Com. v. Hughes

Decision Date21 December 2004
Citation865 A.2d 761,581 Pa. 274
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Kevin HUGHES, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Billy Horatio Nolas, Esq. Philadelphia, for Kevin Hughes.

Hugh J. Burns, Esq., Amy Zapp, Esq., Philadelphia, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

BEFORE: CAPPY, C.J., CASTILLE, NIGRO, NEWMAN, SAYLOR, EAKIN and BAER, JJ.

OPINION

Justice SAYLOR.

This is an appeal in a capital case from an order dismissing Appellant's petition for post-conviction relief.

On March 1, 1979, at approximately 8:15 a.m., the victim, nine-year-old Rochelle Graham, was dropped off near her school. As the victim was walking through the school playground, she encountered Appellant, who was 16 years, 11 months, and 24 days old, and whom she knew through an aunt. Appellant took the victim to a nearby vacant house at 1617 Olive Street in Philadelphia, where he forcibly removed her pants and underwear, attempted vaginal intercourse, and engaged in anal intercourse. Appellant then choked the victim to death, gathered flammable material from the room, placed it on top of her, and with a cigarette lighter, set the material on fire. At some point, Appellant also used the lighter to begin burning his nickname, "Peanut," on the ceiling of the room, writing "PEA."

At 10:30 a.m. that morning, police and fire personnel responded to a fire at the Olive Street address. Inside, police found the victim's partially burned body lying on the floor with her legs spread apart. Detectives investigating the scene observed that the victim's underwear and pants were torn, with blood running from her vaginal area, and noticed the letters burned into the ceiling of the room. A medical examination of the victim revealed bruising and tearing of her vaginal and anal areas and soft tissue bruising of her neck, but no indication of smoke inhalation. The medical examiner concluded that the victim's injuries were consistent with the attempted penetration of her vagina and the actual penetration of her rectum, and that she died from manual strangulation.

The murder went unsolved for approximately ten months. Then, on January 5, 1980, Appellant attacked a 13-year-old girl, M.O., grabbing her from behind and forcing her into a vacant house. Appellant ordered M.O. to undress and perform oral sex, after which, he choked her until she was unconscious. M.O. awoke in a closet a few minutes later and reported the assault to police, who presented her with a photographic array that included a picture of Appellant. M.O. identified Appellant, and an arrest warrant was issued. Upon executing the warrant at Appellant's home, police noticed that the word "PEANUT" had been burned into the ceiling of his bedroom.

Following his arrest, Appellant was interviewed regarding the assault of M.O. As he was a juvenile, Appellant was accompanied by two of his uncles; he was also advised of his constitutional rights. Appellant confessed to the assault of M.O. and, noting the similarities between that assault and the present matter,1 the detectives who were investigating the homicide of Ms. Graham advised Appellant that they would like to question him about her death. After being informed of his constitutional rights a second time, Appellant initially denied any involvement in Ms. Graham's death. Later in the interview, however, Appellant admitted that he had sexually assaulted and killed Ms. Graham. The following day, Appellant was again interviewed regarding the Graham homicide; on this occasion, he was accompanied by one of his uncles, was apprised of his constitutional rights, and again confessed to the crimes.

Shortly after his arrest, and in connection with whether he should be prosecuted as an adult for charges involving M.O., Appellant was evaluated by a court appointed psychologist, Clare Wilson, Ph.D. In her report, Dr. Wilson noted, inter alia, that: Appellant was functionally illiterate; his comprehension, social judgment, and reasoning were deficient; his thinking was concrete and stereotypical; his full scale intelligence quotient was in the low average range; and mild brain damage could not be conclusively ruled out.2 Ultimately, the charges involving M.O. were transferred to the criminal court. Appellant also unsuccessfully moved for decertification in the present matter, seeking to have the charges prosecuted in juvenile court.

Subsequently, Appellant was found incompetent and, on May 6, 1980, was transferred to the forensic unit of the Philadelphia State Hospital. Although the initial psychiatric evaluations of Appellant indicated that he did not suffer from a major mental illness,3 he was prescribed a conservative amount of Thorazine, an antipsychotic medication. Some months later, Appellant's condition improved, and he was found fit to stand trial following a competency hearing.

