Com. v. Walker

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation540 Pa. 80,656 A.2d 90
Decision Date23 March 1995
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Shawn WALKER, Appellant.

Page 90

656 A.2d 90
540 Pa. 80
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee,
Shawn WALKER, Appellant.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Argued Oct. 18, 1994.
Decided March 23, 1995.

Page 93

[540 Pa. 86] James S. Bruno, Philadelphia, for S. Walker.

Catherine Marshall, Ronald Eisenberg, Karen A. Brancheau, Philadelphia, for Com.

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



CASTILLE, Justice.

This is an automatic direct appeal from the judgment of sentence of death imposed on appellant, Shawn Walker, following a trial by jury in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the judgment of sentence.

On March 3, 1992, appellant was brought to trial by jury in connection with the murder of Ricardo Thomas and the shooting of Lisa Johnson, appellant's ex-girlfriend and mother of their two children. The jury convicted appellant of murder in the first degree, aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, criminal trespass, possession of an instrument of crime, and carrying firearms on a public street. Following the sentencing hearing, the jury found that the two aggravating circumstances 1 outweighed the mitigating circumstance 2 and sentenced appellant

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to death. After trial counsel was permitted to withdraw, supplementary post-sentence motions were filed and evidentiary hearings were held on April 12, 1993 and June 8, 1993. On June 8, 1993, the post-sentence motions were denied and the trial court re-imposed the jury's sentence of death, as well as other terms of imprisonment on the other convictions. 3

Initially, appellant argues that the jury's verdict was erroneous because appellant acted under a sudden and intense passion, making it impossible for him to act with the necessary [540 Pa. 88] intent required to establish murder in the first degree. As is required in all cases where the death penalty has been imposed, this Court must conduct an independent 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). The test for a sufficiency of the evidence claim is whether the evidence, and all the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as the verdict winner, is sufficient to establish that the jury could have reasonably determined that all 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:

Appellant and Lisa Johnson lived together for a period of two years before she returned with their two sons to live with her parents, Gladys and Leon McKnight, in order to escape appellant's abuse. Thereafter, appellant repeatedly harassed Lisa by going over to the McKnight residence, after her parents had gone to work. According to the testimony of Lisa Johnson's sister, Tracey McKnight, appellant would come over to the McKnight residence almost every day and often threaten Lisa that if she did not get rid of her new boyfriend, he was going to kill her and her family. These acts eventually compelled Lisa to obtain a protection from abuse order. However, in spite of the order, appellant continued to harass and threaten her and her family. On one occasion, after Gladys McKnight told appellant that she would have to call the police if he did not leave the house, he told her to go ahead and that if she did, "I will blow your fucking brains out." (N.T. 2/27/92, at 94).

On April 22, 1993, the morning before the killing, appellant went to the McKnight residence and physically assaulted Lisa by striking her across the face after she refused to have sexual intercourse with him. Later in the day, appellant repeatedly called the McKnight residence demanding to speak to Lisa and inquiring as to whether her new boyfriend, [540 Pa. 89] Denzell Brown was present. The deceased, Ricardo Thomas, who was the godfather of one of appellant's children, took one of these phone calls and ordered appellant to stop harassing Ms. Johnson. At approximately midnight, appellant once again telephoned Lisa and told her that he was coming over. He also threatened her by stating, "If I can't have you, ain't nobody going to have you." (N.T. 2/28/92, at 48).

By the time Denzell Brown and his friend and co-worker, Harry Smith, left the residence (around 2:00 a.m.), appellant still had not arrived. Although as they were leaving the neighborhood, they noticed a gray car parked around the block which was later identified as appellant's vehicle. Due to the McKnight's obvious concerns, Ricardo Thomas offered to sleep on the downstairs couch in order to protect Lisa in the event that appellant followed through on his threats. Lisa slept on another sofa in the same room.

