Com. v. Rompilla

Decision Date23 January 1995
Citation539 Pa. 499,653 A.2d 626
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Ronald ROMPILLA, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Albert V.F. Nelthropp, for R. Rompilla.

Robert Steinnberg, Douglas G. Reichley, for Com.

Robert A. Graci, for Atty. General's Office.

Before NIX, C.J., and FLAHERTY, ZAPPALA, PAPADAKOS, CAPPY, CASTILLE and MONTEMURO, JJ.

OPINION

NIX, Chief Justice.

This is an automatic appeal 1 from the imposition of a death sentence following a trial by jury in the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County. Appellant, Ronald Rompilla, was convicted of murder of the first degree, 2 burglary, 3 criminal trespass, 4 robbery, 5 two counts of theft, 6 and two counts of receiving stolen property. 7 Pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(c)(1)(iv), the jury sentenced Appellant to death on November 1, 1988, after it found three aggravating circumstances which outweighed the one mitigating circumstance presented by Appellant.

Although Appellant has not specifically challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction, we will nevertheless undertake such a review in accordance with the standard set forth in Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 26-27 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). 8 In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, to determine whether all the elements of the offense have been established beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Carpenter, 511 Pa. 429, 435, 515 A.2d 531, 533-34 (1986).

In the early morning hours of January 14, 1988, the victim, James Scanlon, was murdered in his bar, the Cozy Corner Cafe, located in Allentown, Pennsylvania. At approximately 6:30 a.m. on that same morning, the victim's son discovered the body of his father lying behind the bar in a pool of blood. The victim had been stabbed repeatedly and set on fire. The victim's wallet had been stolen and approximately $500 to $1,000 had been stolen from the bar.

The Commonwealth's case consisted almost entirely of circumstantial evidence as there were no eyewitnesses to this killing. Appellant was seen in the Cozy Corner Cafe on January 14, 1988, from approximately 1:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. During that time, he was observed going to the bathroom approximately ten times. A subsequent police investigation determined that the window in the men's bathroom was used as the point of entry into the bar after it had closed.

When questioned by an investigating detective from the Allentown Police Department, Appellant stated that he had been in the Cozy Corner Cafe on the night of the murder and left between 2:00 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. because he had no money. He stated that he had only $2.00 to buy breakfast at a local diner. A cab driver testified that he picked up Appellant at the diner and drove him to two different hotels where Appellant was unable to rent a room. The driver then took Appellant to the George Washington Motor Lodge where he was able to rent a room. Appellant paid the cab fare of $9.10.

Appellant rented a room for two nights at the George Washington Motor Lodge. In doing so, he paid $121.00 in cash and flashed a large amount of cash to the desk clerks. Appellant also used a false name when he checked in.

The police secured a search warrant for Appellant's motel room and seized several items, including Appellant's sneakers. These sneakers matched a footprint in blood that was discovered near the victim's body. In addition, the blood found on the sneakers matched the victim's blood type.

The Commonwealth also presented other circumstantial evidence that linked Appellant with the robbery and murder of James Scanlon. First, Mr. Scanlon's wallet was found by a groundskeeper in the bushes, six to eight feet outside the room that Appellant had rented at the George Washington Motor Lodge. Second, Appellant's fingerprint was found on one of the two knives that was used to commit the murder. Finally, there were numerous inconsistencies between what Appellant had told police concerning his activities on January 14 and 15, 1988, and the testimony of other witnesses.

When viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, the evidence clearly supports Appellant's conviction for first degree murder. Accordingly, we will now proceed to address Appellant's seven allegations of error relating to the trial underlying his conviction and sentence.

Appellant first contends that the trial court erred in allowing the Commonwealth to introduce a photograph of the victim in this case. The photograph in question, Commonwealth's Exhibit Number 5, shows the body of the victim lying face down behind the bar among a number of broken bottles. Appellant argues that the inflammatory nature of this photograph outweighs any evidentiary value that it may have had. The Commonwealth responds that the photograph is not inflammatory, and even if this Court were to find otherwise, its introduction was necessary to capture the disarray of the bar and to show the severity of the struggle between the victim and Appellant.

