Com. v. Eichinger

CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtCappy
Citation915 A.2d 1122
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. John Charles EICHINGER, Appellant.
Decision Date20 February 2007
915 A.2d 1122
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
John Charles EICHINGER, Appellant.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Argued October 17, 2006.
Decided February 20, 2007.

[915 A.2d 1127]

William Read McElroy, Norristown, for John Eichinger.

Bruce Lee Castor, Jr., Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, Patricia Eileen Coonahan, Norristown, Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

[915 A.2d 1128]



Chief Justice CAPPY.

This is a direct appeal from the imposition of three sentences of death1. On October 18, 2005 John Charles Eichinger waived his right to a jury and was tried in a stipulated bench trial for four counts of first-degree murder,2 two counts of possession of an instrument of crime3 and three counts of unsworn falsification to authorities4 in relation to the murders of Jennifer Still, Heather Greaves, Lisa Greaves and Avery Johnson. He was convicted on all counts. A jury of his peers sentenced Eichinger to death. For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment of sentence.

The facts are not in dispute.5 On the morning of March 25, 2005 Eichinger drove to the Greaves' residence. Eichinger told police that he intended to kill Heather Greaves unless she ended her relationship with her most recent boyfriend. To this end, Eichinger arranged to meet with Heather so that she would be expecting him at her house that day. Eichinger carried a large knife and a pair of rubber gloves in his waistband and concealed them under his sweat jacket.

Eichinger went into the house to speak with Heather. An argument ensued and Eichinger pulled out the knife and stabbed her repeatedly in the stomach. Eichinger admitted that he purposefully stabbed Heather in the stomach, because "[he] had heard in movies and books that it was easier to puncture organs there than through the chest, where it is more difficult because of hitting bone." Pre-trial Hearing 9/15/05, Commonwealth's Exhibit CS-11.

Avery, Heather's three-year-old daughter, was in the room and witnessed the stabbing. When Heather cried to Avery to call 911, Eichinger turned away from Heather and slashed Avery in the neck. Avery ran down the hallway before she fell. Eichinger followed her and came upon Lisa, Heather's sister coming out of the bathroom. Eichinger confessed to police, "I had to stab Lisa, too. I couldn't go to jail." Pre-trial Hearing 9/15/05, Commonwealth's Exhibit CS-6. Lisa tried to run back into the bathroom and shut the door, but Eichinger was able to overpower her. He stabbed Lisa repeatedly in the stomach.

Eichinger moved back towards the kitchen where Heather was dying, but not before he stabbed Avery once more, in the back. He stabbed her with such force that the blade came out her chest, and pinned her to the floor. Eichinger admitted to police that, "I couldn't even let the three-year old identify me. I had known her since she was born and she knew my name. She could speak my name."6 Back in the kitchen, Eichinger stabbed Heather in the diaphragm and slit her throat.

915 A.2d 1129

Eichinger went to the sink to wash his hands and noticed he was cut. He used one of the rubber gloves to prevent his blood from being left at the crime scene. Before leaving, Eichinger cut open Lisa's shirt to make it appear that she had been the target of the rampage in order to confuse the police. Heather and Lisa's father discovered the murders later that day. The police spoke to a neighbor who had witnessed Eichinger leaving the Greaves' home that morning.

Upon receiving this information, Detective Richard Nilsen, a Montgomery County Detective, along with Detective James Godby of the Upper Merion Police Department, went to the Somers Point, New Jersey Acme Food Market where Eichinger was employed. Eichinger agreed to be interviewed. After some discussion, and a false statement to the police, Eichinger confessed to the Greaves murders.

During the same conversation, Eichinger also confessed that he used the knife from the Greaves' murders to kill another woman, Jennifer Still, on July 6, 1999. Eichinger admitted to police that he killed Jennifer because she rejected him in order to stay with her fiancé. Eichinger described this murder:

I had the knife in my hand. I turned away from her for a second and couldn't believe she was doing that to me. She got real close to me. I thought, `You're ripping my heart out and now you're getting close to me.' She put her hand on my shoulder. I turned around and stabbed her in the stomach.

* * *

After I stabbed her the first time, she stepped back, but didn't fall. Her blood splattered out at me. I lunged at her. I just kept stabbing her.

