Com. v. Sattazahn, No. 509 CAP.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation952 A.2d 640
Docket NumberNo. 509 CAP.,No. 511 CAP.,No. 510 CAP.
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. David Allen SATTAZAHN, Appellee. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. David Allen Sattazahn, Appellant. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. David Allen Sattazahn, Appellant.
Decision Date24 July 2008
952 A.2d 640
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant
David Allen SATTAZAHN, Appellee.
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellee
David Allen Sattazahn, Appellant.
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellee
David Allen Sattazahn, Appellant.
No. 509 CAP.
No. 510 CAP.
No. 511 CAP.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Submitted April 18, 2007.
Decided July 24, 2008.

[952 A.2d 645]

Christopher D. Carusone, Philadelphia, Alisa Rebecca Hobart, Berks County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Robert Brett Dunham, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, for David Allen Sattazahn.



Justice SAYLOR.

In this capital post-conviction appeal, the Commonwealth, as the designated appellant, challenges the award of a new penalty hearing, and the appellee seeks to overturn his convictions, among other relief.

In April 1987, Appellee shot and killed Richard Boyer, a restaurant manager, during a robbery. Appellee was initially tried and convicted of first-degree murder in 1991, when he received a life sentence on account of sentencing jury impasse. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(c)(1)(iv). According to his attorney, Appellee was advised that, if he prevailed in obtaining a new trial on appeal, the Commonwealth would be foreclosed from again seeking the death penalty. Appellee lodged the appeal in the Superior Court and was awarded a new trial.

The retrial ensued in 1999, at which Appellee was represented by new counsel, who was appointed a few months previously. The Commonwealth did, again, pursue imposition of the death penalty. In the guilt phase, among other evidence, the prosecution presented testimony from Appellee's accomplice, Jeffrey Hammer.1 Hammer explained that he and Appellee hid outside the Heidelberg Family Restaurant after close of business with .41 and .22 caliber weapons, respectively, planning to rob the manager, handcuff him, and leave him in his truck. When the pair confronted the victim but he did not cooperate, Hammer related, Appellee shot Mr. Boyer repeatedly with the .22 caliber pistol. Further, Hammer indicated that the coconspirators placed the weapons and masks in a black bag and escaped in an all-terrain vehicle, but that the bag was lost during the travel.

Another witness, Fritz Wanner, testified that he overheard a subsequent conversation, conducted in a garage or barn, in which Appellee chastised Hammer for losing the bag and threatened to kill him and/or members of his family if their identities were discovered. According to Wanner's testimony, Appellee also complained that he had to grab the firearm from Hammer and shoot the victim after Hammer

952 A.2d 646

had shot and missed. Wanner said that he was able to see the participants in the conversation and that a person named Joe (later identified as Joseph Russo) was also present. Finally, although Wanner was facing sentencing in a pending prosecution, he stated that he did not expect to receive favorable treatment from the Commonwealth in exchange for his testimony.

Another significant item of the Commonwealth's evidence was the bag lost by the coconspirators and its contents, including the .22 caliber handgun used to perpetrate the robbery/killing. Through a recovered serial number and testimony from a firearms dealer, the Commonwealth established that this weapon belonged to Appellee.

At the conclusion of the guilt phase, the trial court issued a charge concerning reasonable doubt utilizing phraseology different from that suggested in standard jury instructions. Rather that indicating that a reasonable doubt is one that would cause a reasonably careful and sensible person to "hesitate" before acting upon a matter of importance in his own affairs, PENNSYLVANIA SUGGESTED STANDARD JURY INSTRUCTIONS § 7.01(3) (1979), the trial court described a reasonable doubt as "a kind of doubt that refrains a reasonable person from acting in a manner of importance to himself or herself." N.T., January 21, 1999, at 498 (emphasis added). Further, the court took it upon itself to advise the jurors of the penalties associated with the different degrees of murder. See id. at 512.

