Com. v. Smith

Decision Date22 December 1989
Citation568 A.2d 600,523 Pa. 577
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Jay C. SMITH, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

William C. Costopoulos, Lemoyne, for appellant.

Robert A. Graci, Chief Deputy Atty. Gen., for appellee.

Before NIX, C.J., and LARSEN, FLAHERTY, McDERMOTT, ZAPPALA and PAPADAKOS, JJ.

OPINION

NIX, Chief Justice.

In this appeal this Court must review the three sentences of death imposed upon appellant, Jay C. Smith, by the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County for the first degree murder convictions of Susan Reinert and her two children, Michael and Karen Reinert. Appellant raises nineteen assignments of trial error for our review, including a challenge that the evidence is insufficient as a matter of law to sustain the convictions of three counts of murder in the first degree.

In accordance with our responsibility in cases in which the death penalty has been imposed by the finder of fact, this Court has the independent statutory obligation to review the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the conviction. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h). Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 454 A.2d 937 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983). The test to be applied is whether, viewing all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, and drawing all reasonable inferences favorable to the Commonwealth, there is sufficient evidence to enable the trier of fact to find every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Jermyn, 516 Pa. 460, 533 A.2d 74 (1987); Commonwealth v. Sneed, 514 Pa. 597, 526 A.2d 749 (1987); Commonwealth v. Holzer, 480 Pa. 93, 389 A.2d 101 (1978); Commonwealth v. Kichline, 468 Pa. 265, 361 A.2d 282 (1976).

The Commonwealth need not prove the homicide by direct evidence; indeed in many instances, no witnesses are available to describe the incident which resulted in the death of the victim. Rather the Commonwealth may prove the homicide by circumstantial evidence. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Romano, 392 Pa. 632, 141 A.2d 597 (1958); Commonwealth v. Lettrich, 346 Pa. 497, 31 A.2d 155 (1943). The Commonwealth may establish the fact of a homicide by proving the death of the victim and establishing that the death resulted from criminal means. Commonwealth v. Williams, 455 Pa. 539, 316 A.2d 888 (1974); Commonwealth v. Dews, 429 Pa. 555, 239 A.2d 382 (1968); Commonwealth v. Frazier, 411 Pa. 195, 191 A.2d 369 (1963); Commonwealth v. Deyell, 399 Pa. 563, 160 A.2d 448 (1960); Commonwealth v. Homeyer, 373 Pa. 150, 94 A.2d 743 (1953).

In assessing the sufficiency of the evidence to establish that a homicide was committed and that the person or persons charged were those responsible, we are called upon to consider all of the testimony that was presented to the jury during the trial, without consideration as to the admissibility of that evidence. The question of sufficiency is not assessed upon a diminished record. Commonwealth v. Rawles, 501 Pa. 514, 462 A.2d 619 (1983); Commonwealth v. Lovette, 498 Pa. 665, 450 A.2d 975 (1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1178, 103 S.Ct. 830, 74 L.Ed.2d 1025 (1983); Commonwealth v. Cohen, 489 Pa. 167, 413 A.2d 1066, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 840, 101 S.Ct. 118, 66 L.Ed.2d 47 (1980); Commonwealth v. Harper, 485 Pa. 572, 403 A.2d 536 (1979); Commonwealth v. Hoskins, 485 Pa. 542, 403 A.2d 521 (1979); Commonwealth v. Firth, 479 Pa. 333, 388 A.2d 683 (1978); Commonwealth v. Baker, 466 Pa. 479, 353 A.2d 454 (1976). Where improperly admitted evidence has been allowed to be considered by the jury, its subsequent deletion does not justify a finding of insufficient evidence. The remedy in such a case is the grant of a new trial. Commonwealth v. Fortune, 464 Pa. 367, 346 A.2d 783 (1975); Commonwealth v. Poteet, 434 Pa. 230, 253 A.2d 246 (1969); Commonwealth v. Gist, 433 Pa. 101, 249 A.2d 351 (1969); Commonwealth v. Pearson, 427 Pa. 45, 233 A.2d 552 (1967).

In this case the jury returned verdicts of guilt premised upon three acts of murder: the death of Ms. Susan Reinert, and the deaths of her two minor children. We will first assess the evidence in support of a finding that Ms. Reinert was murdered and that appellant participated in that act.