Thereafter, Appellant moved to suppress evidence and his statements. Prior to the hearing on that matter, counsel for Appellant orally requested a further competency examination, which was granted. Appellant was evaluated by Edwin Camiel, M.D., a psychiatrist employed with the Psychiatric Unit of the Probation Department of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, who testified at the ensuing competency hearing that Appellant showed no psychiatric abnormality and appeared to have a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings. Dr. Camiel noted, however, that Appellant exhibited some evidence of concrete thinking, and that he had reported hearing voices telling him to commit suicide. Dr. Camiel concluded, nevertheless, that Appellant was not so psychologically impaired that he could not proceed to trial. The court then permitted counsel to have Appellant examined by a psychiatrist retained by Appellant, Robert B. Blumberg, D.O. Following a review of Appellant's records and an interview of him, Dr. Blumberg opined that Appellant was not competent to stand trial, as he suffered from persistent delusion, was profoundly disturbed, and was detached from reality. In light of Dr. Blumberg's testimony, the common pleas court directed an examination by a court-appointed expert, Richard B. Saul, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist. Upon evaluating Appellant, which included a review of his mental health records, Dr. Saul opined that Appellant was oriented as to time, person, and place, and could communicate with his attorney and understand the proceedings. Dr. Saul acknowledged that Appellant reported hearing voices in his cell and observed that he suffered from a psychotic illness (schizophrenia). Dr. Saul concluded, nevertheless, that Appellant's schizophrenia was in remission, noted that he was being treated with Thorazine, and opined that such medication should continue through the trial. The court found Appellant competent and, in response to a request from the prosecutor, ordered the prison officials to continue his medication. The trial court then proceeded to address Appellant's suppression motion, which it denied following a hearing.

Appellant's trial commenced on February 17, 1981,4 with the Commonwealth's case centering upon Appellant's confessions and circumstantial evidence indicating his involvement, specifically, that: the letters burned into the ceiling of the crime scene were consistent with Appellant's nickname and those appearing in his bedroom; the assault involving M.O. was substantially similar to that in the present matter and tended to establish that Appellant was the perpetrator; and Appellant's route to school provided him with an opportunity to have committed the offenses.5 The defense countered by contesting the circumstances surrounding Appellant's statements, particularly, that Appellant was unable to read and write and was intellectually unable to have articulated the details of the crimes as they appeared in the statements; the defense also emphasized that Appellant was at school on the day of the crime. Appellant presented testimony from his uncle, Morris Hawthorne, who, in addition to testifying about Appellant's statements, noted that he had never seen Appellant and his mother together, and that Appellant had the intellectual capacity of a two-year old. Appellant testified in his own defense, challenging his admissions to the detectives, and maintaining that he did not sexually assault and murder the victim.

The Commonwealth presented rebuttal evidence concerning, inter alia, Appellant's confessions. In addition, the Commonwealth sought to introduce incriminating statements that Appellant made to Dr. Wilson during her psychological evaluation, namely, that he had set a fire in an abandoned house on the date of the crimes and had raped, killed, and set the victim on fire. In response to Appellant's objection to these statements, the court conducted a hearing, received argument concerning such proof, and ruled that the Commonwealth could not introduce Appellant's admission to raping and killing the victim, but it would be permitted to elicit Appellant's admission to setting a fire in a vacant house on March 1, 1979. Although the Commonwealth did not then call Dr. Wilson, Appellant presented testimony from her concerning his limited intellectual capacity and functioning, including the indication of mild brain damage.6 Counsel for Appellant also elicited that Dr. Wilson had been subpoenaed by the Commonwealth. On cross-examination, the prosecutor sought to explain the reason Dr. Wilson had been subpoenaed, revealing, over objection, Appellant's incriminating statement of having set a fire in an abandoned house on the date of the offenses.

Appellant was found guilty and, in the penalty phase, the Commonwealth offered as aggravating circumstances that the murder was committed during the perpetration of a felony, and that Appellant had knowingly created a grave risk of danger to another person in addition to the victim when he committed the offense. See 42...

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    ...insanity acknowledges commission of the act by the defendant, while maintaining the absence of legal culpability. Commonwealth v. Hughes, 581 Pa. 274, 865 A.2d 761, 788 (2004); Commonwealth v. Cross, 535 Pa. 38, 634 A.2d 173, 175 (1993). Where a defendant has testified at trial and has deni......
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