18 A.3d 244 (Pa. 2011), Commonwealth v. Spotz

Citation:18 A.3d 244
Opinion Judge:McCAFFERY, Justice.
Party Name:COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Mark Newton SPOTZ, Appellant.
Attorney:Robert Brett Dunham, David Lee Zuckerman, Michael Wiseman, Eric John Montroy, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, for Mark Newton Spotz. Jaime M. Keating, Cumberland County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Judge Panel:CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ. Justice EAKIN did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Chief Justice CASTILLE, Justices BAER, TODD, and ORIE MELVIN join the opinion. Chief Justice CASTILLE files a concurring opinion, joined by Justi...
Case Date:April 29, 2011
Court:Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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18 A.3d 244 (Pa. 2011)

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee


Mark Newton SPOTZ, Appellant.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

April 29, 2011

Submitted Nov. 17, 2009.

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Robert Brett Dunham, David Lee Zuckerman, Michael Wiseman, Eric John Montroy, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, for Mark Newton Spotz.

Jaime M. Keating, Cumberland County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.



McCAFFERY, Justice.

Mark Newton Spotz (" Appellant" ) has appealed from the denial of his petition for collateral relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act 1 (" PCRA" ), following his conviction for first-degree murder and the imposition of a sentence of death. We affirm.

While engaged in a three-day crime spree in early 1995, Appellant killed four people in four counties. He was tried

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separately for each homicide, and he was ultimately convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of his brother, Dustin Spotz, in Clearfield County, and of first-degree murder in the deaths of June Ohlinger, Penny Gunnet, and Betty Amstutz, in, respectively, Schuylkill, York, and Cumberland Counties. Although the Superior Court overturned Appellant's manslaughter conviction and granted him a new trial, this Court reversed and reinstated the conviction. Commonwealth v. Spotz, 582 Pa. 207, 870 A.2d 822 (2005) (" Spotz IV " ).2 On direct appeal, this Court affirmed each of Appellant's first-degree murder convictions and sentences of death. See Commonwealth v. Spotz, 552 Pa. 499, 716 A.2d 580 (1998) (Schuylkill County case) (" Spotz I " ); Commonwealth v. Spotz, 562 Pa. 498, 756 A.2d 1139 (2000) (York County case) (" Spotz II " ); Commonwealth v. Spotz, 563 Pa. 269, 759 A.2d 1280 (2000) (Cumberland County case) (" Spotz III " ). In addition, we affirmed the order of the PCRA court denying Appellant collateral relief from his Schuylkill County first-degree murder conviction.3 See Commonwealth v. Spotz, 587 Pa. 1, 896 A.2d 1191 (2006) (" Spotz V " ).

Here, Appellant seeks review of the order of the PCRA court denying his petition for collateral relief from his conviction for the murder of Betty Amstutz in Cumberland County. Briefly, the circumstances of the case, as set forth by this Court on direct review and/or by the PCRA court, are as follows. On February 2, 1995, having already committed three homicides in the prior two days, Appellant abducted Ms. Amstutz in or near her Harrisburg home. Holding her hostage, he directed her to cash two checks at two different banks, transactions that were filmed by security cameras. Appellant also used Ms. Amstutz's credit card to purchase items from a sporting goods store and to check into a Carlisle hotel. In the early evening, two witnesses observed a white male standing along a Carlisle road close to a parked car matching the description of Ms. Amstutz's vehicle. Later in the evening, Appellant and two other individuals, Charles Carothers, an acquaintance, and Michelle Rhinehart, the mother of Appellant's two children, smoked crack cocaine in the hotel room. Mr. Carothers subsequently left the hotel and drove Ms. Amstutz's car to the apartment of Ms. Rhinehart's sister.

The following morning, near the side of the road where witnesses had seen Ms. Amstutz's car, a worker discovered her body, which had sustained multiple gunshot wounds, and notified the authorities. Later in the morning, police stopped Ms. Amstutz's car, in which Ms. Rhinehart's sister and a friend were traveling to pick up Appellant and Ms. Rhinehart at the hotel. Police then surrounded Appellant's hotel room and apprehended him after a lengthy standoff.

A post-arrest search of the hotel room yielded the following: blood-stained jeans; a knife; credit cards issued in the name of Penny Gunnet, one of the previous murder victims; and an itemized accounting, written by Appellant, of the money he had stolen and his expenditures on crack cocaine and other items. Bullets recovered from Ms. Amstutz's body and from the location where her body was discovered

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matched a nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol in Appellant's possession. Appellant's fingerprints were found on Ms. Amstutz's car, and blood on his shoe was consistent with that of Ms. Amstutz.