"We have consistently held that the question of admissibility of photographs in homicide cases is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge, and only an abuse of that discretion will constitute reversible error." Commonwealth v. Duffey, 519 Pa. 348, 359, 548 A.2d 1178, 1183 (1988) (citing Commonwealth v. Petrakovich, 459 Pa. 511, 329 A.2d 844 (1974); Commonwealth v. Woods, 454 Pa. 250, 311 A.2d 582 (1973)). In determining the admissibility of photographs of a corpse in a homicide trial, this Court utilizes a two-part analysis. Commonwealth v. Chester, 526 Pa. 578, 591, 587 A.2d 1367, 1373, cert. denied, 502 U.S. 849, 112 S.Ct. 152, 116 L.Ed.2d 117 (1991).

First a court must determine whether the photograph is inflammatory. If not, it may be admitted if it has relevance and can assist the jury's understanding of the facts. If the photograph is inflammatory, the trial court must decide whether or not the photographs are of such essential evidentiary value that their need clearly outweighs the likelihood of inflaming the minds and passions of the jurors.

Id. 526 Pa. at 591-92, 587 A.2d at 1373-74 (citation omitted).

Based on our review of the photograph, we find that, although unpleasant, it does not rise to the level of what we consider to be inflammatory. The distance from the body and the angle from which the photograph was taken tend to diminish the inflammatory nature of the subject matter. Moreover, the number of broken bottles surrounding the victim makes it difficult, if not impossible, to discern whether the substance beside the victim is alcohol or blood.

In addition, we agree with the Commonwealth and the en banc trial court that even if we were to find the photograph inflammatory, it would still be admissible based on its evidentiary value. The photograph was introduced by the Commonwealth to demonstrate the state of disarray of the bar and the severity of the struggle between the victim and his attacker. Accordingly, we conclude that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in admitting this photograph into evidence.

Appellant next argues that the trial court erred in answering the jury's question regarding accomplice liability. Shortly after deliberations began, the jury presented a note to the court in which it asked the following: "If Defendant was an accomplice to the Charge of Criminal Homicide, can he be charged with Murder in the First Degree?" (N.T. 10/31/88, 166). In response, the trial judge read 18 Pa.C.S. § 306(a), which defines the general rule for liability for conduct of another, 9 and briefly explained the concept of complicity to the jury. (N.T. 10/31/88, 167-68). The trial judge then cautioned the jury:

I can only say this to you, that you should determine this case based on the Charge of the Court as it had given [sic] you originally. There was no evidence in this case with regard to the question as posed but a simple clear answer to the question is yes, you could be charged with, and you could be convicted of Murder in the First Degree if, indeed, you're an accomplice, but it requires other proof or findings on your part that were not apart [sic] of this case nor were they made a part of this case....

(N.T. 10/31/88, 168-69). Appellant argues that by being instructed on an accomplice theory and then being told to disregard it, the jury might have been confused and convicted Appellant as an accomplice.

Appellant's claim is analogous to an issue that this Court addressed in Commonwealth v. Edwards, 521 Pa. 134, 555 A.2d 818 (1989). In Edwards, the jury asked the trial judge whether it had the option to condition a verdict of life imprisonment on the defendant's ineligibility for parole. In his initial response to the jury, the trial judge deviated from the standard that we had previously prescribed when the jury asked such a question. We concluded that despite this error, the curative instruction and proper charge that were subsequently given were sufficient to leave the jury's death sentence undisturbed. Id. at 158-59, 555 A.2d at 830-31. Likewise in the instant case, we are satisfied that any error which might have resulted from the trial judge's instruction on accomplice liability was cured by the subsequent admonition to the jury that it should not consider such a theory because there was no evidence presented during trial to support such a finding.

Additionally, we reject Appellant's argument that the trial court erred in failing to grant defense counsel's request that the culpability portion of section 306 be read to the jury. As noted above, the jury was specifically instructed that it was not to consider accomplice liability in its deliberations. Therefore, the denial of A...

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