Com. v. Chmiel

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation889 A.2d 501
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. David CHMIEL, Appellant.
Decision Date29 December 2005
889 A.2d 501
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
David CHMIEL, Appellant.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Argued October 19, 2004.
Decided December 29, 2005.

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Robert Michael Buttner, James Robert Elliott, Scranton, for David Chmiel.

Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, Patrick J. Blessington, Norristown, for Com.



Justice BAER.

This is a direct appeal from the judgment of sentence of death1 following the third conviction of David Chmiel (Appellant) for three counts of first-degree murder,

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two counts of robbery, and one count of burglary2 arising out of the murder of three victims, Angelina, James, and Victor Lunario, on September 21, 1983.3 We affirm.

The record reveals that at approximately 9:00 a.m. on September 21, 1983, Mary Drake, a day nurse hired to attend to James Lunario, found James, his sister, Angelina, and brother, Victor, murdered in the home the three shared in Throop, Pennsylvania.4 According to the autopsy findings, Angelina sustained eleven stab wounds; James sustained ten stab wounds; and Victor sustained twelve stab wounds. Angelina and James also had defensive stab wounds on their hands and/or arms. Based on the physical findings of the autopsy and the visual and auditory accounts provided by eyewitnesses, the medical examiner estimated the time of death of all three victims was between 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 20, 1983, and 2:00 a.m. on Wednesday September 21, 1983.

The time of death was narrowed based upon information provided by several neighbors. One neighbor, who was walking his dog at approximately 11:00 p.m. September 20, observed Victor standing in the kitchen doorway of the Lunario home and heard Angelina call to him. Another neighbor, Linda Sinkevich, was startled by her dog barking at 11:45 p.m. and, upon looking out of her window, observed a powder blue car with a shiny grill and hood ornament parked close to her own car. Her husband also saw this vehicle when he arrived home between 2:15 and 2:30 a.m. on September 21. Both witnesses stated the vehicle was gone by 8:00 a.m. Mrs. Sinkevich subsequently identified a car shown to her in a photograph as the one she saw in front of her house, and also identified a car at a State Police garage as the one she saw on the night of the murders. The vehicle in the photograph and in the garage belonged to Appellant.

At about 1:20 a.m., another neighbor, Deborah Lahotsky Washenko, let her dog out of the house and, while waiting for its return, heard a scream, which she attributed to one of her neighbors. Between 1:20 a.m. and 1:25 a.m., Pauline Stroka heard a noise, and when she walked onto her porch to investigate, heard Angelina scream "Oh my God, no." Ms. Stroka, who knew James had been ill, did not call the police because she assumed something had happened to him. Based upon these observations the police were able to narrow the time of the murders to between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. on September 21.

Upon inspecting the murder scene, the police discovered a sweater sleeve that had been used as a mask during the robbery and murders of the Lunarios. Police inspection of the crime scene also uncovered substantial amounts of money, including $12,296 in cash. The Lunarios kept their cash in envelopes, which they hid in drawers, photo albums, and boxes, and maintained a record of their money by keeping a running tally on the front of the envelopes. While inspecting the home, the police discovered empty envelopes with notations

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on the front indicating that they had once contained a total of over $4000, which the police concluded had been stolen by the intruder.

With the assistance of the DeGrazio family, who lived next door to the Lunarios, police were able to trace the sweater sleeve mask to Martin Chmiel, Appellant's brother (hereafter, Martin). In the early 1980's, Martin married the DeGrazio's daughter, Mary, and while living in the DeGrazio's home, had befriended Victor. During their friendship, Victor allowed Martin access to a strongbox, which contained thick envelopes consisting of $100 bills, and lent money to Martin. Thus, Martin knew that the Lunarios had envelopes of cash hidden throughout their house. Just before the murders, Martin had a falling out with Victor that essentially ended their friendship.

The murder investigation revealed that five months prior to the Lunario murders, on April 21, 1983, Appellant was charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, indecent and aggravated assault, terroristic threats, and recklessly endangering another person.5 Following his arrest for these charges, Appellant retained counsel, Attorney Brier, who demanded payment of a retainer to represent Appellant in proceedings related to these crimes. It was the Commonwealth's theory at trial that Appellant's financial obligation to Attorney Brier provided a motive for the murder and robbery of the Lunarios. Another brother of Appellant, Robert D. Chmiel (hereafter Robert), and Appellant's sister, Nancy Chmiel Moran (hereafter Nancy), confirmed that Appellant needed money to pay his defense attorney. When Appellant told Martin he needed "fast money" to pay his lawyer, Martin informed Appellant about Victor's strongbox of cash and envelopes of money, and Martin and Appellant agreed to burglarize the Lunario home.

Pursuant to their plan to rob the Lunarios, Martin and Appellant fashioned masks out of one of Martin's sweaters. Martin also described to Appellant the layout of the Lunario home. Martin, however, later told police that he subsequently changed his mind because Victor was his friend and he feared he may be seen by his in-laws, who lived next door. Thus, Martin backed out of the plan.

