Com. v. Johnson

Citation838 A.2d 663,576 Pa. 23
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Raymond JOHNSON, Appellant.
Decision Date18 December 2003
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

838 A.2d 663
576 Pa. 23

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
Raymond JOHNSON, Appellant

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Submitted October 21, 2002.

Decided December 18, 2003.

Reargument Denied February 19, 2004.

838 A.2d 667
John J. McMahon, Jr., West Conshohocken, for Raymond Johnson, Appellant

838 A.2d 668
Mark Carlyle Baldwin, Alisa Rebecca Hobart, Reading, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, for the Com. of PA, Appellee


838 A.2d 664
838 A.2d 665

838 A.2d 666

Justice SAYLOR.

This is a capital, direct appeal.

On the evening of June 18, 1996, in connection with a territorial dispute between groups involved in the sale of illicit drugs, Louis Combs ("Combs" or the "victim"), was fatally shot in a breezeway next to 437 Schuylkill Avenue in the City of Reading. Following investigation, Appellant, Raymond Johnson ("Appellant" or "Johnson"), was charged with criminal homicide and related offenses, and a warrant was issued for his arrest, followed by a fugitive warrant. Johnson was finally taken into custody in New York in February of 1998. The Commonwealth provided notice of its intention to seek the death penalty, and a jury trial ensued in September, 2000. In the guilt phase, the Commonwealth proffered, inter alia, eyewitness accounts identifying Johnson as the killer, and Johnson presented alibi witnesses, although he did not himself testify. The jury returned a verdict of guilt, inter alia, on the charge of first-degree murder, and, following a penalty hearing, rendered a death verdict. The jurors found that the aggravating circumstance entailing involvement, association or competition with the victim in the sale, manufacture, distribution or delivery of illegal drugs, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(14), outweighed mitigating factors concerning the character and record of the defendant and the circumstances of the offense, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(e)(8). New counsel was appointed for purposes of direct appeal; after the filing of an initial brief, an additional substitution of counsel occurred, accompanied by the filing of a supplemental brief raising additional claims.

In his initial statement of questions involved, Johnson identified the following eight issues: a claim of trial court error in the admission of testimony from Nicole Ramsey ("Ramsey"), who was associated with Johnson in drug trafficking, concerning other-crimes evidence; a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel in failing to request a cautionary, limiting instruction regarding other-crimes evidence; a claim of trial court error in the admission of Ramsey's testimony concerning inculpatory statements made to her by a third participant in Johnson's illicit-drug-trade group (known only as Izod or Ike); a claim of trial court error in permitting Ramsey's testimony to be read to jurors by the court reporter during their deliberations; claims of trial court error in overruling an objection to the district attorney's closing-speech reference to the absence of an identified alibi witness, and of ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to request a mistrial following such reference; a claim of trial court error in permitting testimony concerning remarks made by Johnson and a fourth participant in his drug trade, defense witness Adrian Starks ("Starks"), to Commonwealth witness Jackie Cook ("Cook") before trial while the men were incarcerated; a claim of trial court error in the issuance to the jury of a flight/concealment charge; and a claim that the evidence adduced at trial was insufficient to establish the Section 9711(d)(14) aggravator. Johnson also raised several other issues and claims in the argument section of his brief, most of which are interrelated with those set forth in the statement of questions presented. Further, in his supplemental brief, Johnson argued that the initial jury selection process was tainted due to a racially imbalanced jury pool, and that trial counsel was ineffective in failing

838 A.2d 669
to: object to the district attorney's questioning of Starks during the defense case concerning his brother's arrest for murder in an unrelated criminal case; request an instruction that life imprisonment means life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; and investigate, develop, and present mental health and personal history mitigation evidence.

I. Evidentiary Sufficiency

This Court's automatic review of the sufficiency of the evidence in capital cases is accomplished on consideration of the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth (as the verdict winner), as well as reasonable inferences that may be drawn from it, and entails consideration of whether such evidence and inferences would permit a jury to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, the existence of every element of the crime. See Commonwealth v. Simmons, 541 Pa. 211, 223, 662 A.2d 621, 627 (1995). The Commonwealth must establish the fact of a person's unlawful killing, as well as the defendant's involvement in the killing, action with specific intent to kill, and deliberateness. See Commonwealth v. Spotz, 552 Pa. 499, 506-07, 716 A.2d 580, 583 (1998).

Here, the gunshot wound to a vital part of the victim's body permitted the jury to infer that the shooter acted with the requisite specific intent. See id. The Commonwealth presented testimony from four witnesses to establish that Johnson was the killer: Cook, Spenser Branford ("Branford"), Ramsey, and former detective Bruce Dietrich ("Detective Dietrich").

