Com. v. Simmons

Citation662 A.2d 621,541 Pa. 211
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Ernest SIMMONS, Appellant.
Decision Date19 July 1995
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Kenneth Sottile, Michael Filia, Asst. Public Defenders, for appellant.

Christian A. Fisanick, Chief Deputy-Appellate Div., Patrick Caniry, First Asst. Dist. Atty., Gary Costlow, Asst. Dist. Atty., for appellee.



CASTILLE, Justice.

Following a four (4) day jury trial, appellant was found guilty of first degree murder 1 and robbery 2 in connection with the May 5, 1992 death of eighty year old Anna Knaze. Following the penalty hearing, the jury found three aggravating circumstances and no mitigating circumstances, and set the penalty at death. 3 Post-verdict motions were filed and arguments were held on August 27, 1993. On January 13, 1994, appellant's post-verdict motions were denied. On February 17, 1994, the trial court imposed the jury's sentence of death, as well as other terms of imprisonment on appellant's conviction for robbery. 4 This direct appeal followed. For the reasons expressed herein, we affirm the judgment of sentence imposed by the Court of Common Pleas of Cambria County.

As is required in all cases where the death penalty has been imposed, this Court must conduct a review of the sufficiency of the evidence. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 26, 454 A.2d 937, 942 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983), reh'g denied, 463 U.S. 1236, 104 S.Ct. 31, 77 L.Ed.2d 1452 (1983). When reviewing a sufficiency of the evidence claim, an appellate court, viewing all the evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as the verdict winner, must determine whether the evidence was sufficient to enable the fact finder to find that all of the elements of the offenses were established beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Burgos, 530 Pa. 473, 476, 610 A.2d 11, 13 (1992). Using this standard, the record below establishes the following facts:

On the morning of May 5, 1993, appellant drove one of his girlfriends, LaCherie Pletcher, as well as Kitty McKinney (who is a friend of Pletcher) and her mother, from their apartments in Coopersdale Homes to their respective appointments in Johnstown. Appellant dropped Pletcher off at the Cambria County Domestic Relations Office in Johnstown at approximately 10:05 a.m. so that she could have blood work done. Appellant then proceeded to take Kitty McKinney and her mother to a gas station in Conemaugh so that she could pick-up her car. Before appellant dropped McKinney off at the gas station at approximately 10:35 a.m., he informed her that he was going to travel up through Prospect and back into town to pick-up LaCherie Pletcher. However, McKinney, while waiting outside the garage, noticed that appellant did not drive towards the area where Pletcher was to be picked up. Instead, appellant turned around and headed in a different direction towards the Woodvale section of Johnstown. The Woodvale section is where the victim, Anna Knaze, lived.

LaCherie Pletcher finished with her blood work at approximately 10:30 a.m. While Pletcher waited for appellant to return for her, she unsuccessfully attempted to locate appellant at his work. Appellant eventually returned for Pletcher at 11:45 a.m. Appellant then proceeded to drop Pletcher off at the school she was attending for her general equivalency diploma.

Other evidence produced at trial showed that sometime between 11:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on May 5, 1992, Anna Knaze, the eighty-year old victim, was observed talking with a black man who wore distinctive sunglasses outside of her house in the Woodvale section of Johnstown. This observation was made by Thelma Blough, Tammy Ickes and Gary Blough, who lived in the house next door to the victim, as well as by Patricia Gonda, a witness who worked at a day care center across the street from the victim's house. All four of these people identified appellant as the man they saw talking with the victim on the morning of the murder. 5 All four people also testified that the sunglasses were distinctive because the stems were wider than an ordinary pair of sunglasses and there was extremely large gold trim on the hinges. Thelma Blough, Gary Blough and Patricia Gonda identified the sunglasses of appellant which were admitted into evidence as being the ones they saw him wearing on the day of the murder.

Thelma Blough and Tammy Ickes heard the appellant ask the victim if he could use her telephone claiming that his car had broken down. Appellant and the victim then proceeded to enter her house. This was the last time that anyone ever saw the victim alive. Also, the three witnesses who lived next door to the victim testified that they never observed appellant leave the house. One of these witnesses, Thelma Blough, testified that no lights were ever turned on in the victim's house on the evening of May 5, 1992 and that this was unusual for the victim.

