Com. v. Flanagan

Decision Date23 July 2004
Citation578 Pa. 587,854 A.2d 489
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Dennis FLANAGAN, Appellee.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Karen Ann Diaz, Doylestown, Diane E. Gibbons, Stephen B. Harris, Warrington, for the Com. of PA.

Randall L. Miller, Langhorne, for Dennis Flanagan.



Justice SAYLOR.

In this appeal, the Commonwealth challenges the Superior Court's conclusion that a post-conviction court properly authorized a withdrawal of guilty pleas grounded on the absence from the plea colloquy of any discussion of the factual basis supporting the pleas.

On July 1, 1981, the victim, James Redman, was robbed, beaten, and killed. Ten days later, police arrested appellee, Dennis Flanagan, and George Yacob, based on an affidavit of probable cause detailing police interviews with persons to whom both Flanagan and Yacob had admitted to having assaulted, robbed, and killed a man, while describing circumstances closely resembling those surrounding Mr. Redman's death. Following their arrest, Flanagan and Yacob provided statements describing their respective roles in the events leading to the murder.

In his statement to police, Flanagan related that he and Yacob planned a non-fatal assault on Mr. Redman on account of Mr. Redman's sexual orientation and his having made advances toward Yacob. Flanagan indicated that he and Yacob arranged to meet with Mr. Redman in his automobile and lured him to a remote industrial park, which Flanagan selected as a suitable location for the beating, under the pretext that Flanagan would have sexual relations with Mr. Redman. According to this account, while the vehicle was parked and Yacob was outside of it, Mr. Redman made an advance toward Flanagan, who pushed him away, got out of the car, and told Yacob what had happened. The three then drove a short distance and exited the vehicle, with Flanagan pushing Mr. Redman against the car and holding him there (Flanagan purported to having done so defensively, believing that Mr. Redman may have intended to assault him).

Flanagan described the events that followed largely as a series of acts carried out by Yacob, who purportedly: began taunting, hitting, and kicking Mr. Redman; demanded Mr. Redman's wallet and car keys; gave the keys to Flanagan and instructed him to move the vehicle to the front of the industrial park and wait twenty minutes before returning; and, when Flanagan did so and returned, announced that he (Yacob) had dropped a rock on Mr. Redman's head, kicked him in the face, and choked him with a bandana. Flanagan purported to having asked Yacob if they should call an ambulance, and to having inferred from Yacob's response that Mr. Redman was dead or near death. Flanagan also admitted that: he acquiesced in leaving the scene without attempting to personally verify Mr. Redman's condition; personal items of Mr. Redman's were thrown from the vehicle upon leaving the industrial park; he and Yacob drove the automobile around the local area in the days following the killing, then took it on an excursion to the New Jersey shore with several young women; and he and Yacob planned to conceal their crimes by hiding or "dumping" the vehicle.

In his statement to police, Yacob claimed that, on the evening of the killing, he and Flanagan had joined Mr. Redman in his automobile, believing that they would be taken on a trip to obtain and consume illicit drugs. Yacob indicated that Mr. Redman diverted to the industrial park, where he made advances toward Flanagan and, in an ensuing confrontation, approached Yacob with a knife. The purport of Yacob's initial statement was essentially that he had killed Mr. Redman inadvertently and in self-defense, and that Flanagan had not participated or played a significant part in the killing or in the struggle that assertedly had preceded it. At the time of his arrest, Yacob's hands bore impact injuries.

Following a preliminary hearing, charges against Flanagan and Yacob including, inter alia, first- and second-degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy were bound over to the common pleas court, and the Commonwealth gave notice of its intention to seek imposition of the death penalty. Flanagan, who was at the time seventeen years old, sought transfer to juvenile court. A series of decertification hearings was convened, during which Flanagan testified, offering a substantially different account of the circumstances of Mr. Redman's killing than he had related in his statement to police. Flanagan's decertification hearing testimony mirrored Yacob's initial statement in the claim that he and Yacob believed that they had joined Mr. Redman for a drug-related excursion, and that Mr. Redman selected the industrial park location at which to stop for reasons that were unknown to Flanagan and Yacob. Flanagan testified that he understood at the time (based on Yacob's assertion) that Mr. Redman had a knife in his possession; he also knew Yacob to carry a knife on occasion.

