Com. v. Watley

Decision Date29 July 1997
Citation548 Pa. 574,699 A.2d 1240
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Jamel WATLEY a/k/a Jamal Watley, Appellee.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Robert E. Colville, Kevin F. McCarthy, Pittsburgh, for Appellant.

Robert A. Crisanti, Pittsburgh, for James Watley.



ZAPPALA, Justice.

The issue presented in this appeal by the Commonwealth is whether the Superior Court erred in finding that trial counsel for Appellee Jamel Watley was ineffective for failing to request a jury instruction explaining the relevance of a defendant's knowledge of a victim's prior violent acts and violent reputation. For the following reasons, we find that the Superior Court erred in determining that Watley's trial counsel was ineffective.

On April 29, 1993, Watley was arrested and charged with criminal homicide, aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy and two counts of carrying a firearm without a license in connection with the shooting death of Ronald Ashby and the non-fatal shooting of Stephen Johnson. Charges were also filed against co-defendant Lester Thompson in connection with the shootings. Watley and Thompson were tried jointly before a jury.

The evidence introduced at trial established that Ronald Ashby was socializing with a group of people who had gathered outside of Gaylord Veney's home in the East Hills region of Pittsburgh on April 27, 1993. Around midnight without warning, a barrage of bullets was fired at the group. A bullet struck the back of Ronald Ashby's head, causing him to fall to the ground. When the gunfire erupted, Stephen Johnson started to run and stumbled over Ashby's body. Johnson, who did not realize that he had been shot in the leg, was able to get up and retreated to the house of a next door neighbor. Johnson was unable to identify who had fired the shots and was unsure if the shots had come from different directions.

The City of Pittsburgh Police arrived on the scene within minutes of the shooting. Ashby died as a result of the gunshot wound. Johnson was transported to a hospital for treatment. The police interviewed people who were present at the scene and examined the area for evidence. Approximately twenty-six 9 mm casings were found in the area, along with six unfired AK rounds. Subsequent testing indicated that thirteen of the 9 mm casings were fired from a Smith and Wesson 9 mm weapon and twelve were fired from a 9 mm Glock automatic.

On April 29, 1993, City of Pittsburgh police officers accompanied Monroeville police officers to a motel to execute arrest warrants for Watley and Thompson for a robbery that had occurred in the home of Ashby's friend, Demetrius Ballard. The officers were informed by the night clerk that the men were staying in either Room 5 or Room 13. The police entered both rooms simultaneously. Room 5 was empty; eight people, including Watley and Thompson, were found in Room 13. The police seized a bulletproof vest that belonged to Thompson. A 9 mm semi-automatic Taurus, which was later identified as Watley's handgun, was found under the mattress. Ballistic tests indicated that the bullet recovered from Ashby's body was discharged from that weapon.

Watley did not give his correct name to the police when he was arrested, so the search for him continued. The search of another individual who was in Room 13 produced a key to a third motel room. In that room the police found a brown paper bag containing two weapons, a 9 mm Smith and Wesson and a 9 mm Glock. The weapons belonged to co-defendant Thompson. Of the spent cartridge cases recovered from the crime scene, thirteen were identified as having been fired from the 9 mm Smith and Wesson and twelve as having been fired from the 9 mm Glock. Other cartridge cases were also found at the scene.

At trial both Watley and Thompson testified that they acted in self-defense in shooting at Ashby and his companion, Demetrius Ballard. It was widespread knowledge among their friends that Ashby and Ballard had threatened retaliation against Watley and Thompson for breaking into Ballard's house a few days before the shooting. Watley and Thompson had been discovered inside of Ballard's house by Ashby and Ballard. Watley admitted breaking into the house, explaining that he had decided to do that after becoming angry at Ballard's earlier accusations that Watley had been involved with his girlfriend.

Watley and Thompson testified that they went into hiding after being told by others that Ashby had threatened to kill them and because they were wanted for robbery. On the night of the shooting, they were driving in a car through the back of the East Hills area on their way to meet two women. They further testified that they were passed by a car driven by Ballard in which Ashby was a passenger, that Ballard's car stopped and made a U-turn, and that Ballard attempted to pursue them.

Watley and Thompson indicated that they turned the car off to the side of the road, hopped out of the car and ran into a nearby wooded area. The two men did not stay together after entering the woods. Ashby and Ballard returned to their car and left. Watley and Thompson remained in the woods after the men left.

Although they testified that they split up after they ran into the woods, both Watley and Thompson stated that they ended up at the back of Veney's house where the woods ended. Watley testified that Ballard, who was now at Veney's, spotted him and began pointing towards him. Watley claimed that Ballard started shooting at him and that he pulled out his own weapon and fired one shot. When his gun jammed, Watley ran off. Thompson testified that he did not see Ashby pull out a weapon, but had heard a shot coming from where Ashby stood. Thompson then fired both of his weapons and ran.

