Com. v. Means

CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtCAPPY, Justice.
Citation773 A.2d 143,565 Pa. 309
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Alfred MEANS, Appellee.
Decision Date25 June 2001

773 A.2d 143
565 Pa. 309

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant
v.
Alfred MEANS, Appellee

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued October 18, 1999.

Decided June 25, 2001.


773 A.2d 145
Catherine Marshall, Hugh J. Burns, Jr., Philadelphia, for appellant Com

Jules Epstein, Philadelphia, for appellee Alfred Means.

Before FLAHERTY, C.J., and ZAPPALA, CAPPY, CASTILLE, NIGRO, NEWMAN and SAYLOR, JJ.

773 A.2d 144
OPINION ANNOUNCING THE JUDGMENT OF THE COURT

CAPPY, Justice.

This is a direct appeal from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County declaring portions of the Pennsylvania death penalty statute at 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(a)(2) and (c)(2) unconstitutional.1 The trial court invalidated the subsections at issue, finding they failed to establish sufficient procedural safeguards regarding the introduction of victim impact testimony during the penalty phase of a capital case. For the reasons that follow we reverse the decision of the trial court and remand for further proceedings.

On the evening of October 15, 1996, Mr. Rudd was walking along 52nd street in Philadelphia when he had the misfortune of encountering appellee and his accomplice. Mr. Rudd was knocked to the ground, beaten, robbed and then fatally shot in the chest. Appellee and his accomplice walked away from Mr. Rudd's body towards 51st Street. On 51st Street the assailants encountered Dr. Cooper who was planting a tree on his property. The two men attacked Dr. Cooper, beating him with their guns and searching through his pockets for money. During the attack, appellee attempted to shoot Dr. Cooper several times, however his gun failed to fire. Eventually the gun did shoot; leaving a bullet permanently embedded in Dr. Cooper's leg.

While Dr. Cooper was being attacked, the police responded to a call of gunshots being fired in relation to the shooting of Mr. Rudd on 52nd Street. After discovering the body of Mr. Rudd on the sidewalk, the police came upon appellee and his accomplice during their attack on Dr. Cooper. The attackers fled in opposite directions, each with a policeman in pursuit. During the chase, appellee aimed his gun at the officer in pursuit several times, but the gun did not discharge. Both men were apprehended and charged with various offenses including first degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, possessing an instrument of crime and aggravated assault.

Appellee and his accomplice chose to proceed before the Court of Common Pleas non-jury. On October 9, 1997, appellee was convicted of first-degree murder and related charges.2 On October 10, 1997, appellee presented a motion to exclude

773 A.2d 146
victim impact evidence from the penalty phase alleging that the sections of the statute which permitted the introduction of such evidence violated the due process, equal protection and cruel punishment provisions of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions. U.S. Const. Amend. VIII and XIV; Pa. Const. Art. 1 §§ 1, 9, 13, 26 and 28.3 Following argument, the trial court sustained appellee's motion to preclude the introduction of victim impact testimony and declared subsections (a)(2) and (c)(2) of 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711 unconstitutional

The trial court agreed with appellant that testimony concerning the impact of the victim's death on his family is relevant to the issue of penalty in a death case. However, the court invalidated the statutory subsections at issue, finding that insufficient guidance was provided to the jury on how to weigh the testimony of victim impact in the deliberative process. Looking to Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972), the trial court opined that due process requires a penalty proceeding that is structured to eliminate arbitrary and capricious actions by the jury when deliberating on the imposition of a death sentence. The trial court found such structure missing in the Pennsylvania statute. Specifically, the court pointed to the statute's failure to set forth a standard of proof, a requirement of unanimity, and an explanation of how within the deliberations of the jury victim impact testimony is to be considered. In addition, the court found that without a structure for the jury to channel its assessment of victim impact testimony, appellate review of the jury's sentencing determination would be severely impeded. Thus, the court concluded that the statutory sections at issue were not sufficiently restrictive as they opened the jury to arbitrary and capricious considerations in the sentencing process that would evade meaningful appellate review.

Given the trial court's refusal to permit the introduction of victim impact testimony, the penalty phase hearing and sentencing on the remaining convictions was continued indefinitely.4 Appellant sought

773 A.2d 147
immediate review of the trial court's decision. Appellant argues that the statutory subsections were improperly invalidated. Appellant asserts that victim impact testimony is not an aggravating circumstance, thus it need not be established according to a precise burden of proof, nor should it be subject to a requirement of unanimity. Further, there is no constitutional requirement that the jury be told how to conduct the weighing process. Appellant requests, therefore, that the decision of the trial court be reversed

The constitutional validity of duly enacted legislation is presumed. Commonwealth v. Swinehart, 541 Pa. 500, 664 A.2d 957 (1995). The party seeking to overcome the presumption of validity must meet a formidable burden. Commonwealth v. Barud, 545 Pa. 297, 681 A.2d 162 (1996). A statute will only be declared unconstitutional if it clearly, palpably and plainly violates the constitution. Commonwealth v. Mikulan, 504 Pa. 244, 470 A.2d 1339 (1983).

