Com. v. Rush

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation538 Pa. 104,646 A.2d 557
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Larry RUSH, Appellant.
Decision Date23 August 1994

Page 557

646 A.2d 557
538 Pa. 104
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
Larry RUSH, Appellant.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Argued Dec. 7, 1993.
Decided Aug. 23, 1994.

Page 558

[538 Pa. 108] Michael G. Floyd, Norristown, for L. Rush.

Catherine Marshall, Ronald Eisenberg, Philadelphia, for Com.

Robert A. Graci, Harrisburg, for Atty. Gen.



FLAHERTY, Justice.

In June of 1988, in a trial by jury in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the appellant, Larry Rush, was convicted of murder of the first degree, robbery, burglary, and possession of an instrument of crime. In connection with the murder conviction, a sentencing hearing was held, as required by 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711, and appellant was sentenced to death. Terms of imprisonment were imposed for the other offenses. The present direct appeal ensued. We affirm.

The evidence at trial established the following facts. On the afternoon of May 8, 1987, Veranica James Hands was to meet her husband and some friends at a shopping mall in Philadelphia. She failed to appear, however, so her husband went looking for her. He went to their residence, an apartment located on the two upper floors of a three story duplex on Federal Street. He was surprised to find that the door to the building and the door to the apartment were unlocked. After inspecting the lower floor of the apartment, he proceeded to the bedroom area on the third floor. There, on the stairway landing, he found the body of his wife. The body, clad in a bathrobe, was partially covered with a blanket and pillows. Mrs. Hands, who was eight and one-half months pregnant, had been bound, gagged, and stabbed to death.

Page 559

She suffered more than fifty stab wounds, many of which [538 Pa. 109] punctured vital organs. A number of the wounds also fatally penetrated her unborn baby.

The third floor of the apartment had been partially ransacked. Underclothing had been removed from Mrs. Hands and thrown on the floor. Other clothing was strewn about the area. Cabinet drawers were open. Cologne had been spread around the bedroom. Pocket change, paper currency, an imitation Rolex watch, a high school ring belonging to Mrs. Hands, a gold chain bracelet belonging to Mr. Hands, other watches, rings, jewelry, and a pair of fingerless sporting gloves were missing from the bedroom.

There were no signs that the apartment had been forcibly entered. A bedroom window, usually kept closed, was open. The window was normally opened only when Mrs. Hands would look down to the street level to see who was ringing the doorbell. This, along with the fact that the apartment doors were unlocked, indicated that Mrs. Hands had unlocked the doors to allow entry.

Late on the day of the crime, one of appellant's acquaintances, Jerry McEachin, encountered appellant at McEachin's residence in Philadelphia. Appellant appeared very nervous and scared, and attempted to flush papers from his pockets into a toilet. He showed McEachin a "MAC" card which bore the name of Mrs. Hands, a high school ring which bore her initials, a man's gold chain bracelet, various other jewelry, an imitation Rolex watch, other watches, coins, paper currency, and a pair of fingerless sporting gloves.

Appellant repeatedly peeked out of a window and told McEachin that he was checking to see if the police were looking for him. He said that he had just stabbed his cousin, a woman who lived on Federal Street, and that he committed the stabbing with a knife that he found in the victim's apartment. (Mrs. Hands was, in fact, related to appellant as a very distant cousin.) Appellant also told McEachin that he had, in the past, committed a stabbing in which he wounded a woman repeatedly. McEachin noticed blood on appellant's shoelaces. Appellant said that, after committing the present stabbing, he [538 Pa. 110] washed blood from the knife and put the knife back in its place in the victim's apartment.

The same day, after learning that appellant had been residing on the first floor of the duplex where the victim resided, police went to the home of appellant's mother. Appellant approached the front of the house, but, upon seeing the police, fled.

Around 2:00 a.m. on the following day, May 9, 1987, McEachin noticed appellant hiding under a truck in front of McEachin's residence. Appellant asked whether any police officers were in the vicinity, and, upon being told that there were not, he emerged. Later that morning, McEachin and appellant attempted to use the victim's MAC card and visited a number of jewelers to sell some of the victim's jewelry. Appellant later removed his shoes, threw them into a trash dumpster, and told McEachin that he hoped he had not left any bloodstains or footprints at the crime scene.

