Com. v. Rainey

Decision Date18 July 2007
Docket NumberNo. 469 CAP.,No. 468 CAP.,468 CAP.,469 CAP.
Citation928 A.2d 215
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Michael RAINEY, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Michael Wiseman, Billy Horatio Nolas, Philadelphia, for appellant, Michael Rainey.

Amy Zapp, Hugh J. Burns, Jr., Philadelphia Dist. Attorney's Office, for appellee, Com. of PA.



Justice BAER.

Michael Rainey (Appellant) appeals from an Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (PCRA Court) dismissing his Petition for Post-Conviction Relief pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546. For the reasons set forth herein, we vacate the order of the PCRA court and remand this matter for an evidentiary hearing on Appellant's claim that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present background and mental health mitigation evidence during the penalty phase of this capital case. In all other respects, we affirm.

Facts and Procedural History

The background underlying Appellant's conviction for first-degree murder and the imposition of a death sentence is set forth in Commonwealth v. Rainey, 540 Pa. 220, 656 A.2d 1326 (1995). Briefly, Appellant's conviction stems from the murder of seventy-four-year-old Carroll Fleming, which occurred on December 7, 1989,1 when Appellant and his co-defendant George Williams, age twenty, along with Alvin "Eyeball" Morgan, age fourteen, decided to rob Fleming at his home, apparently because Appellant had previously seen the victim carrying money. In preparation for the robbery, Appellant armed himself with a twenty-gauge shotgun, stating that he would shoot Fleming if required.

While en route to Fleming's home at 11:00 p.m. that evening, the group of three encountered Kevin Lewis. Williams convinced Lewis that they were going to collect a debt, and Lewis offered Williams his gun, an inoperative .25 automatic, which Lewis said could be used "as a threat." Lewis then watched as the three proceeded to Fleming's home, where he witnessed the unfolding murder from a short distance away, close enough to hear the conversation and see what transpired. When Appellant, Williams, and Morgan arrived at Fleming's home, Morgan acted as a lookout while Appellant and Williams proceeded onto the porch. Appellant loaded his shotgun and knocked on the door. Receiving no immediate answer, Appellant kicked in the door. Fleming then appeared, and confronted the intruders on his porch. Williams pointed his handgun at Fleming, and repeatedly pulled the trigger, but the gun did not fire. Appellant, who by this time was behind Fleming, placed the muzzle of his gun against Fleming's back and fired, killing him.

Appellant, Williams, and Morgan were all arrested and charged with Fleming's murder. Both Appellant and Williams gave statements to the police. In December 1991, Appellant and Williams were tried together on charges of murder, criminal conspiracy, robbery, possession of an instrument of a crime, and carrying firearms on public streets. The Commonwealth introduced the eyewitness testimony of Lewis and Morgan, both of whom testified to witnessing the murder.2

The Commonwealth argued that from its inception, the plan hatched by Appellant and Williams was not just to rob the victim, but also to kill him if necessary. Appellant's counsel argued that regardless of who killed the victim, if the murder was committed in the course of a robbery, Appellant could only be convicted of second-degree murder, see 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(b), and if it was committed in the course of a struggle during the collection of a debt, Appellant could only be found guilty of third-degree murder, see 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2502(c). Defense counsel proceeded to cast doubt on the eyewitness testimony of Lewis and Morgan, both of whom testified that Appellant was the shooter. As evidence against Williams, the Commonwealth also introduced Williams' redacted confession. The jury found Appellant guilty of first-degree murder and related offenses.

During the penalty phase, the Commonwealth established the existence of one aggravating circumstance, that the murder had been committed during the perpetration of a felony.3 The Commonwealth further stipulated that Appellant was eighteen years old at the time of the murder, and had no significant history of prior criminal convictions. The jury found three mitigating circumstances: the age of Appellant at the time of the crime; that Appellant had no significant history of prior criminal convictions; and the catchall mitigator.4 The jury, finding that the aggravating circumstance outweighed the three mitigating circumstances, imposed a sentence of death.5

Following trial, Appellant's trial counsel filed post-trial motions and was subsequently permitted to withdraw his appearance. Appellant obtained new counsel, Mitchell Struttin, who, on September 28, 1993, filed supplemental post-trial motions raising additional issues, including trial counsel's ineffectiveness.6 The trial court held a hearing on these allegations at which trial counsel testified. Following the hearing, the trial court denied the motions, and formally imposed the sentence of death. We affirmed Appellant's conviction on March 24, 1995. Rainey, 540 Pa. 220, 656 A.2d 1326. Appellant's petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court was denied on December 4, 1995. Rainey v. Pennsylvania, 516 U.S. 1008, 116 S.Ct. 562, 133 L.Ed.2d 488 (1995).