The federal constitutional provisions at issue are the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection. The provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution cited by appellee are in Article 1; beginning with Section 1, guaranteeing equal protection; Section 9, providing, in relevant part, for due process in criminal proceedings; Section 13, prohibiting the infliction of cruel punishment; Section 26, precluding governmental discrimination against any person; and Section 28, prohibiting discrimination based on gender.5 In Commonwealth v. Edmunds, 526 Pa. 374, 586 A.2d 887 (1991), we recognized that certain provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution, although paralleling those within the United States Constitution, may afford greater protection to the citizens of this Commonwealth. Thus, in considering the merits of this appeal, we will address the dual constitutional provisions, and where appropriate discuss the facets of Pennsylvania jurisprudence, which may compel distinct conclusions under the state charter as opposed to the federal constitution. As we stated in Edmunds, when considering a claim that specifically implicates a distinct provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will consider the textual distinctions between the state and federal provisions, the historical interpretation of the provision as elucidated in legislation and case law, related decisions of our sister states, and policy considerations unique to this Commonwealth. See Id. at 895. With these principles in place we begin our discussion of the constitutionality of the legislation at issue. The specific statutory provisions are as follows:

§ 9711. Sentencing procedure for murder of the first degree
(a) Procedure in jury trials.—
* * *

(2) In the sentencing hearing, evidence concerning the victim and the impact that the death of the victim has had on the family or the victim is

773 A.2d 148
admissible. Additionally, evidence may be presented as to any matter that the court deems relevant and admissible on the question of the sentence to be imposed. Evidence shall include matters relating to any of the aggravating or mitigating circumstances specified in subsections (d) and (e), and information concerning the victim and the impact that the death of the victim has had on the family of the victim. Evidence of aggravating circumstances shall be limited to those circumstances specified in subsection (d).
* * *
(c) Instructions to jury.—
(2) The court shall instruct the jury that if it finds at least one aggravating circumstance and at least one mitigating circumstance, it shall consider, in weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, any evidence presented about the victim and about the impact of the murder on the victim's family. The court shall also instruct the jury on any other matter that may be just and proper under the circumstances.

42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(a)(2),(c)(2), as amended, 1995, October 11, P.L. 1064, No. 22 (Special Session No. 1), § 1.

Appellant argues that the trial court erred in relying upon Furman to invalidate the statutory subsections at issue. Furman requires that the jury be guided by specific factors in the deliberative process in order to eliminate the risk that a sentence of death would be imposed based on wholly arbitrary or capricious grounds. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 188, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976) (summarizing the central mandate of the plurality opinions in Furman). Appellant argues that the provisions delineated above do not violate Furman, as a jury cannot impose a sentence of death solely on the basis of victim impact testimony. The requirement that a jury's discretion be channeled in the penalty phase relates to the initial determination by the jury that an aggravating circumstance is present which would subject this particular defendant to the penalty of death. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 454 A.2d 937, 949-51 (1983). Only after that initial decision has been reached on the existence of at least one aggravating circumstance, and if any of the jurors have found at least one mitigating circumstance can the jury...

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79 practice notes
  • People v. Carrington, No. S043628.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • July 27, 2009
    ...that the following instruction (one proposed, although not mandated, by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Means (2001) 565 Pa. 309, 773 A.2d 143, 159) would have been appropriate: "Victim impact evidence is simply 211 P.3d 659 another method of informing you about the nat......
  • Com. v. Hughes
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 21, 2004
    ...circumstances. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Harris, 572 Pa. 489, 524, 817 A.2d 1033, 1054 (2002).42 Although in Commonwealth v. Means, 565 Pa. 309, 773 A.2d 143 (2001) (Opinion Announcing the Judgment of the Court), a plurality of the Court stated that relevant evidence under Section 9711(a)(......
  • Com. v. Harris
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 20, 2002
    ...of Act 22 in the face of multiple challenges brought under both the Pennsylvania and federal Constitutions. Commonwealth v. Means, 565 Pa. 309, 773 A.2d 143 (2001) (plurality opinion); see also Commonwealth v. Natividad, 565 Pa. 348, 773 A.2d 167 (2001) (plurality opinion) (applying Means).......
  • Commonwealth v. Frein, No. 745 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • April 26, 2019
    ...502-03, 107 S.Ct. 2529.We further noted in Ballard that, subsequent to Payne , and beginning with our decision in Commonwealth v. Means , 565 Pa. 309, 773 A.2d 143 (2001) (Opinion Announcing Judgment of Court ("OAJC") ), this Court has ruled that victim impact testimony admitted under Secti......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
79 cases
  • People v. Carrington, No. S043628.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • July 27, 2009
    ...that the following instruction (one proposed, although not mandated, by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Means (2001) 565 Pa. 309, 773 A.2d 143, 159) would have been appropriate: "Victim impact evidence is simply 211 P.3d 659 another method of informing you about the nat......
  • Com. v. Hughes
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 21, 2004
    ...circumstances. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Harris, 572 Pa. 489, 524, 817 A.2d 1033, 1054 (2002).42 Although in Commonwealth v. Means, 565 Pa. 309, 773 A.2d 143 (2001) (Opinion Announcing the Judgment of the Court), a plurality of the Court stated that relevant evidence under Section 9711(a)(......
  • Com. v. Harris
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 20, 2002
    ...of Act 22 in the face of multiple challenges brought under both the Pennsylvania and federal Constitutions. Commonwealth v. Means, 565 Pa. 309, 773 A.2d 143 (2001) (plurality opinion); see also Commonwealth v. Natividad, 565 Pa. 348, 773 A.2d 167 (2001) (plurality opinion) (applying Means).......
  • Commonwealth v. Frein, No. 745 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • April 26, 2019
    ...502-03, 107 S.Ct. 2529.We further noted in Ballard that, subsequent to Payne , and beginning with our decision in Commonwealth v. Means , 565 Pa. 309, 773 A.2d 143 (2001) (Opinion Announcing Judgment of Court ("OAJC") ), this Court has ruled that victim impact testimony admitted under Secti......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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