Appeals from the Judgment and Sentence of Death at No. 2379, and Judgments and Sentences at Nos. 2381 and 2382, October Term, 1983, Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Trial Division.
John S. Manos, Philadelphia, for appellant.
Ronald Eisenberg, Chief, Appeals Div., Gaele McLaughlin Barthold, Deputy Dist. Atty., Marion MacIntyre, Deputy Atty. Gen., for appellee.
Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ. Hutchinson, J., joins the majority opinion and files a concurring opinion. Nix, C.j., and Larsen and McDermott, JJ., filed dissenting opinions.
On April 19, 1984, in a trial by jury in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the appellant, James R. Bryant, was found guilty of burglary, robbery, and murder of the first degree. A suspended sentence was imposed with respect to burglary, and a ten to twenty year term of imprisonment was imposed for robbery. In connection with the murder conviction, a separate sentencing hearing was held, as required by 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9711, and appellant was sentenced to death. The instant direct appeal ensued.
The incident from which the convictions arose was one in which an elderly woman was beaten and robbed in her home. Specifically, on December 1, 1978, at a time nearing midnight, the home of a seventy-four year old woman in the Germantown section of the City of Philadelphia was burglarized. In the course of the burglary, the woman, Edith Steckle, was brutally beaten and robbed. Steckle died
approximately two weeks later as a result of the injuries sustained. The injuries included a badly beaten face, broken ribs, a broken leg, etc. The perpetrator of the crime also ransacked Steckle's house, and stole a number of items including a television set, a radio, and a ring.
There was no direct evidence as to the identity of the guilty party, for Steckle never regained consciousness after the beating, and there were no other eyewitnesses to the crime. One of Steckle's neighbors did observe an individual, believed to be male, walking along an adjoining street shortly after the crime occurred, and the individual appeared to be carrying a television set on his shoulder. The neighbor testified at trial, however, that it had not been possible to observe many identifying details of the individual's appearance. The neighbor was only able to testify that the individual was wearing a dark jacket, and that the individual was between 5'5" and 5'8" in height, but details such as race and other physical characteristics had not been observed. There were no useful fingerprints recovered from the crime scene, and the case against appellant rested primarily upon the circumstantial inference to be drawn from the fact that, approximately four weeks after the crime, a search of appellant's residence was conducted and the stolen television, radio, and ring were recovered.
At trial, evidence was introduced that appellant had committed a prior crime, and the details of that prior crime were fully set forth through the testimony of a number of witnesses. It is now argued that admission of such evidence constituted prejudicial error warranting a new trial. We agree. The prior crime consisted of a burglary and assault that occurred slightly more than two months before the instant one, at a location approximately four blocks away. The victim was an eighty-four year old woman, who, in the course of a burglary of her home, was severely beaten about the face, but who later recovered from her injuries. The beating was inflicted with fists, and with a ceramic door stop that the victim had kept in her home. The perpetrator, wearing a dark jacket, had entered the
victim's house through a window, within an hour after midnight, and proceeded to ransack the premises. He defecated on the floor of the dining room, and left additional traces of excrement on the floor in an upstairs bedroom. Police had been alerted that a burglary was in progress, and, upon arriving at the scene, confronted the perpetrator as he left the premises through the front door. He ran from the scene and escaped, but police later positively identified him as appellant. Appellant's palm print was also discovered in the victim's house. Based upon this evidence, appellant was convicted.
In the instant trial, evidence regarding this prior criminal conduct was ruled admissible by the trial court on grounds it was probative of appellant's guilt with respect to the crimes charged. Under the facts presented, however, we believe the trial court's ruling was clearly erroneous. As stated in Commonwealth v. Morris, 493 Pa. 164, 175, 425 A.2d 715, 720 (1981),
It is a principle of long standing in this Commonwealth that evidence of a distinct crime, except under special circumstances, is inadmissible against a defendant who is being tried for another crime because the commission of one crime is not proof of the commission of another, and the effect of such evidence is to create prejudice against the defendant in the jury's mind. Commonwealth v. Fortune, 464 Pa. 367, 373, 346 A.2d 783, 786 (197); Commonwealth v. Wable, 382 Pa. 80, 84, 114 A.2d 334, 336 (1955).
Indeed, evidence of prior criminal activity on the part of the accused is so highly prejudicial in its effect upon the jury as to be equaled only by an actual confession in its impact upon the deliberative process. See Commonwealth v. Spruill, 480 Pa. 601, 606, 391 A.2d 1048, 1050 (1978). Recognition of this fact, and the belief that an individual's past propensity to commit crime should not condemn him to repeated subsequent convictions merely because he has a "bad" character, have been the basis for excluding such evidence. See Commonwealth v. Jones, 499 Pa. 522, 527-528,
A.2d 8, 11 (1982). In McCormick, Evidence, § 190 (1972 2d ed.), the policy of excluding such evidence was well summarized:
The disfavor for receiving proof of the character of a person as evidence that on a particular occasion he acted in keeping with his disposition is strongly felt when the state seeks to show that the accused is a bad man and thus more likely to have committed the crime . . . . [I]n the setting of jury trial the danger of prejudice outweighs the probative value.
This danger is at its highest when character is shown by other criminal acts . . . . [T]he prosecution may not introduce evidence of other criminal acts of the accused unless the evidence is substantially relevant for some other purpose than to show a probability that he committed the crime on trial because he is a man of criminal character. There are numerous other purposes for which evidence of ...