Com. v. Mason

Decision Date24 November 1999
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Lenwood MASON, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Gerald A. Stein, Philadelphia, for Lenwood Mason.

Catherine Marshall, Philadelphia, for Com.

Andrew S. Gibson, Philadelphia, Robert A. Graci, Harrisburg, for Office of Attorney General.



NIGRO, Justice.

Following a jury trial, Appellant Lenwood Mason was found guilty of first-degree murder for the killing of Iona Jeffries. The jury returned a verdict of death, and on February 20, 1996, the trial court formally imposed the death sentence. Upon petition by Appellant's trial counsel, the court ordered that counsel be permitted to withdraw, as private counsel had been retained. New counsel for Appellant filed a petition for collateral review under the Capital Unitary Review Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9570, et seq.,1 which the trial court denied. This direct appeal followed.2 For the reasons presented below, we affirm the judgment of sentence.

Although Appellant concedes that he fatally stabbed Iona Jeffries, he claims in his first allegation of error that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict of first-degree murder. As in all cases in which the death penalty has been imposed, this Court is required to independently review the record to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to sustain the verdict for murder in the first degree. See Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 26 n. 3, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n. 3 (1982),

cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983). In conducting such a review, we must view the evidence admitted at trial, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, and determine whether the jury could find every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Michael, 544 Pa. 105, 110-12, 674 A.2d 1044, 1047 (1996).

Evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction for first-degree murder where the Commonwealth establishes that the defendant acted with a specific intent to kill, that a human being was unlawfully killed, that the defendant did the killing and that the killing was willful, deliberate and premeditated. 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(d); Commonwealth v. Spotz, 552 Pa. 499, 505-07, 716 A.2d 580, 583 (1998). Circumstantial evidence alone is sufficient to prove first-degree murder. Commonwealth v. May, 540 Pa. 237, 246, 656 A.2d 1335, 1340 (1995).

Viewed under these standards, the record below establishes that on March 31, 1994, police were called to the 3800 block of Clearfield Street in Philadelphia. Officer Terry Brown observed Appellant walking on Clearfield Street, with Iona Jeffries close to his side. Noting a frightened look on Ms. Jeffries' face, the officer approached her and asked if she was all right. The officer noticed bruises on Ms. Jeffries' forehead, shoulder, neck and mouth. Although Appellant told the officer that Ms. Jeffries had been attacked by several other women, Ms. Jeffries informed the officer that Appellant had actually caused her injuries. Ms. Jeffries explained to the officer that she was reluctant to press charges against Appellant, as she feared he would kill her. Based on his own observations and Ms. Jeffries' statements, however, the officer placed Appellant under arrest.

Approximately three months later, on the evening of June 18, 1994, Ms. Jeffries was at a bar, Cadillac Slim's, with Appellant and several of her friends. Appellant had been released from prison two days earlier, on June 16, 1994. When Ms. Jeffries and her friends decided to leave Cadillac Slim's and go to another club, Ms. Jeffries asked that a male acquaintance drive Appellant home, as she did not want him to accompany her to the club. Upset by Ms. Jeffries' plans to exclude him, Appellant yelled, "You want it like that?" and ran out of the bar.

At approximately 9:30 the following morning, Ms. Jeffries' mother, Mrs. Wisteria Jeffries, was at her home when she heard Appellant banging on the door. As Wisteria Jeffries approached the door, she saw Appellant's hand protruding through the screen door. When Wisteria Jeffries asked Appellant what he wanted, he replied that he needed to speak with Ms. Jeffries. Wisteria Jeffries explained that Ms. Jeffries was asleep. After Appellant insisted that he speak with Ms. Jeffries, Wisteria Jeffries told Appellant to wait outside while she got Ms. Jeffries. She locked the door and went upstairs to Ms. Jeffries' room, where Ms. Jeffries was sleeping on a bed with her then three year-old son, Anthony. Ms. Jeffries refused to come downstairs. Wisteria Jeffries returned to the front door and told Appellant that Ms. Jeffries was sleeping and that he would have to wait to speak with her. Appellant then forced his way into the house, pushed past Wisteria Jeffries, and ran up the stairs. Wisteria Jeffries immediately called the police.

