36 A.3d 121 (Pa. 2012), Commonwealth v. Koehler

Citation:36 A.3d 121
Opinion Judge:BAER, Justice.
Party Name:COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. John Joseph KOEHLER, Appellant.
Attorney:Elizabeth Ann Larin, Federal Community Defender Office, Eastern District of PA, James Moreno, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, for John Joseph Koehler, Jr. James Patrick Barker, Amy Zapp, PA Office of Attorney General, Harrisburg, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Judge Panel:BEFORE: CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ. Chief Justice CASTILLE, Justices EAKIN, TODD, McCAFFERY and ORIE MELVIN join the opinion. Justice SAYLOR files a concurring opinion. Justice SAYLOR, concurring.
Case Date:January 20, 2012
Court:Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Page 121

36 A.3d 121 (Pa. 2012)

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee


John Joseph KOEHLER, Appellant.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

January 20, 2012

Submitted May 5, 2011.

Page 122

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 123

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 124

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 125

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 126

Elizabeth Ann Larin, Federal Community Defender Office, Eastern District of PA, James Moreno, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, for John Joseph Koehler, Jr.

James Patrick Barker, Amy Zapp, PA Office of Attorney General, Harrisburg, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.



BAER, Justice.

In this capital case, John Joseph Koehler (" Appellant" ) appeals from an order of the Bradford County Common Pleas Court, which dismissed his petition for collateral relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (" PCRA" ), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546.1 For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the denial of relief.

The record establishes that in 1996, Appellant was convicted of the first degree murder of Regina Clark and her nine year-old son, Austin Hopper. The evidence presented at Appellant's trial established the following, as recited in our opinion on direct appeal. Commonwealth v. Koehler, 558 Pa. 334, 737 A.2d 225 (1999). In August of 1994, Appellant informed 18 year-old William Curley that he was a " hit man" for the mob. Appellant attempted to recruit Curley into his " profession" by promising that Curley could earn " six digits." 2 Curley entertained the proposition, believing

Page 127

that he would only kill drug dealers and individuals connected with the mob, not innocent people.

Eight months later, on April 17, 1995, while Curley was staying at the home of his friends, Melissa Mack and Ricky Hunsinger, Appellant informed Curley that he was bringing " two packages" and wanted Curly to " deliver them." Unbeknownst to Curley, Appellant meant that he was bringing two individuals to Curley, and wanted Curley to kill them. Curley unwittingly agreed. On April 18, 1995, at 4:00 a.m., Appellant arrived at the Mack/Hunsinger residence, accompanied by Regina Clark, with whom Appellant had a romantic relationship, and Clark's nine year-old son, Austin Hopper. Melissa Mack had the opportunity to observe Clark and her son while they stayed in Mack's home. It is unclear why Appellant chose Clark to be the victim of Curley's first killing.

Shortly after Appellant arrived, he explained to Curley that he wanted him to kill Clark. Curley, however, stated that he did not want to participate in the murder. In response, Appellant threatened that if Curley refused to kill Clark, Appellant would kill Curley. Appellant also gave Curley a loaded .22 caliber Baretta to use for the murder, and the two men located an abandoned refrigerator at a dump where they could dispose of Clark's body after the shooting. Curley again told Appellant that he did not want to kill Clark, to which Appellant responded, " kill or be killed." N.T. Mar. 28, 1996, Vol. VII at 47. The men thereafter agreed that Curley would kill Clark later that afternoon on Stone Jug Road.

Before acting upon their plans, Appellant and Curley drove Clark and Hopper to a restaurant. Appellant entered the restaurant, while Curley, Clark, and Hopper drove off, purportedly to retrieve another vehicle. The true purpose of the diversion was for Curley to kill Clark on Stone Jug Road. Curley drove to that location with Clark and Hopper, and pointed a gun to the back of Clark's head. Neither Clark nor Hopper observed the gun. Curley, however, could not pull the trigger, and, instead drove Clark and Hopper back to the restaurant to join Appellant.

That same afternoon, Appellant and Curley discussed where the murder should take place, and decided that it would occur at the home of Janet Schrader, as Curley was a friend of Schrader's son, Kirk. Hours later, Curley proceeded to the Schraders' residence, accompanied by Appellant, Clark, and Hopper. Everyone entered the Schraders' home, with the exception of Curley, who remained in the garage. Appellant and Kirk Schrader later joined Curley in the garage to discuss ways to kill Clark. When Curley told Appellant that he did not think he could execute the plan, Appellant responded that Curley had to kill Clark. Ultimately, Curley waited in the garage alone, and when Clark entered, shot her three times in the head. Curley then placed Clark in the trunk of his car. Appellant came to the garage to check Clark's pulse, and believed she was still alive. Appellant then suggested that Curley slit Clark's throat. Curley grabbed a knife, and then he and Kirk Schrader entered the car and drove off, hearing a thumping noise emanating from the trunk.