The Commonwealth presented evidence to establish that the nude body of Susan Reinert was found in the hatchback trunk compartment of a vehicle that was later discovered to have been owned by the victim. This vehicle was found in the parking lot of a Host Inn situated in Swatara Township, Dauphin County. The macabre discovery was made by a township police officer at approximately 5:20 a.m. on Monday, June 25, 1979. Earlier, at approximately 2:00 a.m., the same officer had observed the vehicle and noticed the hatch was up. At that point he intended to investigate further but was distracted by a radio dispatch requiring him to attend another matter. He subsequently returned to the area in response to an anonymous telephone call made to the Dauphin County police department. Later investigation revealed that the vehicle with the trunk open and an object protruding had been observed on June 24, 1979, at approximately 7:00 p.m.

The clothes of the victim could not be found, nor was there any evidence of the identity of the deceased. The victim was later identified as Susan Reinert, a teacher at the Upper Merion High School, located in Upper Merion Township where appellant herein was formerly the principal. A forensic pathologist determined that Ms. Reinert had sustained massive hemorrhaging in the eye area and abrasions over her body. He also opined that certain prominent bruises on the back of the body of the victim were consistent with the imprint of a chain. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxiation resulting from an overdose of morphine, which was consistent with having been caused by criminal agency. It was the pathologist's opinion that death probably occurred during the morning hours of Sunday, June 24, 1979.

The last persons to see Ms. Reinert alive were a next door neighbor, Ms. Mary Grove and her granddaughter, Beth Ann Brook. These witnesses testified they saw Ms. Reinert and Michael and Karen on Friday, June 22, 1979, at approximately 9:20 p.m. on the porch of the Reinert's home, and shortly thereafter heard the group drive away from the home in Ms. Reinert's automobile. The granddaughter testified Karen Reinert was wearing a little green pin with a white "P". At the time in question Karen was age eleven and Michael was age ten. The children of Ms. Reinert have not been seen or heard from since. There is no question that Ms. Reinert's death resulted from a criminal agency and the defense does not dispute that point. Thus, the sufficiency of the evidence as to the death by criminal agency of Ms. Reinert was clearly established.

The Commonwealth introduced evidence that, from approximately 1973 until the time of her death, Reinert had been romantically involved with William S. Bradfield, a fellow English teacher at Upper Merion High School. 1 Reinert, believing Bradfield and she were to be married, began arranging her finances in favor of him, such as making him the primary beneficiary of her will and the sole beneficiary of $730,000.00 in life insurance benefits. The victim also had arranged to make Bradfield the guardian of her children in the event of her death. The arrangements were kept secret by Bradfield who told his friends, and his lover, Susan Myers, that Reinert was enamoured of him but that he was not interested in her, all the while promising Reinert he would marry her in the summer of 1979.

Appellant was the principal of the high school where the victim taught. There was no evidence of any relationship other than a professional one between Smith and the victim. The theory of the Commonwealth was that a conspiracy was formed between Smith and Bradfield to share in the monetary reward that would be available to Bradfield upon the untimely demise of Ms. Reinert. An additional reason offered was that Ms. Reinert was killed to assure that she would not disclose that Bradfield had offered perjured testimony on Smith's behalf in an earlier, unrelated theft trial.

The earlier theft occurred in a Sears store in the St. David's Mall, Montgomery County 2, in August 1977. It was further established that Bradfield appeared as a witness at the theft trial and offered alibi testimony on Smith's behalf. Between the date of the theft and the trial of that matter in May of 1979, Bradfield and Smith established what the Commonwealth contended was a conspiratorial relationship. The Commonwealth in the instant trial called the witnesses from the theft trial to establish that Smith was indeed in the Sears store at the time of the theft. This evidence was offered to establish that Bradfield's testimony in the former trial was untrue. An agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified that an unsigned, typed letter dated October 1978 (N.T. 4/21/86, Vol. 16, Exhibit 26) discussed a telephone code system as well as proposed alibi testimony for the theft trial. A fingerprint of Smith was found on an envelope which purportedly contained the letter. 3 This evidence was offered to support the Commonwealth's theory that a criminal conspiracy emerged from the effort of Smith to avoid conviction at the theft trial and continued over to the instant murders.

Items of physical evidence were produced by the prosecution in support of its theory of the case. A green pin with a white "P", similar to the one being worn by Karen Reinert when she was last seen alive by the neighbors, was recovered from under the front seat of Jay Smith's car. A hair similar to Susan Reinert's was found inside the home of Smith. Fibers found on Reinert's body during the autopsy similar to those from the carpet in the basement of Smith's home. A comb was discovered under the lifeless body of Ms. Reinert in...

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