The jewelry that appellant sold was eventually recovered by police and identified as belonging to Mrs. Hands. Appellant's fingerprints were found on containers that held pocket change in the victim's bedroom. Appellant's thumbprint, in a red stain that was ostensibly blood, was found on a doorjamb beside the victim's body.

In all cases where a sentence of death has been imposed, a determination is made by this court as to whether the evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction for murder of the first degree. 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 the present case, the evidence, as heretofore described, is more than sufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Appellant's detailed admissions to McEachin, possession of the victim's property, and bloody fingerprint at the crime scene provided more than adequate evidence to sustain the jury's finding of guilt.

Appellant contends that the trial court erred in allowing the jury to see various allegedly inflammatory photographs. The [538 Pa. 111] photos consisted of four black and white

Page 560

shots depicting the position of the victim's body at the crime scene.

The admissibility of photos of the corpse in a homicide case is a matter within the discretion of the trial court, and only an abuse of discretion will constitute reversible error. Commonwealth v. McCutchen, 499 Pa. 597, 602, 454 A.2d 547, 549 (1982). The determinative inquiry is whether the photos have evidentiary value that outweighs the possibility of inflaming the minds and passions of the jurors. Id. As stated in McCutchen,

A criminal homicide trial is, by its very nature, unpleasant, and the photographic images of the injuries inflicted are merely consonant with the brutality of the subject of inquiry. To permit the disturbing nature of the images of the victim to rule the question of admissibility would result in exclusion of all photographs of the homicide victim, and would defeat one of the essential functions of a criminal trial, inquiry into the intent of the actor. There is no need to so overextend an attempt to sanitize the evidence of the condition of the body as to deprive the Commonwealth of opportunities of proof in support of the onerous burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

499 Pa. at 602, 454 A.2d at 549. Further, the condition of the victim's body provides evidence of the assailant's intent, and, even where the body's condition can be described through testimony from a medical examiner, such testimony does not obviate the admissibility of photographs. Id. at 603, 454 A.2d at 550. Accord Commonwealth v. Jacobs, 536 Pa. 402, 406-409, 639 A.2d 786, 788-89 (1994).

In this case, although there was testimony from a medical examiner regarding the condition of the victim's body, admission of the photos was well grounded. The photos served to provide the jury with a better understanding of the crime scene. They also exposed the malicious manner in which the murder was committed. The jurors, by gaining insight into the full extent of the harm wrought, were placed in a better position to assess the nature and intent of the [538 Pa. 112] crime's perpetrator. "A jury can often best perform its function if it has not been unduly insulated from gaining a full understanding of the crime itself." Id. at 407, 639 A.2d at 789. The photos in the present case served to enhance that understanding. The photos were few in number, and, being black and white rather than color, they safely understated the true nature of the crime scene. No error was committed in allowing them to be shown to the jury.

Appellant next argues that the trial court erred in allowing admission of testimony regarding appellant's prior conviction for robbery, burglary, aggravated assault and attempted rape. The conviction arose from an incident, in 1979, when appellant committed a knife attack upon a woman in her home. The victim of that crime was permitted to testify at the present trial to give details of the attack.

Evidence of prior crimes is generally inadmissible due to the prejudicial effect such evidence has on a jury. Commonwealth v. Morris, 493 Pa. 164, 425 A.2d 715 (1981). However, one of the recognized exceptions to this rule is to establish the identity of the perpetrator when the crimes are so similar that logically the same person has committed both acts. As this court stated in Commonwealth v. Bryant, 515 Pa. 473, 477-78, 530 A.2d 83, 85-86 (1987),

As stated in Commonwealth v. Wable, 382 Pa. 80, 84, 114 A.2d 334, 336 (1955):

[E]vidence of other crimes is admissible when it tends to prove a common scheme, plan or design embracing the commission of two or more crimes so related to each other that proof of one tends to prove the others or to establish the identity of the person charged with the commission of the crime on trial,--in other words where there is such a logical connection between the crimes that proof of one will naturally tend to show that the accused is the person who committed the other.

(Emphasis added).......

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