Cook's testimony served both as an eyewitness account of the killing and to establish Johnson's motive. He described his participation in drug trafficking with Combs in the local area, and Combs' concern with another group, headquartered at 437 Schuylkill Avenue, which had begun to compete for area sales. According to Cook's account, on two consecutive days, he and Combs confronted Starks, who they suspected was a member of the rival group; on the second occasion (the afternoon of the killing), accompanied by Branford and in the vicinity of 437 Schuylkill Avenue, Cook demanded to speak with Starks' supplier. Starks left and returned a short time later with Johnson. Johnson and Combs then entered a breezeway, while Cook remained on the sidewalk in a position that allowed him to observe the men as they talked. After a few moments, he saw Johnson pull a gun from his waist, extend his arm, and shoot Combs in the abdomen. Cook testified that he then fled, and, as he was running, noticed another member of Johnson's group, known only as Izod or Ike, in the vicinity. Cook also described his later encounter with Johnson and Starks while the three were incarcerated in Berks County Prison, which he interpreted as a warning against his incriminating Johnson in the killing.

Branford's testimony also concerned the encounter between Johnson and the victim, and was, in many material respects, corroborative of Cook's, although Branford was not physically in a position to see the actual killing.

Ramsey testified to her sale of illegal drugs for Johnson in the relevant time period. Ramsey indicated that Johnson experienced problems with Combs for some time prior to the murder, which, she believed, resulted from the fact that Johnson and Izod, whom she described as Johnson's "right-hand man," were selling drugs in proximity to Combs' operations. She recalled overhearing conversations between Johnson and Izod on the subject, during which Johnson would "get mad, and [say] he was going to handle that. And they didn't know who they were playing

838 A.2d 670
with." She was also present during a confrontation between Combs and Izod that occurred approximately two weeks before the murder, which, she explained, "was basically about turf.... Like I said, it had been going on for a while. And [Combs] said to Izod he was not going to take food out of our mouths. You know how we do it in New York."

Ramsey also testified that, on the day of the killing, Johnson had been at her apartment, was carrying a weapon, and had repeatedly expressed his anger with Combs. Ramsey recalled Johnson placing several calls from a nearby telephone booth throughout the day and receiving separate visits from Starks (whom Ramsey also identified as selling drugs for Johnson) and Izod; during the latter's visit she overheard the two discussing "something about handling that." Ramsey later learned that something had occurred on Schuylkill Avenue and, upon investigation, received a message to page Izod and Johnson. She recounted that, upon responding to the page, Izod informed her that "we did them n___s. You didn't think we would, but we did. There is not going to be a problem."

Detective Dietrich was the lead investigator for Combs' killing. He explained that he obtained a warrant for Appellant's arrest in June, 1996, but was unable to locate him until February, 1998, when he learned that Johnson had been taken into custody in New York. The detective also detailed his efforts to locate Johnson in both Reading and New York, testifying that he: contacted Johnson's friends and relatives in Reading; checked addresses that Johnson was known to frequent; and traveled to New York, where he spoke with more of Johnson's friends and relatives. He further explained that he advised individuals with whom he spoke that he held a warrant for Johnson's arrest.

In light of the above, the jury's determination that Appellant deliberately perpetrated Combs' killing rests on a sufficient evidentiary foundation.

As noted, Appellant lodged a specific challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence to support the aggravating circumstance found by the jury. See 42 Pa. C.S. § 9711(d)(14). In this regard, he contends that the evidence was insufficient to support the Commonwealth's theory that Combs was killed as a consequence of a drug-sale-related rivalry between him and Johnson at 437 Schuylkill Avenue. Although Johnson...

To continue reading

Request your trial
66 cases
  • Com. v. Wright
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 22, 2004
    ...inconsistencies in the evidence, and we are not free to substitute our judgment for that of the fact finder. Commonwealth v. Johnson, 576 Pa. 23, 37, 838 A.2d 663, 671 (2003). Moreover, it bears particular emphasis that the evidence included the testimony of appellant's brother, Michael Wri......
  • Com. v. Robinson
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 30, 2004
    ...this under-representation is due to systematic exclusion of the group in the jury selection process. See Commonwealth v. (Raymond) Johnson, 576 Pa. 23, 838 A.2d 663, 682 (2003), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 125 S.Ct. 617, ___ L.Ed.2d ___ (2004); Commonwealth v. (Roderick) Johnson, 572 Pa.283......
  • Com. v. Markman
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • February 21, 2007
    ...the police knew to look for her-when the authorities began to suspect that the jeep was stolen. See generally Commonwealth v. Johnson, 576 Pa. 23, 53, 838 A.2d 663, 681 (2003) (noting that flight and concealment can constitute circumstantial proof of consciousness of guilt). Finally, Appell......
  • Howell v. Superintendent Rockview SCI, 17-1758
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • September 17, 2019
    ..." and, therefore, held that Howell did not demonstrate a constitutional violation. App. at 252-54 (quoting Commonwealth v. Johnson , 576 Pa. 23, 838 A.2d 663, 682 (2003) ). The state court stated that, though the U.S. Supreme Court’s test does not require a showing of discriminatory intent,......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT