Com. v. Williams

Decision Date04 June 1999
Citation557 Pa. 207,732 A.2d 1167
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Roy L. WILLIAMS, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Robert Brett Dunham, Philadelphia, for R. Williams.

Catherine Marshall, Philadelphia, Robert A. Graci, Harrisburg, for the Com.

Before FLAHERTY, C.J., and ZAPPALA, CAPPY, CASTILLE, NIGRO, NEWMAN and SAYLOR, JJ.

OPINION

SAYLOR, Justice.

This is an appeal from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County denying post-conviction relief in this capital case. We affirm in part, and remand for limited further proceedings.

On January 27, 1988, shortly after telling companions that, for no apparent reason, he would kill the first white man that he saw, Appellant Roy L. Williams ("Williams") shot and killed James McDonnell, a caucasian male who was a stranger to him. Williams then fled to Massachusetts, where he committed another criminal homicide and other violent crimes prior to being captured and returned to Philadelphia for trial on charges of first degree murder and related offenses pertaining to the killing of Mr. McDonnell.

At trial, as part of its case-in-chief, the Commonwealth offered the testimony of Michael Easley, Holly Boone and Paula Bowens, each of whom testified that he or she was with Williams on the eve of the killing, heard him state one or more times that he intended to kill a white man, and witnessed Williams' commission of the murder. Williams presented testimony from two witnesses in an attempt to suggest that the killer was someone other than himself. The jury issued verdicts of guilt on all counts.

During the penalty phase, the Commonwealth introduced evidence of Williams' Massachusetts conviction for the out-of-state homicide, an assault and battery and a robbery conviction related to a separate criminal episode in Massachusetts, together with evidence of three Pennsylvania robbery convictions, to establish the aggravating circumstance of a significant history of felony convictions involving use or threat of violence. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(9). Williams offered the testimony of his mother to establish mitigating circumstances. The jury returned a sentence of death. On direct appeal, this Court affirmed. See Commonwealth v. Williams, 541 Pa. 85, 660 A.2d 1316 (1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1051, 116 S.Ct. 717, 133 L.Ed.2d 671 (1996).

On August 7, 1996, represented by new, post-conviction counsel, Williams filed a 103-page "Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief Under Article I, Section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and for Post-Conviction Relief Under the Post Conviction Relief Act and Consolidated Memorandum of Law."1 The petition was divided into articles stating sixteen separate principal "grounds for relief," each of which contained multiple claims of legal error. Briefly stated, these asserted grounds include allegations that: the Commonwealth withheld relevant impeachment evidence in connection with the testimony of eyewitness Michael Easley; the Commonwealth presented false testimony from eyewitness Holly Boone; the trial court erroneously failed to issue a "corrupt and polluted source" jury instruction in connection with Easley's testimony; the trial court erroneously failed to issue a jury instruction concerning second degree murder; the jury was death qualified but not life qualified; the evidence in support of the aggravating circumstance of Section 9711(d)(9), 42 Pa.C.S., was illegally obtained; the district attorney misrepresented Williams' record of convictions in connection with his argument concerning the (d)(9) aggravator; the (d)(9) aggravator is unconstitutionally vague; the district attorney made inappropriate "un-narrowing" statements to the jury concerning the (d)(9) aggravator; Williams was entitled to a "life-means-life" jury instruction; the trial court imposed an unduly and unconstitutionally heavy burden of proof for mitigating circumstances; trial counsel was ineffective in the penalty phase for failing to present a sufficient case of mitigation; trial counsel was ineffective in the guilt phase for failing to develop a diminished capacity defense; and Williams is entitled to relief by virtue of the cumulative effect of the above alleged errors and ineffectiveness. In addition, Williams asserted blanket claims that his trial and appellate counsel, Richard E. Johnson, was ineffective for failing to raise the above issues in post-trial motions and on direct appeal, and that comprehensive post-conviction review is otherwise appropriate pursuant to the relaxed waiver doctrine applied by this Court in death penalty cases. In support of the petition, Williams filed thirteen unsworn declarations, the bulk of which were directed toward establishing mitigating evidence, as well as records of Williams' mental health treatment. Also among the declarations was a recantation from Ms. Boone of her inculpatory trial testimony.

