Com. v. Blount

Decision Date24 August 1994
Citation647 A.2d 199,538 Pa. 156
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. John M. BLOUNT, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Robert A. Graci, Harrisburg, for Atty. Gen.



CAPPY, Justice.

We have before us an automatic direct appeal from the judgments of sentence of death and concurrent and consecutive terms of imprisonment imposed upon Appellant, John M. Blount, by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Division. 1 Sentence was imposed following the jury's verdict that Appellant had, beyond a reasonable doubt, committed two murders of the first degree, possessed an instrument of crime, and abused a corpse. On the record before us, we affirm the Appellant's convictions, but vacate the judgments of sentence of death and remand the matter to the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Division, for a new sentencing hearing on Appellant's murder convictions.

On October 29, 1990, Appellant was brought to trial by jury in connection with the shooting deaths of Andre Ramsey and Robert Robertson, which occurred on September 28th or 29th of 1989, inside a residence owned by Appellant's mother. The jury found Appellant guilty of two counts of murder in the first degree, 2 possessing an instrument of crime, 3 and abusing a corpse. 4 A separate penalty hearing was held regarding the murder convictions. With regard to his conviction for the death of Andre Ramsey, the jury found one aggravating circumstance, 5 determined that the aggravating circumstance outweighed any mitigating circumstances, 6 and fixed Appellant's penalty at death. With regard to Appellant's conviction for the death of Robert Robertson, the jury found two aggravating circumstances, 7 which it determined outweighed any mitigating circumstances, 8 and again fixed Appellant's penalty at death. Appellant was immediately sentenced to two consecutive sentences of death by the trial court. 9 Sentencing on the remaining counts was deferred pending the receipt of post-trial motions, which were subsequently filed, argued and denied. On February 25, 1991, Appellant was sentenced to one to two years imprisonment on the abuse of a corpse count, and two and one-half to five years imprisonment on the possession of an instrument of crime count, both to run concurrent to each other, but consecutive to the sentences of death.

Initially, we must conduct an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence without regard to whether the appellant has challenged the conviction on that ground. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 26-27 n. 3, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n. 3 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983), reh'g denied, 463 U.S. 1236, 104 S.Ct. 31, 77 L.Ed.2d 1452 (1983). The test for establishing sufficiency is whether the evidence, and all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict-winner, are sufficient to establish all the elements of the offense(s) beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Rhodes, 510 Pa. 537, 510 A.2d 1217 (1986). The following facts established by the evidence produced by the Commonwealth clearly satisfy this test.

Appellant lived in his mother's residence. Andre Ramsey, one of the victims, was a tenant in the same residence. On the evening of September 28th or 29th of 1989, Appellant returned home and entered Ramsey's room and fired two gunshots at close range into the heads of Ramsey and Robertson. Ramsey was shot in the back of the head and Robertson was shot in the temple. After the killings, Appellant removed money, jewelry and car keys belonging to Ramsey, and with the aid of Robert Stackhouse, the boyfriend of Appellant's mother, moved the victims' corpses to an oil pit in the basement garage of the residence. Ramsey's room and other areas of the residence were then cleaned by Appellant, Stackhouse and members of his family in order to conceal Appellant's crimes. The next day, Appellant, who was unemployed and had been unable to repay a minor debt to a friend, suddenly was able to undertake unusual expenditures and repay a portion of his debt. Thereafter, Appellant went into hiding, and ultimately hired two men to remove the victims' corpses from his basement because they had begun to decompose.

On October 3, 1989, the police discovered the victims' decomposing corpses on 66th Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets in Philadelphia. On October 24, 1989, Appellant was arrested at the home of his uncle and aunt where he had taken up residence after the murders. Appellant subsequently admitted to the police that he had shot both victims in Ramsey's room, moved their bodies, cleaned the room to conceal the crime, and hired two men to dispose of the victims' corpses. However, Appellant also maintained that he had shot the victims in self-defense because he believed Ramsey and Robertson had been reaching for guns during an alleged argument that had taken place in Ramsey's room. The jury was free to disbelieve the testimony presented in support of this defense. Commonwealth v. Edwards, 521 Pa. 134, 555 A.2d 818 (1989). Accordingly, we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support Appellant's convictions.