* * *

I slit her throat as she slid down the wall. I let her body weight cut her throat against the knife.7

Eichinger saved his clothes from that day, and collected articles about the murder to serve as reminders. After using the knife to kill Jennifer in 1999, he stored it in a sheath in a cooler. Eichinger told police, "I had it in the cooler with the rubber gloves and the Scream mask. Every Halloween I put the mask, gloves, and knife on and handed out candy at the door."8

As a result of his confessions, Eichinger was arrested and later transported back to Montgomery County. In transit, Eichinger made another incriminating statement describing the triple-homicide as well as the earlier murder of Jennifer Still to the police. This statement was later memorialized in writing.

Eichinger filed an omnibus pre-trial motion seeking to suppress his statements to the police. This motion was denied. Eichinger and Detective Nilsen then testified at a pre-trial hearing on September 15, 2005. The trial judge found Detective Nilsen's testimony to be credible and found that all of the statements made by Eichinger to the police were admissible at trial. See Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, 9/16/05.

Eichinger waived his right to a jury in favor of a guilt-phase bench trial which was held on October 18, 2005. Eichinger did not contest the charges against him and offered no defense, rather he stipulated to the evidence offered by the Commonwealth at the September 15th Pre-Trial

915 A.2d 1130

Hearing.9 Eichinger was adjudicated guilty of all charges, and the Commonwealth sought the penalty of death for the murders of Heather Greaves, Lisa Greaves and Avery Johnson. The sentencing phase was tried before a jury beginning on November 1, 2005. Although he did not contest his guilt, Eichinger did contest the imposition of the death penalty. The jury found two aggravating factors in the death of Heather Greaves: that Eichinger had been convicted of another state offense for which a sentence of life imprisonment is imposable10 and that Eichinger had been convicted of another murder which was committed before or at the time of the offense at issue.11 The first aggravating factor related to the murder of Jennifer Still six years earlier. The second related to the murder of Lisa Greaves and Avery Johnson which was contemporaneous with the murder of Heather Greaves. The jury then found the same two aggravators for the murder of Lisa Greaves plus a third aggravating factor, that the victim was a witness to a murder and was killed to prevent her testimony in any criminal proceeding concerning the offense.12 The jury also found the same three aggravating factors they found for Lisa Greaves for the murder of Avery Johnson, plus a fourth aggravating factor, that Avery Johnson was a child less than twelve years of age.13 The jury determined that there was one mitigating factor for each of these three murders, namely that Eichinger was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.14 Finding that the weight of the aggravating factors was greater than the weight of the mitigating factor in each case, the jury returned a verdict of death for the murders of Heather, Lisa and Avery.

On December 12, 2005 the trial court imposed three consecutive death sentences for the murders of Heather and Lisa Greaves and Avery Johnson and one sentence of life imprisonment for the murder of Jennifer Still. The court additionally imposed two consecutive sentences of 2.5 to 5 years for possessing an instrument of crime and three consecutive sentences of 1 to 2 years for unsworn falsification. No post-sentence motions were filed. This appeal followed.

When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania imposes a penalty of death, this court will conduct an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n. 3 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983). The standard for review of the sufficiency of the evidence is whether the evidence admitted at trial, and all reasonable inferences drawn from that evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, was sufficient to enable the factfinder to conclude that the Commonwealth established all of the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Ockenhouse, 562 Pa. 481, 756 A.2d 1130, 1135 (2000).

In order to sustain a finding of first-degree murder, the evidence must establish the unlawful killing of a human being, that the appellant did the killing and that the killing was done in an intentional, deliberate and premeditated way. Commonwealth v. Mitchell, 528 Pa. 546,

915 A.2d 1131

599 A.2d 624, 626 (1991). The use of a deadly weapon on a vital part of a human body is sufficient to establish the specific intent to kill. Commonwealth v. Walker, 540 Pa. 80, 656 A.2d 90, 90(Pa.), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 854, 116 S.Ct. 156, 133 L.Ed.2d 100 (1995).

Our review for sufficiency of the evidence is required of only the three murders for which Eichinger received the death penalty. The evidence presented at trial and the penalty phase hearings demonstrates that...

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