The remainder of Flanagan's account at the decertification hearing loosely tracked his statement to police. He stated that Mr. Redman made sexual advances; Yacob immediately responded with violence, pulling Mr. Redman from the vehicle and hitting him; a struggle ensued, during which Flanagan pushed Mr. Redman only after Mr. Redman grabbed his leg; as the confrontation between Yacob and Mr. Redman continued, Yacob instructed Flanagan to leave the scene for a period of time; and when Flanagan returned, Yacob was alone and implied that Mr. Redman had been killed. On direct examination, Flanagan testified that he had no prior agreement with Yacob to assault Mr. Redman, but that his frame of mind was that he would defend himself and Yacob if necessary. On cross-examination, however, Flanagan admitted that he and Yacob had made a prior agreement to assault Mr. Redman if sexual advances were made during the trip.1 Flanagan's prior statement was discussed extensively on direct and cross-examination, and he admitted to having fabricated various portions of it, claiming to have done so because he knew that Yacob had confessed to the killing, and wished to conform his account to Yacob's and/or tell police "what they want[ed] to hear." At the conclusion of the hearings, the common pleas court denied decertification. A suppression hearing followed, at which the Commonwealth presented testimony from the detectives who signed the affidavit of probable cause, who related, inter alia, witness descriptions of inculpatory conversations with Yacob and/or Flanagan in which the participation of both men in the robbery/homicide was described (Flanagan also testified briefly in support of his request for relief). Suppression was denied, and Yacob subsequently pled guilty to first-degree murder and the related offenses, and, as a result of a plea agreement, was sentenced to life-imprisonment.

By this time, the Commonwealth had filed discovery responses containing witness statements including those of a young acquaintance who affirmed that he had overheard Flanagan and Yacob discussing plans to rob and severely beat a man whom they believed to be a homosexual in the days prior to and on the evening of the murder, as well as several persons who attested that Flanagan and Yacob admitted to having beaten and killed a man in a joint physical and verbal assault motivated by discriminatory animus. Among the latter was one of the young women who had traveled to the New Jersey shore with Yacob and Flanagan. She affirmed that Flanagan had admitted to having personally stabbed the victim during the course of the assault, and conveyed that the victim was exposed to a prolonged period of suffering, throughout which he pled for mercy.

Two days later, on the day scheduled for commencement of his trial, Flanagan pled guilty to murder generally, see Pa.R.Crim.P. 802 (formerly Rule 352), robbery, and conspiracy to commit murder and robbery. At the plea hearing, Flanagan's counsel noted that Flanagan had endorsed the information by pleading guilty, and the plea court opened its colloquy by asking Flanagan if he wished to enter guilty pleas to the charges contained in the criminal information, to which Flanagan responded in the affirmative. The plea court then correctly elucidated the various elements of the crimes with which Flanagan had been charged; delineated various defenses; described the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof resting on the Commonwealth in a criminal prosecution; admonished Flanagan that he had a right to a trial by a jury on a unanimous verdict; and specified the applicable ranges of punishment for the offenses that were the subject of the pleas. With respect to the open plea to murder, Flanagan affirmed his understanding that, as a result, it was initially presumed that he was guilty of the lowest degree of murder (third-degree). The plea court also elaborated on third-degree murder and the attendant concept of malice as follows:

Malice, generally speaking means, is said to be a hardness of heart, a mind or a heart that is disregarding his social duty, acting in a way which you know to be contrary to proper acceptable, ethical standards. Malice can mean a direct malice, a hatred of a particular person or it can be manifested generally speaking or indirectly by a generalized hardness of heart, wickedness of disposition.
* * *
Murder of the third degree is an unlawful killing of another person with malice. I've defined malice for you. However, we say that the distinction is that where as first degree murder must be an intentional killing we say that for third degree murder the killing need not be intentional but rather that the intention be to inflict serious or grevious bodily harm upon someone, and if as a result of doing that he dies, that would be third degree murder if in fact the

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