Through appellate counsel, Appellant has advanced ten claims of ineffectiveness of trial counsel, together with a constitutional challenge to the Pennsylvania death penalty statute. 42 Pa.C.S. 9711.

Guilt Phase

In order for appellant to prevail on a claim of ineffectiveness, he must demonstrate that: (1) the underlying claim is of arguable merit; (2) the particular course chosen by counsel did not have some reasonable basis designed to effectuate his interests; and (3) counsel's ineffectiveness prejudiced him. Commonwealth v. Pierce, 515 Pa. 153, 527 A.2d 973 (1987). Counsel can never be found ineffective for having elected not to raise a meritless claim. Commonwealth v. Pettus, 492 Pa. 558, 424 A.2d 1332 (1981); Commonwealth v. Giknis, 491 Pa. 215, 420 A.2d 419 (1980). Moreover, we begin with the presumption that trial counsel was not ineffective. Commonwealth v. Miller, 494 Pa. 229, 431 A.2d 233 (1981).

Appellant first claims that trial counsel was ineffective in connection with voir dire, because he failed to object to the manner in which the Assistant District Attorney undertook the process of "death-qualifying" potential jurors, and failed to pursue a similar line of questioning aimed at "life-qualifying" those individuals.

Unquestionably, the prosecutor is entitled to exclude an individual possessing views on capital punishment that would "prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath." Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 424, 105 S.Ct. 844, 852, 83 L.Ed.2d 841 (1985). Commonwealth v. Holland, 518 Pa. 405, 543 A.2d 1068 (1988). Similarly, in order to prevent the service of a juror incapable of returning a verdict of life imprisonment, a defendant is permitted to pose "life-qualification" questions during voir dire pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Morgan v. Illinois, 504 U.S. 719, 112 S.Ct. 2222, 119 L.Ed.2d 492 (1992).

The record reveals that the Assistant District Attorney prefaced his alleged "death-qualification" questions by stating "there will come a point in time in this trial in which the jury will consider the issue of the death penalty." N.T., 10/24/90, p. 27. Appellant's claim is that this language led the jury to believe that he had conceded a first-degree murder conviction. We disagree.

The trial court instructed the jury concerning, inter alia, the presumption of Appellant's innocence, his right to a fair and impartial jury to decide his guilt or innocence, and the Commonwealth's burden of proof. Counsel questioned the potential jurors concerning their ability to decide Appellant's guilt or innocence in a fair and impartial manner. At trial, Appellant maintained that he had killed the victims in self defense. Given these factors together with the nature of the proceedings, we conclude that the words employed by the Assistant District Attorney to "death-qualify" the jury could not have led the jury to believe that Appellant had conceded any conviction whatsoever.

With regard to Appellant's other claim, that counsel failed to "life-qualify" the jury, it is clear that this claim must also fail. This argument has been repeatedly rejected by this Court. In Commonwealth v. Jermyn 516 Pa. 460, 533 A.2d 74 (1987), this Court stated:

The mere fact that counsel may not have posed the specific question as to whether a prospective juror would vote for a sentence of life imprisonment in an appropriate case does not justify the conclusion that counsel failed to assure that a fair and impartial jury was selected. Such a talismanic requirement would clearly place form over substance.

Id. at 488, 533 A.2d at 87. See also, Commonwealth v. Tilley, 528 Pa. 125, 151, 595 A.2d 575, 587 (1991); Commonwealth v. Porter, 524 Pa. 162, 171, 569 A.2d 942, 946 (1990). Appellant's assertion that Morgan v. Illinois, 504 U.S. 719, 112 S.Ct. 2222, 119 L.Ed.2d 492 (1992), mandates a different result is incorrect. Morgan involved a situation where "life-qualification" was precluded by the trial court. In the instant matter, although counsel made no attempt to "life-qualify" the jury, Appellant has failed to justify the conclusion that in so doing counsel failed to assure the selection of a fair and impartial jury. Accordingly, as these claims are meritless, counsel cannot be deemed ineffective. Commonwealth v. Pierce, 515 Pa. 153, 527 A.2d 973 (1987); Commonwealth v. Pettus, 492...

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