Appeal from Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, of Philadelphia County, No. 528 November, 1979.
Norris E. Gelman, Philadelphia, for appellant.
Marianne E. Cox, Assistant District Attorney, Philadelphia, for Com., appellee.
Wieand, McEwen and Melinson, JJ.
[ 382 Pa. Super. Page 158]
Dr. Paul Fried, who had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, died on July 23, 1976, in his home in Philadelphia. The Assistant Medical Examiner for the City of Philadelphia executed a death certificate reciting that Dr. Fried had died as a result of suicide by ingestion of unknown substances. An autopsy performed at the request of the family by Dr. Milton Helpern, M.D., a former Medical Examiner for the City of New York, produced a report that Dr. Fried's death had not been a suicide but the result of natural causes. After Dr. Helpern died, additional opinions were obtained,*fn1 and on the basis of these opinions, Catherine Spear Fried, the widow of Dr. Fried, was arrested and charged with murder. A trial by jury resulted in a finding that she was guilty of murder of the first degree. The trial court, however, awarded a new trial, and a panel of the Superior Court affirmed. Commonwealth v. Fried, 327 Pa. Super. 234, 475 A.2d 773 (1984).
At the second trial, the cause of death was once again disputed vigorously. The Commonwealth contended that Dr. Fried's death had been caused by suffocation at the hands of his wife, while the defendant-wife contended that Dr. Fried had died of natural causes. The Commonwealth also produced testimony by Gerald Sklar and Michael Selkow, both of whom were convicted felons, that the defendant had attempted to hire them to kill Dr. Fried; and Sklar testified that the defendant had subsequently admitted to him that she had done it herself by holding a pillow over her
[ 382 Pa. Super. Page 159]
husband's face. A jury again found Mrs. Fried guilty of murder of the first degree. This time, however, the trial court denied post-trial motions and sentenced her to life imprisonment. This appeal followed.
Appellant's principal argument is that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury that it could consider the alleged admission made by appellant if convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Dr. Fried probably had been killed by felonious means and if "the circumstances [were] more consistent with death having been caused by a felonious killing by suffocation than in some other way." We agree that these instructions were erroneous; and, therefore, we reverse and remand for a new trial.
The decided cases distinguish between the Commonwealth's initial burden of showing that a death was more consistent with a criminal act than other causes in order to render admissible a confession and the Commonwealth's ultimate burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the death was caused by a criminal act before the jury may consider a confession for the purpose of identifying the killer. This distinction was explained in Commonwealth v. Drexel, 349 Pa. Super. 335, 503 A.2d 27 (1986), appeal denied, 514 Pa. 616, 521 A.2d 931 (1987), as follows:
Pennsylvania has developed a corpus delicti rule of evidence that states that before the Commonwealth may introduce a defendant's confession or admission, it must offer independent evidence that a crime in fact occurred. Commonwealth v. Moore, 466 Pa. 510, 513, 353 A.2d 808, 809 (1976); 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. Palmer, 448 Pa. 282, 285-86, 292 A.2d 921, 922 (1972). Such independent evidence need not conclusively prove that a crime was committed; rather, the rule is satisfied if the evidence "points to an unlawful killing, ...