Williams then filed a motion for summary relief pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. 1507(b), and the Commonwealth filed its own motion to dismiss under Pa.R.Crim.P. 1509(b). Without a hearing, but after oral argument, the PCRA court announced its intention to grant the Commonwealth's motion to dismiss and issued the appropriate notice pursuant to Rule 1509(b).

After the PCRA court issued this notice, Williams filed a supplement to his post-conviction petition, seeking to add a seventeenth ground for relief. In this claim, Williams alleged that, during the process of jury selection, the Commonwealth utilized its peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner, thus violating Williams' rights under the federal and state constitutions. Williams also alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for having failed to preserve this issue at trial and raise it on direct appeal.

The PCRA court subsequently issued a three-page opinion restating the procedural history of the case and, without further explanation, stating as follows:

We are unusually impressed and satisfied that the arguments advanced by the Commonwealth, in its brief in support of its Motion to Dismiss, accurately set forth the facts and the law that govern this case.
Therefore, in the interest of judicial economy and rather than needlessly expend precious judicial time that can be better spent on other pending matters, this Court hereby adopts the Brief submitted by the District Attorney and makes same a part hereof.

In this appeal, in addition to the seventeen grounds for relief presented to the PCRA court, Williams also argues that: it was error for Mr. Justice Castille to participate in the Court's decision on direct appeal; the PCRA court erred in denying requested discovery to Williams in the post-conviction proceeding and in failing to require the Commonwealth to produce exculpatory materials pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963); the PCRA court erred in failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing on Williams' post-conviction claims; and the PCRA court erred in adopting the Commonwealth's arguments in denying post-conviction relief. Additionally, Williams filed a separate motion in connection with this appeal seeking the recusal of Mr. Justice Castille, which was denied by Justice Castille's order dated June 29, 1998.

I. Claims Raised For the First Time in this Appeal
A. Participation of Mr. Justice Castille

In contending that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to seek recusal of Mr. Justice Castille during direct review, Williams emphasizes that Justice Castille formerly was the District Attorney of Philadelphia, serving in that capacity when Williams was charged with the murder of Mr. McDonnell. In support of his contention that Justice Castille's participation in the direct appeal was therefore inappropriate, Williams cites to Canon 3 of the Code of Judicial Conduct and the right to an impartial tribunal pursuant to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Canon 3, however, creates no right of recusal on behalf of litigants, but merely prescribes standards by which judges should exercise their discretion in ruling upon questions of recusal. See Goodheart v. Casey, 523 Pa. 188, 198, 565 A.2d 757, 762 (1989). The ultimate decision is vested within the sound discretion of the jurist whose recusal is sought. See Commonwealth v. O'Shea, 523 Pa. 384, 407, 567 A.2d 1023, 1034 (1989), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 881, 111 S.Ct. 225, 112 L.Ed.2d 180 (1990). Moreover, Williams' request for the recusal of a jurist who did not personally litigate the criminal case against him, and, indeed, left his position as the District Attorney over one year prior to the trial in this case, plainly lacks a constitutional dimension. See generally Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Lavoie, 475 U.S. 813, 821, 106 S.Ct. 1580, 1585, 89 L.Ed.2d 823 (1986)(stating that "[c]ertainly only in the most extreme cases would disqualification on [the basis of bias or prejudice] be constitutionally required"); Federal Trade Comm'n v. Cement Inst., 333 U.S. 683, 702, 68 S.Ct. 793, 804, 92 L.Ed. 1010 (1948)(stating that "[m]ost matters relating to judicial disqualification [do] not rise to a constitutional level").

As previously noted, Williams' PCRA counsel filed a motion to recuse Justice Castille from consideration of the post-conviction appeal, and Justice Castille, in an appropriate exercise of his discretion, declined to forego participation in the case for the reasons that he previously had articulated in Commonwealth v. Jones, 541 Pa. 351, 663 A.2d 142 (1995). Such reasons apply equally to the direct review of Williams' conviction and sentence; thus, it is quite apparent that Mr. Justice Castille also would not have recused himself at that stage of the proceedings 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,...

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