Curley dropped Kirk off at the home of Kirk's friend, Roger Hitchcock, and proceeded to dispose of Clark's body in the abandoned refrigerator at the dump. Curley slightly cut Clark's throat with the knife, closed the refrigerator door, and returned to the Schraders' residence. When he arrived, Appellant told Curley that Clark's nine year-old son, Austin Hopper, was a " loose link," and had to be killed. Shortly thereafter, Curley accompanied

Page 128

Hopper to the garage, and shot Hopper three times in the head and twice in the body. Curley then drove to " Snake Road," and placed the child's body in a sluice pipe.

When Curley arrived back at the Schraders' residence, he and Appellant cleaned the garage where the shootings took place. The two men thereafter returned to the abandoned refrigerator to secure it with a lock and chain, but the chain was too short. The men then drove to " Twin Ponds," where, upon Appellant's suggestion, Curley disposed of the knife and the gun used in the murders. Appellant later drove Curley to the Mack/Hunsinger residence, left him, and drove away. The following week, Curley moved to North Carolina.

Eight days after the murders, on April 26, 1995, a man searching for recyclables at the dump discovered Clark's body in the abandoned refrigerator, and contacted the police. Melissa Mack, with whom Appellant, Curley, and Clark had stayed prior to the killings, heard a news broadcast, which indicated that a woman's body wearing particular clothing had been discovered one-half mile from Mack's home. Mack recognized the clothing as that worn by Clark on the day of the shooting, and called police. Mack later identified the body discovered in the refrigerator as Clark's, and told police that Clark had been travelling with a child. Mack further consented to a search of her home, which revealed, inter alia, a lock and bullets.

On April 28, 1995, police officers travelled to North Carolina to interview Curley. Curley confessed to the shootings and told the officers where the boy's body could be found. He also revealed Appellant's involvement in the crimes, and disclosed where they had discarded the murder weapon. At 11:00 p.m. that evening, the police found Austin Hopper's body, and later recovered from Twin Ponds the gun and knife used in the murders. The police thereafter arrested Curley and charged him with the first degree murders of Clark and Hopper, various counts of criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, and aggravated assault, and one count each of endangering the welfare of a child and possession of an instrument of crime. The police also subsequently arrested Appellant for the first degree murders of Clark and Hopper, and charged him with related offenses. The Commonwealth tried Curley and Appellant separately, prosecuting Curley first.

Curley waived his right to a jury, and proceeded to a bench trial based on stipulated facts on March 6, 1996. Immediately prior to Curley's trial, however, the Commonwealth nolle prossed all the lesser charges against Curley, and proceed to prosecute him for two counts of first degree murder and one count of burglary. During Curley's trial, the Commonwealth's theory of criminal liability was that although Appellant solicited Curley to kill Clark and Hopper, Curley acted with his own free will in carrying out the crimes. Curley was thereafter convicted of two counts of first degree murder and one count of burglary.

On March 25, 1996, after Curley was convicted, but prior to his penalty proceeding, Appellant's trial commenced. To demonstrate Appellant's criminal liability for the first degree murders of Clark and Hopper based on a conspiracy and accomplice theory, the Commonwealth presented Curley's testimony, which described in detail Appellant's participation in the crimes. Curley informed the jury that in exchange for his testimony against Appellant, the Commonwealth would stipulate in Curley's upcoming penalty proceeding that his cooperation served as mitigating evidence. The Commonwealth also presented the testimony of Kirk Schrader, whose involvement

Page 129

in this matter has its own prolix history, which is explained fully infra at 135-38. Schrader testified that he observed Curley and Appellant discuss plans to kill Clark on the day of the murders. He explained that later that day, he heard gunshots being fired in his garage and saw Curley in the garage with his arm extended. The cars in the garage purportedly blocked Schrader's view of Curley's gun and Clark. Schrader further testified that he did not receive anything from the Commonwealth in exchange for his testimony.

The Commonwealth also presented the testimony of a forensic pathologist, who opined that the cause of Clark's death was a gunshot wound to the head, and the manner of her death was homicide. The forensic pathologist further testified that the cause of Hopper's death was multiple gunshot wounds, and that the manner of his death was homicide. Additionally, Kerrien Ramsey testified that she had travelled with Appellant, Clark, and Hopper, before the murders in...

To continue reading