Com. v. Laird

Decision Date16 February 2010
Docket NumberNo. 527 CAP,527 CAP
Citation988 A.2d 618
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Richard Roland LAIRD, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

J. Michael Farrell, Philadelphia, for Richard Roland Laird.

Michelle Ann Henry, Bucks County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, Stephen B. Harris, Warrington, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, GREENSPAN, JJ.

OPINION

Justice SAYLOR.

This is a direct appeal from a sentence of death imposed by the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas following Appellant Richard Laird's conviction of the first-degree murder of Anthony Milano.

I. Background

In 1988, Appellant and Frank Chester were tried together for murder and related charges arising from the December 15, 1987, death of Anthony Milano. At the guilt phase, both men admitted to being present when Milano was killed, and each claimed that the other was the killer. Both were convicted on all charges, including first, second, and third-degree murder, as well as kidnapping. The jury found that the two aggravating circumstances— killing in perpetration of a felony, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6), and killing by means of torture, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(8)— outweighed the mitigating factors, and sentenced both defendants to death. On direct appeal, Appellant's judgment of sentence was affirmed. See Commonwealth v. Chester, 526 Pa. 578, 587 A.2d 1367 (1991). His subsequent petition for post-conviction relief was denied. See Commonwealth v. Laird, 555 Pa. 629, 726 A.2d 346 (1999).

Appellant sought federal habeas relief, which the district court granted in part. See Laird v. Horn, 159 F.Supp.2d 58 (E.D.Pa.2001), aff'd, 414 F.3d 419 (3d Cir. 2005). The court vacated Appellant's first-degree murder conviction without prejudice, finding that the jury instructions on first-degree murder violated due process, but left undisturbed the other convictions, including those for second and third-degree murder. The court also vacated Appellant's death sentence based on its finding of several constitutional errors, including that Appellant's appearance before the capital sentencing jury in shackles violated his due process rights and that Appellant's counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence of Appellant's traumatic childhood, substance abuse, intoxication, brain damage, and mental illness.

The Commonwealth retried Appellant in February 2007, nearly twenty years after the crime. The evidence adduced was similar to that introduced in the 1988 joint trial. On retrial, however, Appellant stipulated that he murdered Milano and, hence, the only remaining question for the jury was whether he acted with a specific intent to kill, thus making him guilty of first-degree murder. Appellant's strategy was to forward a defense of diminished capacity resulting from extreme intoxication. In support of such defense, Appellant presented the testimony of several expert witnesses who opined that Appellant must have had a very high blood-alcohol content at the time of the killing and that this, together with brain damage sustained from a head injury earlier in his life, substantially impeded Appellant from forming the requisite intent to kill. The experts additionally developed that, given the amount of alcohol Appellant ingested during the hours leading up to the killing, he may have been acting in an "alcoholic blackout," where he could appear to function normally but later have no recall of the time period in question. Indeed, some of the experts related that Appellant had told them he had no memory of the killing when they spoke to him immediately prior to the retrial. The district attorney sought to cast doubt upon Appellant's truthfulness in this regard by referring to his testimony at his first trial (which occurred five months after the offense) in which Appellant recounted his version of the events immediately before, during, and after the killing in significant detail. Ultimately, the jury found Appellant guilty of first-degree murder and set the penalty at death after unanimously concluding that the sole aggravating factor outweighed any mitigating circumstances.1