In due course, the Governor entered a warrant of execution, but as collateral review was not yet exhausted, on August 4, 1995, we ordered a stay of execution. Appellant then requested a change in counsel and filed a pro se PCRA petition on December 27, 1995. New counsel replaced appellate counsel and filed an amended petition for post-conviction relief on October 17, 1996. Appellant subsequently requested that an attorney from the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Defender Association be allowed to replace his newest counsel. On November 18, 1996, a Petition for Habeas Corpus and PCRA relief was sent to the PCRA court, and confusion ensued about who was the attorney of record. After a hearing and testimony, the PCRA court ordered that counsel from the Defender Association be designated Appellant's counsel of record.

After several continuances, the Commonwealth responded to the PCRA petition on June 11, 1997. On August 8, 1997, the PCRA court dismissed Appellant's petition without a hearing. Appellant appealed, and on October 5, 1998, the PCRA court filed a short opinion adopting the arguments advanced in the Commonwealth's motion to dismiss. On December 28, 2001, we remanded the case to the PCRA court and ordered a more detailed explanation of the reason for the court's disposition. Commonwealth v. Rainey, 567 Pa. 271, 786 A.2d 942 (2001); see Commonwealth v. (Craig) Williams, 566 Pa.553, 782 A.2d 517 (2001) (remanding PCRA case where the PCRA court adopted the Commonwealth's motion to dismiss as its opinion without setting forth its independent reasoning).

On remand, Appellant supplemented his original PCRA petition and requested leave to expand the issues for consideration before that court. The PCRA court delayed any decision, directing Appellant to make his request to raise additional issues to this Court. He did so, and on December 3, 2002, we denied Appellant's motion to expand the scope of remand. See Commonwealth v. Rainey, per curiam order, December 3, 2002. Nevertheless, on December 31, 2002, we entered a per curiam order granting Appellant's request to expand the scope of remand to include a claim that he was mentally impaired under the standards established in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002) (holding that the constitution prohibits the execution of mentally retarded criminals). See Commonwealth v. Rainey, per curiam order, December 31, 2002. We denied leave to raise any other issues. Id.

On October 27, 2003, Appellant wrote to the PCRA court, the District Attorney, and his defense counsel waiving his right to an evidentiary hearing. Appellant subsequently filed a counseled affidavit with the PCRA court seeking to withdraw such waiver. After several continuances granted upon the request of both the District Attorney and defense counsel, on June 24, 2004, Appellant withdrew his Atkins claim.

Pursuant to our remand order directing the PCRA court to write an opinion in accord with (Craig) Williams, 566 Pa. 553, 782 A.2d 517, the PCRA court issued an opinion on July 26, 2004, in support of its order of August 8, 1997, dismissing Appellant's petition. In its opinion, the PCRA court explained why all of Appellant's claims were either previously litigated, waived, or not cognizable under the PCRA.7 The case was thus returned to this court.

Appellant raises twelve issues with numerous sub-issues for review. Initially, we note that we have jurisdiction over Appellant's petition because we directly review the denial of post-conviction relief in death penalty cases pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9546(d). Additionally, the instant petition was filed in December of 1995, which was prior to the January 17, 1996 effective date of the November, 1995 amendments to the PCRA. Accordingly, the petition is governed by the previous version of the PCRA. See (James) Jones, 876 A.2d at 384; Commonwealth v. Bond, 572 Pa. 588, 819 A.2d 33, 37 (2002); 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543 (1988).

On appeal from the denial of PCRA relief, our standard of review calls for us to determine whether the ruling of the PCRA court is supported by the record and free of legal error. (James) Jones, 876 A.2d at 384; Commonwealth v. Breakiron, 566 Pa. 323, 781 A.2d 94, 97 n. 4 (2001); Commonwealth v. Strong, 563 Pa. 455, 761 A.2d 1167, 1170 n. 3 (2000). In order to be eligible for PCRA relief under the prior version of the statute, Appellant must plead and prove by...

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