At approximately 5 p.m. on May 6, 1992, Stephen Knaze, the victim's son, received a telephone call from his sister-in-law to go to his mother's house because a neighbor informed her that his mother's mail was still in the mailbox. Stephen Knaze proceeded to his mother's house where he found her door slightly ajar. Upon entering the house, Stephen Knaze found his mother lying dead on the floor in the dining room by the stairs which led to the second floor. After searching the house, Stephen Knaze noticed that his mother's favorite pocketbook was missing. The pocketbook was never found.

An autopsy was performed on the victim's body at approximately 10:00 a.m. on May 7, 1992. The autopsy showed that: (1) the victim had been manually strangled; (2) her spine between the T11 and T12 was severed as a result of her back either being hit by a hard object or by a blunt trauma possibly caused by a human fist; and (3) that all twelve pairs of the victim's ribs had been broken, which indicated that she was repeatedly either hit hard or punched or squeezed with substantial force. Based on the autopsy, the victim's death was ruled a homicide with the cause of death being listed as manual strangulation causing asphyxia. Because of the level of rigor in the victim's body, her death was estimated to have occurred forty-four (44) to forty-eight (48) hours prior to when the autopsy was begun. Thus, the victim's death occurred sometime between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on May 5, 1992.

The testimony of David Mack was also presented at trial. Mack knew appellant since August or September of 1991 and usually saw appellant on a monthly basis. On May 6, 1992, Mack saw appellant near the beauty shop at which appellant worked. When he saw appellant, Mack noticed that appellant had a fairly large bandage on the back of his left hand. Mack could not specifically remember the reason appellant gave for wearing the bandage other than that he suffered some type of injury.

Evidence was also offered at appellant's trial by Margaret Cobaugh, a sixty-two year old woman who lived on Figg Street in the Midvale section of Johnstown. Cobaugh testified that on April 1, 1992, her purse was stolen while she worked at the senior activity center in Johnstown. One of the items stolen from her purse was a photo driver's license. LaCherie Pletcher later testified that after the April 1, 1992 theft but before the May 5, 1992 murder, she found a photo driver's license of an elderly woman who lived on Figg Street when she was going through appellant's wallet. Upon being shown a picture of Cobaugh's current driver's license, Pletcher stated that the license she saw in appellant's wallet belonged to Cobaugh.

Margaret Cobaugh also testified about an experience she had at approximately 1 a.m. on May 6, 1992, just ten (10) to fourteen (14) hours after the time established for the victim's murder. According to Cobaugh's testimony, a neighbor who was having trouble breathing telephoned her requesting Cobaugh's assistance. Upon arriving at her neighbor's house, Cobaugh called an ambulance service for assistance.

After helping her neighbor, Cobaugh began to return to her home. Before reaching her house, a man smelling of alcohol who Cobaugh identified as the appellant, grabbed Cobaugh from behind and placed his hand over her mouth. 6 Cobaugh noticed that appellant was wearing distinctive sunglasses during the attack, which was unusual since it was nighttime, and identified the pair which was admitted into evidence as being the ones she observed. At the time he accosted her, appellant threatened her that "if you open your mother fucking mouth, you'll get the same thing Anna Knaze got." Even though Cobaugh knew the victim, at that time she had no idea what appellant meant by the statement since the victim's dead body was not found until approximately fourteen (14) hours later. After saying this, appellant attempted to rape Cobaugh. Cobaugh reported this incident to the police later that morning after she arrived at work at the senior activity center.

According to LaCherie Pletcher, she did not see appellant from the time he dropped her off at school in the early afternoon on May 5, 1992 until the early morning hours of May 6, 1992. When appellant arrived at her door on the morning of the 6th, Pletcher testified that he was drunk and smelled like a brewery.

In first degree murder cases, the Commonwealth must prove that the defendant acted with a specific intent to kill, that a human being was unlawfully killed, that the person accused did the killing, and that the killing was done with deliberation. 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(d); Commonwealth v. Mitchell, 528 Pa. 546, 550, 599 A.2d 624, 626 (1991). When there is no direct evidence of intent to kill, the fact-finder must glean the intent from the act itself and all surrounding circumstances....

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