Com. v. Bryant

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation855 A.2d 726,579 Pa. 119
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Robert BRYANT, Appellant.
Decision Date18 August 2004

855 A.2d 726
579 Pa. 119

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
Robert BRYANT, Appellant

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Submitted October 28, 2002.

Decided August 18, 2004.

Reargument Denied October 14, 2004.

855 A.2d 731
Robert Brett Dunham, for Robert Bryant

Michael Wayne Streily, Rebecca Denean Spangler, Amy Zapp, Pittsburgh, for Com.




This is an appeal from the partial denial of appellant's petition for relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa.C.S. § 9541 et seq. The PCRA court vacated appellant's death sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing, but denied appellant's other claims for relief. For the reasons set forth below, we find that appellant is not entitled to further relief and, accordingly, affirm the order of the PCRA court.

In November 1983, prison authorities at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh, acting upon information provided by an inmate, Abe Chapman, found appellant, also an inmate, to be in possession of marijuana. Prison authorities placed appellant in the prison's Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU) for a period of 120 days. When appellant was released from the RHU, he stated to the correctional officer who had found the marijuana that he knew it was Chapman who had "snitched" on him and that he would "take care of it." N.T. 3/27/87, at 200. The same correctional officer later testified that appellant made retaliatory remarks against Chapman

855 A.2d 732
on at least three other occasions, stating at one point that "every dog will have his day." Id.

On the morning of May 15, 1984, appellant and another inmate, Larry Greer, entered Chapman's cell and killed him. Greer, who weighed between 195 and 200 pounds, held the 130-pound Chapman on his bed while appellant used an eight-inch long homemade knife to stab his victim fifteen times in the chest, back, face and leg. In the frenzy of the attack, appellant also inflicted errant stab wounds upon himself and Greer. Blood that was consistent with Greer's blood-type was splattered on a pair of Chapman's trousers hanging in the cell, and on the sleeve of the jacket worn by appellant at the time.

Joseph Hill, an inmate housed in the same cellblock as Chapman, observed Greer and appellant running toward him as he left his cell for breakfast. Hill noticed blood dripping from Greer's arm. As appellant reached Hill's location, he thrust the knife he was carrying into Hill's hand and told him to get rid of it. Hill placed the knife in a bag, which he disposed of in a trash can on his way to breakfast. A correctional officer who observed Hill placing the bag in the can later testified that he thought it odd that Hill did not just toss the package in the can, but rather, "placed" it there. N.T. 3/26/87, at 170.

Greer ultimately fled to the shower area where prison authorities later found blood consistent with his blood-type. Appellant, meanwhile, had returned to his cell and was seated on a stool with a handkerchief wrapped around his hand when another inmate, Joseph Ezzo, stopped to inquire whether appellant was going to his prison job that morning. According to Ezzo's testimony, appellant answered that he was not, and further volunteered that he had just killed Chapman. At that point, prison authorities had been alerted to Chapman's murder and had ordered inmates back into their cells. Moments later, Ezzo informed a correctional officer that appellant had admitted to the killing. The correctional officer then went to appellant's cell and observed a one-inch gash on the palm of appellant's hand.

On April 16, 1986, after a trial before the Honorable James R. MacGregor, a jury found appellant guilty of murder in the first degree and returned a sentence of death. On post-verdict motions, however, the trial court granted a new trial, finding that a potentially prejudicial police report had been improperly included with other exhibits for the jury to consider during deliberations.

At a second trial in March 1987, before the Honorable John W. O'Brien, a jury found appellant guilty of first degree murder. At his insistence, appellant represented himself during substantial portions of the trial. Eventually, however, he agreed to permit appointed stand-by counsel, Alonzo Burney, Esquire, to take over. Following a penalty hearing, at which trial counsel did not present mitigating evidence, the jury returned a sentence of death on March 31, 1987.1 This Court affirmed the judgment of sentence on May 10, 1990. Commonwealth v. Bryant, 524 Pa. 564, 574 A.2d 590 (1990). Mr. Burney represented appellant on that appeal.

