. 544, 556, 417 A.2d 173, 179 (1980); Commonwealth v. Moore, 466 Pa. 510, 513, 353 A.2d 808, 809 (1976); Commonwealth v. Cockfield, 465 Pa. 415, 420, 350 A.2d 833, 836 (1976); Commonwealth v. Elder, 305 Pa. Super. 49, 51, 451 A.2d 236, 237 (1982); Commonwealth v. Frison, 301 Pa. Super. 498, 504, 448 A.2d 18, 21 (1982). This evidentiary requirement, known as the corpus delicti rule, "is rooted in a hesitancy to convict one of crime on the basis of his own statements only. 'The grounds on 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. Moore, Page 239} supra, 466 Pa. at 513, 353 A.2d at 809 quoting Commonwealth v. Ware, 459 Pa. 334, 365, 329 A.2d 258, 274 (1974). Accord Commonwealth v. Leamer, 449 Pa. 76, 83, 295 A.2d 272, 275 (1972); Commonwealth v. Palmer, 448 Pa. 282, 286, 292 A.2d 921, 922 (1972); Commonwealth v. Turza, 340 Pa. 128, 134, 16 A.2d 401, 404 (1940); Commonwealth v. Herman, 288 Pa. Super. 219, 230, 431 A.2d 1016, 1022 (1981).
However, while the corpus delicti rule requires that the Commonwealth establish through independent evidence that a crime has occurred before the admissions of an accused may be admitted in evidence and the case submitted to the fact-finder, the threshold requirement that the corpus delicti of the crime be established " is not equivalent to the Commonwealth's ultimate burden of proof. Although independent corroborative evidence is insufficient if it is merely equally as consistent with accident as with crime, Commonwealth v. Leslie, 424 Pa. 331, 227 A.2d 900 (1967), the prosecution has no duty to exclude the possibility of accident in order to establish the corpus delicti. Before introducing an incriminating out-of-court statement the Commonwealth need not prove the existence of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Commonwealth v. Byrd, 490 Pa. 544, 556, 417 A.2d 173, 179 (1980) (citations omitted) (emphasis supplied). Accord Commonwealth v. Moore, supra 466 Pa. at 514 n. 2, 353 A.2d at 810 n. 2; Commonwealth v. Ware, supra 459 Pa. at 367 n. 43, 329 A.2d at 275 n. 43.
Thus, the rule requires the Commonwealth must sustain an initial burden of proof by preliminarily establishing to the satisfaction of the trial judge that the death occurred under circumstances which were more consistent with criminality than with natural causes or accident. Once the Commonwealth has sustained this initial and preliminary burden of proof, which is admittedly slight, the admissions of the accused become admissible. It is for the trial judge to decide whether the Commonwealth has sustained the burden of preliminarily establishing the corpus delicti.
[ 327 Pa. Super. Page 240]
This preliminary burden of proof must be distinguished from the Commonwealth's ultimate burden of proof, namely, the requirement that it establish beyond a reasonable doubt each and every element of the crime to the satisfaction of the fact-finder. It is only when the fact-finder -- here, the jury -- is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that each and every element of the crime has been established that a verdict of guilty may be rendered. When, in a jury trial, the corpus delicti of the crime is in issue and the Commonwealth seeks to use admissions of the accused as substantive evidence of the crime, the court, as we will hereinafter more carefully explain, must instruct the jury to first pass upon whether sufficient evidence, aside from any admissions made by the defendant, has been offered to establish beyond a reasonable doubt the corpus delicti of the crime. Only if the jury is first satisfied that the evidence, independent of the admissions of the defendant, establishes beyond a reasonable doubt the occurrence of the crime, may it proceed to consider the admissions of the defendant as substantive evidence of the guilt of the accused.
[ 327 Pa. Super. Page 241]
The defendant was indicted for the murder of her husband, Paul Fried, M.D. Thus, it was incumbent upon the Commonwealth to establish to the satisfaction of the judge the corpus delicti of murder by evidence independent of admissions made by Mrs. Fried. The corpus delicti of murder consists of evidence "'that a human being is dead and that such death took place under circumstances which indicate criminal means or the commission of a felonious act.'" Commonwealth v. Ware, supra 459 Pa. at 365, 329 A.2d at 274 quoting Commonwealth v. Milliken, 450 Pa. 310, 317, 300 A.2d 78, 82 (1973). Accord Commonwealth v. Kingsley, 480 Pa. 560, 575, 391 A.2d 1027, 1035 (1978); Commonwealth v. Tallon, 478 Pa. 468, 473, 387 A.2d 77, 80 (1978) (Opinion in Support of Affirmance); Commonwealth v. Burns, 409 Pa. 619, 625, 187 A.2d 552, 556 (1963); Commonwealth v. Davis, 308 Pa. Super. 204, 213, 454 A.2d 92, 97 (1982) allocatur denied February 28, 1983; Commonwealth Page 241} v. Williams, 273 Pa. Super. 578, 582, 417 A.2d 1200, 1202 (1980).
The Commonwealth sought to establish at trial that the defendant, Mrs. Fried, had caused the death of her husband, Dr. Fried, during the early morning hours of July 23, 1976 by smothering him with a pillow while he slept. The defense contended that Dr. Fried died from natural causes. The Commonwealth was required to establish therefore, prior to introducing admissions made by appellant, that Dr. Fried's death "took place under circumstances which indicate[d] criminal means . . . ." Commonwealth v. Ware, supra. The court en banc concluded that the evidence, independent of the admissions allegedly made by the defendant, as recited hereinafter, was insufficient to sustain the Commonwealth's preliminary burden of establishing the corpus ...