Sometime between 3:00 a.m. and 3:30 a.m., appellant, who had been waiting in his car, broke through the front door, walked over to Ricardo Thomas, who was still sleeping on

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the couch, and shot him in the forehead and in the chest. Evidence was offered which indicated that the gun was fired from six to ten inches from the victim's head. Appellant then turned to Lisa who had awakened and said, "Lisa this is what you get for playing." (N.T. 2/28/92, at 53). Appellant then shot her two times in the head. The McKnights heard a gunshot but thought that it came from outside so they went back to bed.

The next morning, they found Ricardo Thomas dead on the couch in the fetal position. Lisa Johnson was discovered alive in a pool of blood and vomit and was rushed to the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. McKnight also noticed that the lock had been broken on the front door.

After interviewing the McKnights that same day, the police discovered that appellant had admitted himself to the Medical College of Pennsylvania, Psychiatric Division at around noon. The police went to the hospital and upon appellant's release asked him if he was willing to come in to police headquarters [540 Pa. 90] for questioning concerning the shooting. Appellant voluntarily agreed and was taken to the homicide division of the Philadelphia police department. Thereafter, appellant was read his Miranda rights. After informing the police that he wanted to waive his rights, and that he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, appellant gave the following statement:

I got to the house and pushed the door open. One guy was laying on the couch. We started wrestling on the couch and I grabbed my gun from out of my pants pocket and I started squeezing the trigger and the gun went off three times. Then I turned my head and I heard Lisa calling me all kind of bitches. She started asking me why I did that and she started saying that she hated me she hated me. Then I pointed the gun at her and I shot her two times. So then I drove off and sat in the car for a while. 4

(N.T. 2/28/92, at 116-117).

Lisa Johnson regained consciousness three days later and told her mother that appellant shot her. As a result of her injuries, Lisa is only able to walk short distances; otherwise she is confined to a wheelchair.

A criminal homicide constitutes murder in the first degree when the killing is committed intentionally, by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing. Commonwealth v. Lark, 518 Pa. 290, 305, 543 A.2d 491, 498 (1988); 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502. 5 Moreover, the use of a deadly weapon on a vital part of the body is sufficient to establish the specific intent to kill. Commonwealth v. Butler, 446 Pa. 374, 378, 288 A.2d 800, 802[540 Pa. 91] (1972); see also, Commonwealth v. Meredith, 490 Pa. 303, 311, 416 A.2d 481, 485 (1980) ("If a deadly force is knowingly applied by the actor to the person of another, the intent to take life is as evident as if the actor stated the intent to kill at the time the force was applied").

Here, the evidence established that after appellant threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend, appellant drove to the McKnight residence and waited in his car for an extended period of time. He then broke into the house and fatally shot Ricardo Thomas once in the head and once in the chest while he slept, and then after stating his intent to kill Lisa Johnson shot her two times in the head. This evidence was sufficient to establish that appellant acted with malice aforethought and with a specific intent to kill.

Appellant contends that during the night in question he became extremely angry after getting into an argument with Denzell Brown after discovering that he was Lisa's new boyfriend and that as a result he was acting under the "heat of passion" when he committed the killing. Under the Crimes Code, a

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person is guilty of voluntary manslaughter if at the time of the killing he acted under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by the victim. 18 Pa.C.S. § 2503(a). At the outset, we note that appellant's assertion raised in his appeal for the first time directly conflicts with his testimony at trial where he stated:

I got out of the car and I walked down back to Lisa's house and I knocked on the door. And she asked who it was. And I said, it's me, Shawn. And she said come in. And I turned the door but the door wouldn't open. So I said, the door must be locked. She said, no, just push it hard. So I pushed it and the door opened up. When I went in, her and some guy was on the couch, they was hugged up. I said, you still got your company here so I'm going to leave. And then the guy jumped up, turned me around, and sucker-punched me in the face. He was getting ready to hit me again. That's when I pushed him down and he fell to the...

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