Wisteria Jeffries retrieved a knife from the kitchen and began to head upstairs, when she saw Appellant descending the steps. Appellant stated to Wisteria Jeffries, "I got her now." At that point, Wisteria Jeffries attempted to stab Appellant, but he pushed her aside and ran outside, where a neighbor, Greg Bell, saw Appellant placing what appeared to be a knife into the waistband of his pants. Wisteria Jeffries ran upstairs to Ms. Jeffries' bedroom and found Ms. Jeffries bleeding profusely from multiple stab wounds. Police and rescue units arrived and Ms. Jeffries was taken to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Later that same day, Appellant surrendered to the police and was charged with murder in the first degree, burglary and possessing an instrument of crime. At Appellant's trial, Dr. Haresh G. Mirchandani, the chief medical examiner for Philadelphia County, testified that the cause of Ms. Jeffries' death had been multiple (eighteen) knife wounds to the body. According to Dr. Mirchandani, Ms. Jeffries had suffered knife wounds to her head, neck, chest, back, abdomen, arm, groin and leg. Ms. Jeffries' son, who was four years old at the time of the trial, testified that he was on the bed with his mother when Appellant entered the bedroom and stabbed his mother with a knife.

Appellant testified on his own behalf, claiming that he had been drinking and doing drugs, including PCP for the first time, at the bar on the night before the murder. He testified that after he smoked the PCP, everything went blurry and that he did not recall leaving Cadillac Slim's or going to Ms. Jeffries' house on the morning of her murder. He further maintained that he did not regain his senses again until late in the evening on the day of the murder, when he was already in jail. Appellant's mother and brother also testified in Appellant's defense. Essentially, they claimed that when they saw Appellant on the day of the murder, he was under the influence of drugs and that his condition was unlike any "high" that they had ever seen him experience.

On February 15, 1996, the jury found Appellant guilty of first-degree murder, burglary and possessing an instrument of crime. After a penalty hearing, the jury found that there were two aggravating circumstances and no mitigating circumstances.3 The jury therefore returned a verdict of death for the murder conviction, which the trial court formally imposed on February 20, 1996.

Appellant first argues that there was insufficient evidence to establish that he acted with premeditation, a finding necessary to sustain his conviction for first-degree murder. He essentially contends that the following circumstances surrounding the crime suggest a lack of premeditation on his part: (1) that he did not threaten Ms. Jeffries or her mother prior to the stabbing, (2) that he did not initially break down the Jeffries' screen door and (3) that he did not conceal his identity or eliminate the witnesses to the stabbing. This claim fails.

The period of premeditation necessary for first-degree murder "may be very brief." Commonwealth v. Green, 493 Pa. 409, 415, 426 A.2d 614, 617 (1981). Indeed, "design to kill can be formulated in a fraction of a second," and premeditation and deliberation exist "whenever there is a conscious purpose to bring about death." Commonwealth v. O'Searo, 466 Pa. 224, 240, 352 A.2d 30, 37 (1976). Here, the evidence established that Ms. Jeffries' last contact with Appellant before he broke into her home was at Cadillac Slim's, where, after Ms. Jeffries indicated that she did not want Appellant to accompany her and her friends to their next destination, Appellant yelled, "You want it like that?" and ran out of the bar. Despite Appellant's allegations to the contrary, the jury was clearly entitled to conclude from this evidence, coupled with the fact that Appellant went to Ms. Jeffries' house seven and one-half hours later armed with a knife, that Appellant had ample time to, and did in fact, premeditate the murder. The circumstances recited by Appellant simply do not, as a matter of law, foreclose a finding of premeditation. Accordingly, Appellant's claim that the evidence was insufficient to establish premeditation fails to provide him with any basis for relief.

Appellant also contends that the jury erred in failing to find that he was acting under the "heat of passion" when he fatally stabbed Ms. Jeffries. This claim lacks merit.

A "heat of passion" defense is a partial defense to murder. Commonwealth v. McCusker, 448 Pa. 382, 386, 292 A.2d 286, 288 (1972). Under the Crimes Code, a person is guilty of voluntary manslaughter, as opposed to murder, if at the time of the killing he acted under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by the victim. 18 Pa.C.S. § 2503(a); Commonwealth v. Browdie, 543 Pa. 337, 343-45, 671 A.2d 668, 671 (1996). "Heat...

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