On October 7, 1993, the jury found Watley and Thompson guilty of first degree murder, aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, and the firearms violations. Watley was sentenced to life imprisonment on the murder conviction. No additional sentences were imposed on the remaining convictions. A motion for new trial and/or arrest of judgment nunc pro tunc filed on November 8, 1993, was denied. Watley's attorney then filed a motion to withdraw as counsel. The motion was granted and new counsel was appointed.

On appeal to the Superior Court, Watley asserted, inter alia, that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request that the jury be specifically instructed that it should consider the evidence relating to his knowledge of the victim's prior acts of violence and his reputation for being a violent person in evaluating the reasonableness of Watley's belief that it was necessary to use deadly force in self-defense. The Superior Court found that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request the instruction, stating "[w]hen such evidence is introduced for the purpose of showing that the defendant reasonably believed his life to be in danger, he is entitled to have the jury instructed regarding the significance of this evidence to a claim of self-defense, and the failure of counsel to request such a jury instruction has been determined to constitute constitutionally ineffective assistance which requires that a new trial be granted." (Superior Court memorandum opinion at 18-19.) The Superior Court reversed the judgment of sentence and remanded the case for a new trial.

In reaching its conclusion, the Superior Court relied upon this Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Stonehouse, 521 Pa. 41, 555 A.2d 772 (1989) and its own decision in Commonwealth v. Fisher, 342 Pa.Super. 533, 493 A.2d 719 (1985). The Commonwealth asserts that Stonehouse and Fisher are distinguishable from this appeal because in those cases, in order for the defendants to demonstrate the reasonableness of their beliefs, it was necessary to introduce evidence of a prior history of abuse at the hands of the victim to prove that their fear of imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury was reasonable. In this case, Watley testified that Ballard spotted him in the woods, pointed him out to Ashby, and that one of the men fired a weapon at him. Watley claimed that he fired his weapon only after a shot was fired by them. The Commonwealth asserts that the reasonableness of Watley's fear of death or serious bodily injury was obvious, assuming that the jury believed his testimony.

We proceed with a presumption that trial counsel was effective. Commonwealth v. Blount, 538 Pa. 156, 647 A.2d 199 (1994). To establish a claim of ineffectiveness, a defendant must demonstrate that (1) the underlying claim is of arguable merit; (2) the particular choice chosen by counsel did not have some reasonable basis designed to effectuate his interests; and (3) counsel's ineffectiveness was prejudicial. Commonwealth v. Pierce, 515 Pa. 153, 527 A.2d 973 (1987). Counsel will not be found ineffective for failing to raise a meritless claim.

During the trial, evidence of the victim's animosity and threats made against Watley was admitted. Watley was also permitted to introduce evidence of Ashby's reputation in the community as a violent person and that he was known to arm himself with an AK-47 assault weapon. There was a significant amount of testimony regarding Ashby's and Ballard's angry reaction to the break-in of Ballard's house by the co-defendants. Finally, the co-defendants testified that Ashby and Ballard had chased them in a car, forcing them to run into the woods to escape pursuit, and that Ashby or Ballard had fired the initial shot to which they returned fire.

The trial judge gave an extensive charge on the co-defendants' claim of self-defense.

The Defendants claim that Ronald Ashby was shot in self-defense. Self-defense, if justifiable, is a complete defense to the charge.

The Commonwealth has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant did not...

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7 cases
  • Com. v. Williams
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • June 4, 1999
    ...had he been asked. Counsel cannot be deemed ineffective for failing to pursue a meritless claim. See generally Commonwealth v. Watley, 548 Pa. 574, 580, 699 A.2d 1240, 1242 (1997). Therefore, this attack upon the adequacy of trial counsel's stewardship B. Denial of discovery in the PCRA pro......
  • People v. Ross
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • September 28, 2007
    ...and under the particular circumstances." (2A Am.Jur. PI. & Pr. Forms (2007), Assault and Battery, § 164; see Commonwealth v. Watley (1997) 548 Pa. 574, 581, 699 A.2d 1240, 1243 [jury instructed in part, "A Defendant is entitled to estimate the necessity for the force he employs under the ci......
  • Com. v. Martin
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • February 16, 1999
    ...believes that further explanation would have been beneficial does not render a jury charge defective. Commonwealth v. Watley, 548 Pa. 574, 586, 699 A.2d 1240, 1245-46 (1997). ¶ 10 When evidence of self-defense arises from any source, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving beyond a rea......
  • Com. v. Porter
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • March 16, 1999
    ...As there was no basis to object to the charge as given, counsel cannot be deemed to have been ineffective. Commonwealth v. Watley, 548 Pa. 574, 699 A.2d 1240, 1242 (1997) (counsel is not ineffective for failing to raise meritless claims). Appellant next claims that Attorney Sharper and all ......
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