On June 3, 1996, appellant filed a pro se PCRA petition. Appellant requested that the then Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Defender Association2 be permitted to

855 A.2d 733
represent him as post-conviction counsel and the PCRA court, per Judge O'Brien, granted appellant's request

On May 22, 1997, appointed counsel filed an amended petition for habeas corpus and PCRA relief raising seventeen claims of trial court error, prosecutorial misconduct and trial counsel ineffectiveness. The Commonwealth filed a timely answer. The Commonwealth alleged, inter alia, that it was prejudiced in responding to appellant's specific claim that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present mitigation evidence at the penalty phase—noting the nine years that had passed since appellant's conviction—and requested a hearing limited to that issue. Judge O'Brien ordered a hearing to consider the Commonwealth's claim that it was prejudiced. Judge O'Brien also issued a Notice of Intent to Dismiss without a hearing regarding appellant's remaining claims. Appellant's counsel requested the expansion of the evidentiary hearing to include expert and lay testimony on the "deplorable conditions on death row in Pennsylvania" and appellant's alleged borderline mental retardation and other psychological impairments. The request was denied.

At a February 27, 1998 hearing on the limited grounds sought by the Commonwealth, trial counsel testified that he could not recall whether he investigated possible mitigation evidence for the penalty phase. On the basis of trial counsel's testimony, Judge O'Brien vacated the sentence of death and ordered a new sentencing hearing. Appellant's guilt phase claims were dismissed. In a brief two-page opinion filed on May 15, 1998, Judge O'Brien failed to address the guilt phase claims individually, instead adverting to the Commonwealth's answer, and then noting, without referring to any particular claim, that "[t]he Court denied petitioner relief for the reasons that his claims were alternatively insufficiently pled, were without merit, had been previously litigated or were not preserved at a time when the petitioner acted as his own counsel." PCRA slip. op. at 2.

Appellant appealed the dismissal of his claims for guilt-phase relief to the Superior Court. The Commonwealth did not appeal the grant of penalty phase relief. On June 10, 1998, the Honorable Gerard M. Bigley of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County granted the Commonwealth's request for a Stay or Supersedeas of the penalty phase retrial pending the outcome of appellant's appeal. The next day, the Superior Court quashed appellant's appeal without prejudice, noting that it was "constrained to remand this matter to the trial court with the directive that the trial court conduct a sentencing hearing and impose a judgment of sentence upon appellant." Slip. op at 4. The panel further noted that, in the event the trial court should impose a sentence of death upon appellant for a third time, this Court, rather than the Superior Court, would have jurisdiction over the appeal.

On September 26, 2001, this Court vacated the Superior Court's order pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 751, and directed the Superior Court to transfer appellant's appeal to this Court. See 29 WAP 2000. The appeal was so transferred on January 7, 2002.

On February 6, 2003, this Court remanded the matter to the PCRA court for preparation of an adequate opinion reflecting its independent consideration of the issues raised in the amended PCRA petition in accordance with Commonwealth v. (Craig) Williams, 566 Pa.553, 782 A.2d 517 (2001), and Commonwealth v.(Roy) Williams, 557 Pa.207, 732 A.2d 1167 (1999). Thereafter, the PCRA court, now acting per the Honorable Lawrence J.

855 A.2d 734
O'Toole,3 filed an opinion addressing appellant's claims

Appellant's brief in this Court raises the following thirteen claims, which are essentially the same as the claims raised in his amended PCRA petition:

1. Whether appellant is entitled to review of the merits of all of the issues raised because prior counsel was ineffective for failing to properly preserve and litigate each of the issues raised in this appeal?
2. Whether appellant was denied his state and federal constitutional rights to due process where the jury heard evidence of appellant's prior criminal acts but the trial court failed to give the jury a cautionary instruction mitigating the prejudicial effects of that evidence, and was counsel ineffective for failing to seek to preclude such evidence or request an appropriate charge?
3. Whether appellant's state and federal constitutional protections against self incrimination, to due process and to effective assistance of counsel were violated when the Commonwealth introduced evidence during its case in chief that, during police interrogation, appellant exercised his constitutional right to remain silent?
4. Whether the trial court's failure to instruct the jury on the defense of alibi deprived appellant of his state and federal constitutional rights to due process and whether counsel's failures to request an appropriate instruction, object to its omission, and raise the claim on appeal denied appellant the effective assistance of counsel?
5. Whether appellant was constructively denied

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