599 A.2d 624 (Pa. 1991), Commonwealth v. Mitchell

Citation:599 A.2d 624, 528 Pa. 546
Party Name:COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Cornell L. MITCHELL, Appellant.
Case Date:September 30, 1991
Court:Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Page 624

599 A.2d 624 (Pa. 1991)

528 Pa. 546

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee,


Cornell L. MITCHELL, Appellant.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

September 30, 1991.

Page 625

[528 Pa. 549] R. Bruce Evanick, Chief Public Defender, for appellant.

H. Stanley Rebert, Dist. Atty., for appellee.




This is the direct appeal from the conviction of murder of the first degree and the imposition of a death sentence upon the Appellant, Cornell L. Mitchell, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711. 1 Appellant, on June 18, 1988, was arrested and charged with criminal homicide, 2 burglary, 3 robbery, 4 and criminal conspiracy 5 following the death of Kwame Beatty. Thereafter, on December 30, 1988, the Appellant pled guilty to all charges before the Honorable Richard H. Horn of the Court of Common Pleas of York County. A degree of guilt hearing ensued on February 21, 1989, after which Judge Horn found the Appellant guilty of murder of the first degree, robbery, burglary and criminal conspiracy.

A sentencing hearing commenced on February 27, 1989, and the judge immediately informed the Appellant that he had the right to have a jury determine his sentence, but the Appellant waived this right. 6 Following the sentencing [528 Pa. 550] hearing, the trial judge concluded that the aggravating circumstances found outweighed the mitigating circumstances present and imposed the penalty of death. Post-verdict motions

Page 626

were filed and denied, and the trial judge formally imposed sentence. 7 Now, in this appeal, the Appellant alleges various trial court errors committed during his sentencing hearing.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

Although the Appellant does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, we are compelled to review the record to determine whether the Commonwealth has established, beyond a reasonable doubt, the elements necessary to sustain a conviction of murder of the first degree. 8 Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 454 A.2d 937 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983), rehearing denied, 463 U.S. 1236, 104 S.Ct. 31, 77 L.Ed.2d 1452 (1983).

A plea of guilt to the general charge of murder is not a plea of guilt to murder of the first degree. Commonwealth v. Chapman, 359 Pa. 164, 58 A.2d 433 (1948). Such a plea, as was made by Appellant, is simply an acknowledgement by a defendant that he participated in certain acts with a criminal intent. Commonwealth v. Anthony, 504 Pa. 551, 475 A.2d 1303 (1984). Once such a plea is tendered, the burden is on the Commonwealth to establish the essential elements of the higher degree of crime. Chapman, [528 Pa. 551] supra; Commonwealth v. Bricker, 458 Pa. 367, 326 A.2d 279 (1974). To prove murder of the first degree, the Commonwealth must demonstrate that the defendant specifically intended to kill. Commonwealth v. Weinstein, 499 Pa. 106, 451 A.2d 1344 (1982). The Commonwealth must show: (1) that a human being has unlawfully been killed; (2) that the person accused did the killing; (3) that the killing was done with malice aforethought, in addition to the establishment of premeditation and deliberation. Id.

We have reviewed the record and conclude that the Commonwealth fulfilled its burden when it established the following facts. Prior to June 18, 1988, three minors, Michael Lehman, Dwayne Morningwake and Miguel Yoder, ran away from the Children's Home of York (Home). The Home, established for the purpose of providing counseling, education, and socialization, housed youngsters between the ages of 14 and 18. Although it was not affiliated with the York County Juvenile Court System, it was paid on a per diem basis for its services. Lehman, Morningwake and Yoder were all placed in the Home pursuant to court ordered commitments--two were placed there by probation departments and one from a children and youth department.

These individuals met the Appellant while they were on their way to a party and they asked him to purchase beer for them. He obliged and joined them at the party. After the party, all three accompanied the Appellant to his sister's home. Later in the evening of June 16, 1988, or early in the morning of June 17, 1988, Lehman left the Appellant's sister's home and was apprehended and returned to the Home. However, he quickly escaped and returned to the group. When he arrived, he found the Appellant, Morningwake, and Yoder discussing Kwame Beatty, the victim, a resident counselor assigned to work in the Home. All of the youths were complaining that the victim was "too hard" on them, i.e., he was a disciplinarian, and he required the residents to follow all of the house rules. The youths did not like this discipline and they decided to kill Mr. Beatty.

[528 Pa. 552] Armed with knives, the co-conspirators set forth for the Home sometime between midnight and 1:00 a.m., on June 18, 1988. They stopped in a cemetery, across the

Page 627

street from the Home, where they took off their socks and placed them over their hands to avoid leaving fingerprints. They then climbed up a fire escape...

To continue reading