Smalis v. Pennsylvania

RESPONDENT: Pennsylvania
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Western District of New York

DOCKET NO.: 85-227
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

CITATION: 476 US 140 (1986)
ARGUED: Apr 02, 1986
DECIDED: May 05, 1986

Mr. Andrew L. Frey - for United States, as amicus curiae in support of Respondents
Norma Chase - on behalf of Petitioners
Robert L. Eberhardt - on behalf of Respondents

Facts of the case


Media for Smalis v. Pennsylvania

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 02, 1986 in Smalis v. Pennsylvania

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Smalis against Pennsylvania, and Ms. Chase, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Norma Chase:

Mr. Chief Justice, and if it please the Court:

The issue in this case is the validity of Pennsylvania's rule permitting the Commonwealth to appeal an insufficiency determination made at the close of a timely rights case.

The rule was established with very little discussion or analysis at a time when the Double Jeopardy Clause did not apply to the states.

With this case it suddenly became a rule in season of a rationale.

The defendants were charged each with two counts of murder and various lesser charges as a result of a fire in a restaurant-apartment building that they owned.

The trial was non-jury.

The case was largely circumstantial.

At the close of the Commonwealth's case, the defendants challenged the sufficiency of the Commonwealth's evidence.

They did this with a motion that we call a demurrer in Pennsylvania, a demurrer to the evidence.

The issue raised by a demurrer to the evidence is the same as the issue raised by a Rule 29 motion in federal court.

If it's true, is it enough.

The court found that the evidence, even if true, was insufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that either of the defendants set the fire.

Byron R. White:

When did the court hold that?

Norma Chase:

December of 1980.

Byron R. White:

I know, but at what stage of the trial?

Norma Chase:

The Commonwealth had rested, and the defendants demurred to the evidence.

Byron R. White:

So, this was mid-trial?

Norma Chase:

Yes, but the Commonwealth had rested.

The court, however, denied demurrer with respect to involuntary manslaughter and various lesser charges involving a reckless state of mind.

The District Attorney's office appealed the order sustaining the demurrer and asked that trial of the remaining charges be stayed depending the outcome of the appeal.

The District Attorney's office also asked for reconsideration of the order sustaining the demurrer, and the Commonwealth presently finds it significant, as they indicate at footnote 11 at page 46 of their brief, that the defendants at that juncture joined in the Commonwealth's request that the ruling in favor of the defendants be reconsidered.

We put our reasons on the record at the time.

Defendants wanted so desperately to complete the trial on the involuntary manslaughter and the remaining charges that they were willing to suffer the reinstatement of the murder charges with all the risks that that entailed, so that they could complete the trial rather than have the trial interrupted for an appeal.

William H. Rehnquist:

Ms. Chase, in Pennsylvania do you have to demur to the evidence at the close of the prosecution's case in order to later make a motion for judgment n.o.b. if the jury convicts you?

Norma Chase:

My understanding is, you don't.

William H. Rehnquist:

Because I was wondering, if the defendants were so anxious to have the trial completed, they could have foregone the demurrer to the evidence.

Norma Chase:

That's true.

They had lived in that courtroom for six weeks.

They didn't want to be in there another six weeks putting in their defense, and they wanted to know, what charges did we already win on.