II. Sufficiency of the evidence

Although Appellant does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his first-degree murder conviction, this Court undertakes such review in all cases in which the death penalty has been imposed. See Commonwealth v. Ockenhouse, 562 Pa. 481, 489, 756 A.2d 1130, 1134 (2000). The applicable standard is whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, is sufficient to enable a reasonable jury to find every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. See Commonwealth v. Watkins, 577 Pa. 194, 208, 843 A.2d 1203, 1211 (2003). To obtain a conviction for first-degree murder, the Commonwealth must demonstrate that a human being was unlawfully killed, the defendant was the killer, and the defendant acted with malice and a specific intent to kill. See 18 Pa.C.S. §§ 2501, 2502(a); Commonwealth v. Moore, 594 Pa. 619, 628, 937 A.2d 1062, 1067 (2007) (citing Commonwealth v. Collins, 550 Pa. 46, 50, 703 A.2d 418, 420 (1997)). In undertaking this inquiry, we bear in mind that: the Commonwealth may sustain its burden by means of wholly circumstantial evidence; the entire trial record should be evaluated and all evidence received considered, whether or not the trial court's rulings thereon were correct; and the trier of fact, while passing upon the credibility of witnesses and the weight of the evidence, is free to believe all, part, or none of the evidence. See Commonwealth v. Cousar, 593 Pa. 204, 217, 928 A.2d 1025, 1032-33 (2007). Because Appellant conceded at trial that he murdered Milano, we need only inquire whether the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's determination that Appellant acted with a specific intent to kill. See Commonwealth v. Taylor, 583 Pa. 170, 186, 876 A.2d 916, 926 (2005) (observing that the distinguishing feature of first-degree murder is that the perpetrator acted with a specific intent to kill).2 Viewed favorably to the Commonwealth, the evidence at Appellant's retrial revealed the following.3

At 11:30 p.m. on December 14, 1987, the victim, Anthony Milano, drove to the Edgely Inn in Bristol Township, a bar where Appellant and Chester were drinking and playing pool. Milano had never met Appellant or Chester prior to that evening. During the next three hours, Milano, Chester, and Appellant drank alcohol and conversed together. The bartender testified that, at some point, Appellant and Chester began taunting Milano concerning his masculinity because they believed he might be homosexual. In this respect, Appellant used derogatory terms such as "fag" when speaking of Milano to others at the bar, and at one point expressed to the bartender that he (Appellant) was "sick and tired of these people trying to infiltrate us." Nevertheless, Milano agreed to give Appellant and Chester a ride home. Multiple witnesses testified that, during this time, and throughout the ensuing events, Appellant seemed coherent, was able to stand without swaying, and was not slurring his speech. Appellant, Chester, and Milano ultimately left the Edgely Inn just before 2:30 a.m. on December 15, with Milano driving his car and Chester and Appellant supplying directions.

Approximately one hour later, the three individuals, still in Milano's car, proceeded to a wooded area of the township, stopped along the side of the road, and exited the vehicle. Chester then punched or kicked Milano in the head several times, causing him to fall to the ground. Appellant jumped on top of Milano, pinned him to the ground, and killed him by slashing his throat repeatedly with a box-cutter. The assailants ran toward the home of a friend, Rich Griscavage. En route, Appellant took off his shirt, wiped blood from his jacket with it and discarded it. Upon arriving at Griscavage's house, Chester and Appellant were visibly agitated. Chester indicated to Griscavage that they had gotten into a fight with someone and "the dude is dead," whereupon Appellant interrupted and instructed Chester not to discuss the matter. Soon thereafter, Griscavage gave Appellant a ride home on the back of his motorcycle. He testified that Appellant did not have any trouble keeping his balance or leaning into turns, so that the ten-minute motorcycle ride was unproblematic.

Later that day, Appellant's girlfriend observed Appellant place his keychain, which was covered with blood, as well as all of the clothing he was wearing when he arrived home, into a plastic bag, which he then discarded in a dumpster in a nearby town. She testified that he always carried his box-cutter with him, but that he disposed of it after the murder by throwing it into a creek. Additionally, Appellant asked her if she could "be an alibi," repeated his instruction to Chester not talk to anyone about the incident, and stated, "no evidence, no crime." Finally, the Commonwealth introduced a tape recording and transcript of a consensually intercepted telephone call between Chester and Appellant on December 20, 1987. During the call, Appellant suggested that Chester leave town, indicated his intention to "hide until this blows over," recommended ways of passing a polygraph test, commented on the district attorney's inability to prove a case without evidence, and expressed his belief that criminal homicide is subject to a seven-year statute of limitations. Two days later, Appellant was arrested at a motel in Falls, Pennsylvania.

This Court has already concluded that the slashing of Milano's throat supports an inference that the killing was intentional. See Chester, 526 Pa. at 589, 587 A.2d at 1372; see also Commonwealth v. Kennedy, 598 Pa. 621, 630, 959 A.2d 916, 921 (2008) (noting that a specific intent to kill may be inferred from the use of a deadly...

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