Com. v. Copenhefer

Citation719 A.2d 242,553 Pa. 285
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. David COPENHEFER, Appellant.
Decision Date05 October 1998
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Kim Wm. Riester, Pittsburgh, for D. Copenhefer.

James K. Vogel, Erie, Robert A. Graci, Harrisburg, for Com.



CASTILLE, Justice.

In this direct appeal from the denial of his petition filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9541, et seq. ("PCRA"), appellant alleges that his trial and previous appellate counsel were ineffective, that the Commonwealth violated the dictates of Brady v. Maryland,1 and that prison authorities violated his Sixth Amendment rights by intercepting his mail. For the reasons set forth below, we find that appellant is not entitled to relief and we affirm the ruling of the PCRA court upholding appellant's sentence of death.

In March 1989, following a jury trial, appellant was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping, unlawful restraint, attempted robbery, and terroristic threats for his killing of Sally Weiner in June 1988.2 Pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d), the jury found two aggravating circumstances: that the victim was held by the defendant for ransom or reward,3 and that the defendant committed the killing while in the perpetration of a felony.4 The jury found no mitigating circumstances and, as required by 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(c)(1)(iv), appellant was sentenced to death. Post-verdict motions were heard and denied.

On direct appeal, this Court sustained appellant's conviction and judgment of sentence and found sufficient evidence to support his conviction and the jury's finding of aggravating circumstances. Commonwealth v. Copenhefer, 526 Pa. 555, 587 A.2d 1353 (1991). The Court summarized the facts giving rise to appellant's conviction as follows:

On June 16, 1988, the victim, Sally Weiner, received a telephone call purporting to be from a congressman's office asking that she meet with the caller to discuss arrangements for the presentation of a civic award to her husband, to which she agreed. The next day, around noon, she drove to the designated meeting place, parked her car, and was never seen alive again. Several hours later, her husband, Harry, manager of the Corry, Pennsylvania office of Pennbank, received a telephone call playing a recorded message from his wife explaining that she had been kidnapped and that the kidnapper demanded ransom money from the bank. Mr. Weiner was directed to retrieve a duffel bag from the parking lot outside his bank; the bag contained additional threats and instructions. Mr. Weiner called a vice-president of the bank, as well as the bank's security office, local police, state police, and the FBI. Mr. Weiner never received the additional radio instructions necessary to follow the directions contained in the duffel bag and therefore could not comply with the kidnapper's demands. Two days later, on July 19, 1988, Sally Weiner's body was discovered in a rural area north of her home. She had died as a result of a single gunshot wound to the back of her head. Initial investigations by the FBI, state police, and local police resulted in the discovery of a series of computer-generated notes and instructions, each one leading to another, which had been concealed at various hiding places in and around Corry. The investigation also produced several possible suspects, including appellant, who owned a nearby bookstore, who had experienced unproductive transactions with Mr. Weiner's bank, and who had a negative personal relationship with the Weiners.

An examination of trash discarded from appellant's bookstore revealed drafts of the ransom note and the ransom directions. Subsequent search warrants resulted in the seizure of an array of remarkably comprehensive evidence against appellant. This included evidence tying appellant's fingerprints, computer, weapons and ammunition, clothing, automobile, and materials from his home and office to both the victim and the murder site.

Appellant's fingerprints appeared on the original ransom note and on some of the hidden notes. Police discovered rough drafts of the ransom note, a map of the hidden notes, and notes and directions in appellant's handwriting, some of which bore his fingerprints. Appellant had a collection of guns; ballistics evidence established that two of these could have been used to kill the victim. He also had "glazier" ammunition, a nonstandard composition bullet designed to fragment on impact after entering a body, the same type used to murder the victim. A metal rod traced to his home had been used to secure one of the hidden notes. Crepe paper from a roll found at his store had been used to help secure another note. Human female skin tissue was found on his clothing. Tread marks matching appellant's automobile tires were found at one hiding place and at the murder scene. Finally, appellant's computer contained a series of drafts and amendments of the texts of the phone call to Mr. Weiner, the ransom note, the series of hidden notes, and a twenty-two point plan for the entire kidnapping scheme. On direct appeal, this Court unsurprisingly concluded that the above-related facts were sufficient to support the conviction and sentence of death.

In November 1993, appellant filed a pro se petition for post-conviction collateral relief. Counsel was appointed and in January 1994, appellant filed an amended petition pursuant to the PCRA. On October 3, 1994, a full evidentiary hearing was held to consider the amended PCRA petition. On June 30, 1997, the PCRA court entered an Order denying the petition. Pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9546(d), this Court has exclusive and automatic jurisdiction to review the PCRA court's ruling upholding the sentence of death.

Under the version of the PCRA at issue here,5 appellant must satisfy the following requirements to be eligible for relief:

(a) General rule. To be eligible for relief under this subchapter, a person must plead and prove by a preponderance of the evidence all of the following:

. . . .

(2) That the conviction or sentence resulted from one or more of the following:

(i) A violation of the Constitution of Pennsylvania or the laws of this Commonwealth or the Constitution of the United States which, in the circumstances of the particular case, so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place.

(ii) Ineffective assistance of counsel which, in the circumstances of the particular case, so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place.

. . . .

(3) That the allegation of error has not been previously litigated and that one or more of the following applies:

(i) The allegation of error has not been waived.

(ii) If the allegation of error has been waived, the alleged error has resulted in the conviction or affirmance of sentence of an innocent individual.

(iii) If the allegation of error has been waived, the waiver of the allegation of error during pretrial, trial, post-trial or direct appeal proceedings does not constitute a state procedural default barring federal habeas corpus relief.

42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(2) and (3)(1988).


Appellant raises a plethora of claims that fall under the rubric of ineffective assistance of counsel. The standard of review for such claims is well-settled. A criminal defendant sustains a claim of ineffectiveness of counsel by proving by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) that the underlying claim is of arguable merit; (2) that counsel's performance had no reasonable basis; and (3) that counsel's ineffectiveness worked to his prejudice. Commonwealth v. LaCava, 542 Pa. 160, 178, 666 A.2d 221, 229 (1995)(citing Commonwealth v. Edmiston, 535 Pa. 210, 237, 634 A.2d 1078, 1092 (1993)). Assuming appellant can establish counsel's ineffectiveness through the three-pronged test set forth above, appellant must then demonstrate under the PCRA that the ineffective assistance of counsel "so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place."6

Trial counsel's assistance is deemed constitutionally effective if the particular course chosen by counsel was reasonably designed to effectuate his client's interests. Commonwealth v. Pierce, 515 Pa. 153, 158, 527 A.2d 973, 975 (1987). The law presumes that trial counsel was not ineffective. Commonwealth v. Miller, 494 Pa. 229, 431 A.2d 233 (1981). A claim of ineffective assistance will not be deemed waived so long as appellant has "layered" the claim by alleging the ineffective assistance of all of his previous counsel for failing to pursue it. See Commonwealth v. Chmiel, 536 Pa. 244, 250, 639 A.2d 9, 12 (1994).7

First, appellant alleges that appellate counsel on direct appeal was ineffective for failing to argue that the trial judge erred by declining to grant trial counsel the opportunity to "life-qualify" the jury during the general voir dire. Specifically, appellant argues that the trial judge erred by declining to allow trial counsel to ask the following question: "Do you believe that a death penalty verdict should occur in every case where the defendant is found guilty of first-degree murder." However, the trial court rejected the question proffered by trial counsel, not on the basis that life-qualifying of jurors was impermissible, but rather on the basis that the question itself was overbroad, ambiguous, and meaningless to jurors, since they had not yet been furnished a definition of "first-degree murder." Trial counsel did not attempt to amend the question after this ruling. Therefore, the claim that appellant now raises must be construed as a claim that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to...

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