Appellant was tried by a jury for Ms. Amstutz's murder in May 1996. Appellant's 17-year-old sometime girlfriend, Christina Noland, testified for the Commonwealth regarding Appellant's actions and motivation in the two days prior to the abduction and murder of Ms. Amstutz. Two days before Ms. Amstutz's murder, Ms. Noland was with Appellant in his mother's home in Clearfield County when he shot and killed his brother, Dustin Spotz, during an argument. Appellant and Ms. Noland fled to Schuylkill County, where, in need of a vehicle, Appellant abducted June Ohlinger, stole her car, and murdered her. After a short trip to Delaware, Appellant and Ms. Noland returned to Pennsylvania, this time to York County, where Appellant abducted Penny Gunnet, stole her car, and murdered her. Appellant then went on to Cumberland County without Ms. Noland, where the abduction and murder of Ms. Amstutz took place. Other evidence admitted at trial showed that the bullets used to kill Ms. Amstutz, Dustin Spotz, Ms. Gunnet, and Ms. Ohlinger all matched Appellant's pistol.

During the guilt phase of trial, Appellant proceeded pro se, and he asserted an innocence defense, attempting to cast blame on those in his company on the day of the murder. After the jury found Appellant guilty of first-degree murder, Taylor Andrews, Esq., Chief Public Defender of Cumberland County, assumed the role of defense counsel for the penalty phase. After hearing testimony from numerous witnesses, the jury found three aggravating and two mitigating circumstances, determined that the former outweighed the latter, and accordingly imposed the death penalty. The aggravating circumstances were that Appellant had committed the killing while in the perpetration of a felony, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6); had a significant history of violent felony convictions, § 9711(d)(9); and had been convicted of another murder, § 9711(d)(11). The mitigating circumstances were that Appellant had been neglected during his childhood and had a poor upbringing by his parents. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(e)(8). Following formal sentencing on June 17, 1996, Appellant filed a direct appeal to this Court, during which time he continued to be represented by Mr. Andrews. We affirmed the judgment of sentence on October 20, 2000, and the United States Supreme Court denied Appellant's petition for a writ of certiorari. Spotz III, 759 A.2d 1280, cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1104, 122 S.Ct. 902, 151 L.Ed.2d 871 (2002).

On December 4, 2002, Appellant filed a counseled " Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief Under Article I, Section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution And For Statutory Post-Conviction Relief Under The Post-Conviction Relief Act; " three supplemental petitions were filed in 2007.4 The PCRA court conducted an evidentiary hearing over a period of six days, following which the issues were briefed and then orally argued. On June 26, 2008, the PCRA court filed a 63-page opinion and order denying all of Appellant's claims. Appellant appealed to this Court on July 25, 2008, via a filing entitled " Jurisdictional Statement," in which he sought " review of each and every part of the [PCRA court's June 26, 2008] Order." Jurisdictional Statement, filed 7/25/08, at 1. In Appellant's

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brief to this Court, he has raised twenty issues, many of which have multiple parts.5

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Under the applicable standard of review, we must determine whether the ruling of the PCRA court is supported by the record and is free of legal error. Commonwealth v. Marshall, 596 Pa. 587, 947 A.2d 714, 719 (2008). The PCRA court's credibility determinations, when supported by the record, are binding on this Court. Commonwealth v. Johnson, 600 Pa. 329, 966 A.2d 523, 532, 539 (2009). However, this Court applies a de novo standard of review to the PCRA court's legal conclusions. Commonwealth v. Rios, 591 Pa. 583, 920 A.2d 790, 810 (2007).

To prevail on a petition for PCRA relief, a petitioner must plead and prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his or her conviction or sentence resulted from one or more of the circumstances enumerated in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(2). These circumstances include a violation of the Pennsylvania or United States Constitution or ineffectiveness of counsel, either of which " so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(2)(i) and (ii). In addition, a petitioner must show that the claims of error have not been previously litigated or waived. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(3). An issue has been waived " if the petitioner could have raised it but failed to do so before trial, at trial, on appeal or in a prior state post[-]conviction proceeding." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9544(b). An issue has been previously litigated if " the highest appellate court in which the petitioner could have had review as a matter of right has ruled on the merits of the issue." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9544(a)(2).

In many of Appellant's issues, he has...

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