On the morning after the Lunario murders, Appellant and Martin were rebuilding the fire damaged home of their sister Nancy and her husband, Thomas Buffton (hereafter, Mr. Buffton).6 At 10:30 a.m. on September 21, 1983, Robert's wife visited the construction site and informed Martin

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that the Lunarios had been murdered the previous night. When Appellant returned to the construction site from gathering supplies, Martin confronted Appellant about the murders. Appellant initially denied any involvement. Later that afternoon, however, Appellant admitted to Martin that he had murdered the Lunarios. Appellant also provided Martin with a detailed account of what had transpired that night.

Appellant's description of the crime, later conveyed to police by Martin, matched the information and evidence found at the crime scene. Specifically, Appellant told Martin that he had tried to enter the Lunarios' home via the cellar door, but upon finding it locked, proceeded to enter the home through the rear door on the first floor. Once inside the home, Angelina, who was sitting on the couch in the living room, cried out, so Appellant killed her to silence her. Appellant told Martin that James also attempted to scream from his hospital bed on the first floor, and Appellant killed him as well. Appellant then proceeded up the stairs to the second floor, where he killed Victor in his bed. Appellant advised Martin that he stole $4,500.00 from the strongbox and $800 from Angelina's purse. Appellant also searched for money under the cushions of the sofa Angelina had been sitting on, and then straightened Angelina's slumped body into an upright position. Appellant informed Martin that he placed the stolen money in a pillow case he obtained from the Lunario home. After committing the murders and searching the premises for cash, Appellant drove to Martin's home, but was advised by Martin's wife, Mary, that Martin was not home. Later, upon reading a news account of the murders that discussed the substantial sums of money recovered by the police, Appellant told Martin that "it would have been nice to get that" because "as it stands, I only got $1700 for each of them." N.T., 8/26/02, at 33-34.

Within a week of the murders, two witnesses testified to seeing Appellant flash $100 bills while drinking at a neighborhood bar. One of these witnesses, Darryl Crawford, testified that when Appellant's wife contacted him by telephone at the bar, they engaged in a heated argument during which Appellant exclaimed "I'll kill you too." N.T., 8/26/02, at 181.

Based on the sweater sleeve mask found at the Lunario home, the police investigation led to Martin, whom the police questioned on September 28, 1983. Martin initially denied any involvement with or knowledge of the Lunario murders. Upon being confronted by the police with a photograph depicting him wearing the sweater that was used to make the mask, however, Martin informed police of Appellant's confession to him. During the police interview Martin provided details that only the murderer would have known, as no such detailed information had been released to the public.

Included in the details provided to the police by Martin was the fact that the victims had been robbed and that money had been removed from a box in Victor's dresser drawer; the cellar door was locked and the burglar gained entry through an unlocked rear door; Angelina was seated on the sofa, James was in bed on the first floor, and Victor was in an upstairs bedroom; Angelina yelled, and James was unable to do so (because of his stroke); Appellant drove his light blue 1976 Grand Prix to the Lunario home, and parked a couple of blocks away; Appellant wore gloves while committing the crimes and disposed of the murder weapon; Appellant wore one of the sweater masks he and Martin had made; Appellant searched Angelina's room for money; Appellant repositioned

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Angelina after he searched...

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6 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Molina, J-55-2013
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • 20 November 2014
    ...of the right may be apparent from the circumstances surrounding the defendant's statement. See, e.g., Commonwealth v.Page 12Chmiel, 889 A.2d 501, 529-31 (Pa. 2005) (viewing statement "I don't think I better talk about that" as invocation of right to remain silent after initial waiver of Mir......
  • Com. v. Crork, 1794 MDA 2007.
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • 10 February 2009
    ...A.2d at 373. ¶ 7 Carter was later approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth 966 A.2d 588 v. Chmiel, 585 Pa. 547, 586-586, 889 A.2d 501, 523-524 (2005). In Chmiel, a witness identified the appellant's car from a single photograph. Id. 585 Pa. at 582, 889 A.2d at 521. In argu......
  • Commonwealth v. McLaurin, J-S07029-19
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • 5 February 2020
    ...effect of the error was so insignificant by comparison that the error could not have contributed to the verdict.Commonwealth v. Chmiel, 889 A.2d 501, 521 (Pa. 2005). "[A]n erroneous ruling by a trial court on an evidentiary issue does not require us to grant relief where the error was harml......
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    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • 6 April 2015
    ...against him, while that of an inanimate object is only indirect proof of the defendant's guilt. . . .Thus[, in Commonwealth v. Chmiel, 889 A.2d 501, 523-24 (Pa. 2005),] the Court found that "the risks inherent in identification of inanimate objects go to the weight and sufficiency of the ev......
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