After Appellee was found guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, and related offenses, a penalty hearing ensued, at which the Commonwealth advanced the aggravating circumstances entailing the commission of a killing during the perpetration of a felony, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6), and the accumulation of a significant history of violent felony convictions, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(9). Of particular relevance to one of Appellee's present claims, the convictions relied upon by the Commonwealth in support of the (d)(9) aggravator, including one for third-degree murder, occurred after his initial trial in this case. Appellee offered brief testimony from his mother and a former employer in support of the catchall mitigator, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(e)(8). The jurors found that the Commonwealth had established the aggravators beyond a reasonable doubt and that their weight exceeded that of the mitigation found by any juror.

On direct appeal, still represented by his trial counsel, Appellee challenged, inter alia, the constitutionality of permitting the Commonwealth to seek the death penalty on retrial, after he had received a life sentence at his initial trial. This Court rejected such challenge, see Commonwealth v. Sattazahn, 563 Pa. 533, 763 A.2d 359 (2000),2 and this decision was sustained by the United States Supreme Court, see Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, 537 U.S. 101, 123 S.Ct. 732, 154 L.Ed.2d 588 (2003).

In June 2003, Appellee filed a pro se petition seeking relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546 (the "PCRA"). The PCRA court appointed counsel, and an amended petition was filed, with supplements ensuing. Appellee asserted, inter alia, that: the Commonwealth

952 A.2d 647

suppressed exculpatory evidence and knowingly failed to correct false trial testimony; trial counsel was ineffective at the guilt phase of trial for failing to gather available impeachment materials and adequately cross-examine Commonwealth witnesses; the trial court improperly instructed the jury concerning comparative penalties for the different degrees of murder; the court provided a constitutionally defective charge concerning reasonable doubt; trial counsel was derelict in assuring Appellee that the Commonwealth was foreclosed from seeking the death penalty upon retrial; and trial counsel inappropriately failed to investigate and present an adequate case of mitigation in the penalty phase.

In the post-conviction hearings, as concerns the asserted discovery violations, Appellee developed that, in a March 1991 prison interview with Hammer conducted by the district attorney, Hammer had contradicted aspects of Wanner's version of the overheard conversation, at least to the extent Wanner had said Russo was present. At some point, the district attorney prepared notes concerning this meeting; however, the post-conviction evidence was in conflict concerning the timing of the preparation of these notes and the entire content of the underlying interview. On the one hand, the prosecutor testified that his notes were prepared one or two weeks after the meeting, and thus, did not reflect contemporaneous, verbatim responses from Hammer. The district attorney also related that he did not show Wanner's statement to Hammer or specifically discuss the contents with him. According to the prosecutor, Hammer said he was unsure whether someone else besides himself and Appellee was present. Hammer, on the other hand, indicated that notes generally were taken during interviews with him. Further, he testified that the prosecutor did show him Wanner's statement, and he expressed a belief that he had marked the portions of the statement that he claimed were false, including Wanner's statements that Russo was present and that Appellee said that he had grabbed the murder weapon from Hammer. The post-conviction evidence strongly suggested that the prosecutor did not make his notes from the interview available to the defense.3

Wanner also testified in the post-conviction proceedings. Contrary to his trial testimony, Wanner said that he could not see Appellee and Hammer during the disputed conversation, and he disclaimed his prior assertion that Russo was present. Instead, Wanner indicated that someone pulled up in a car, but he did not know the person's identity. Further, Wanner testified that he did not remember anyone talking about firing shots. Finally, although he reiterated that the Commonwealth had made no "deal" concerning his own sentencing in the unrelated prosecution against him, Wanner said that the prosecutor had said he would "see what he could do" in that case. Appellee bolstered this evidence by introducing a representation of an assistant district attorney upon Wanner's sentencing that, "I have no doubt that that sounds exactly like the kind of thing that [the district attorney] would say. That's our general policy with regards to cooperation. I simply have no knowledge of it."

952 A.2d 648

Finally, Appellee highlighted that the district attorney had committed to provide broad discovery but he did not furnish various documents that Appellee deems relevant, particularly for impeachment purposes.4

As concerns the penalty-phase claim of deficient stewardship in the investigation and presentation of mitigating evidence, at the outset, Appellee proffered evidence of his markedly poor performance in school, including his demonstration of poor attention and concentration; difficulty functioning; poor grades and ranking in the bottom ten percent of his classes; repeating of three grades (kindergarten, second, and seventh grades); eventual placement in a special class; disengagement from ordinary social activities; and departure from school at age seventeen, while in the...

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