Com. v. Williams

Decision Date20 June 1995
Citation660 A.2d 1316,541 Pa. 85
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Roy L. WILLIAMS, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Robert A. Graci, for Atty. General's Office.



CASTILLE, Justice.

Following a three day jury trial, appellant was found guilty of first degree murder 1 and possession of an instrument of crime 2 in connection with the shooting death of James P. McDonnell. Following the penalty hearing, the jury found one aggravating circumstance 3 and no mitigating circumstances. After weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances the jury set the penalty at death. 4 Postverdict motions were argued and denied and the trial court imposed upon appellant the jury's sentence of death. This automatic direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court followed. 5 For the reasons expressed herein, we affirm the judgment of sentence imposed by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County.

In all death penalty cases, our inquiry must first begin with an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence on the first degree murder charge even where, as here, appellant does not challenge the conviction on that basis. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 26-27 n. 3, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n. 3 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (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 verdict winner, must determine whether the evidence was sufficient to enable the fact finder to find every element of the crimes charged beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Thomas, 527 Pa. 511, 513, 594 A.2d 300, 301 (1991).

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). Specific intent to kill can be inferred by the use of a deadly weapon upon a vital body part. Commonwealth v. Butler, 446 Pa. 374, 288 A.2d 800 (1972).

Here, the relatively brief evidence at trial established that appellant and three friends Michael Easley, Holly Boone and Paula Bowens, 6 visited another friend, Keesha Bell, at Bell's mother's house. Appellant, Michael Easley, Holly Boone and Paula Bowens left the Bell home and walked to an arcade where they played several games and left shortly thereafter. As the four walked down Foulkrod Street, James McDonnell, a twenty-nine year old white male stranger, turned onto Foulkrod Street from Tackawanna Street and walked towards appellant and the others. As James McDonnell neared, appellant, without warning, reached into his coat, pulled out a hand gun, which all three witnesses described as a revolver or "cop gun," and repeatedly shot Mr. McDonnell. Mr. McDonnell was pronounced dead of gunshot wounds to the head, chest and leg, which included vital organs.

Michael Easley testified on direct examination that prior to the murder while at the Bell residence, he and appellant were "getting high" in the kitchen and that appellant told him that he was going to kill a white "dude" and that shortly after witnessing the shooting, he and appellant returned to the Bell residence where Easley heard appellant tell other people in the house that he had just shot a "white boy." Holly Boone witnessed the shooting and testified that while she was speaking to Keesha Bell, she overheard appellant telling Michael Easley that he was going to kill a white person. Paula Bowens witnessed the shooting and testified that appellant told her that he was recently released from jail and that "he was going to kill the first white man he saw." Viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, clearly, this evidence was sufficient to sustain appellant's convictions for first degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime.

Having concluded that the evidence is sufficient to support the verdict, appellant raises three claims of error before this Court which will be addressed seriatim. At the outset, it is significant to note that appellant's counsel failed to object at trial to any of the errors that are now asserted as basis for relief. While we have recognized that waiver rules are often relaxed in capital cases, Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 26-27 n. 3, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n. 3 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983), we have held in other capital cases that issues not raised before the trial court were waived. See Commonwealth v. Goins, 508 Pa. 270, 276, 495 A.2d 527, 530 (1985) (plurality) (appellant's claims of prosecutorial misconduct are waived for trial counsel's failure to object); Commonwealth v. Peterkin, 511 Pa. 299, 513 A.2d 373 (1986), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1070, 107 S.Ct. 962, 93 L.Ed.2d 1010 (1987) (even though issue of whether exclusion of prospective jurors was of constitutional dimension, the issue was waived because defense counsel indicated he had no objection to the challenges for cause of the two jurors), citing, Commonwealth v. Szuchon, 506 Pa. 228, 484 A.2d 1365 (1984) (whether prospective jurors were improperly excluded is waived and cannot be addressed for the first time on appeal because trial counsel failed to object to the challenge of prospective jurors or to rehabilitate them through further questioning). This Court does not countenance trial counsel intentionally sitting by silently at trial only later to complain of trial errors on appeal after an unfavorable verdict. That a matter is a death penalty case in no way relieves trial counsel of the duty to raise appropriate contemporaneous objections at trial to allow the trial court to cure any alleged error as well as preserve issues for appellate review.

Nevertheless, appellant's first claim is that he is entitled to a new trial based upon the testimony of Commonwealth witness Paula Bowens regarding appellant's statements just prior to the murder where he indicated that he had been previously incarcerated. Appellant claims that this evidence deprived him of a fair trial because from this testimony the jury could infer that he had committed another crime for which he received a sentence of incarceration. On direct examination, Paula Bowens testified, in pertinent part:

Q: ... Tell us what happened in your own words.

A: Humm, Mike Easley and Roy were in the kitchen talking.... And me and Holly was going to leave, was going to the arcade on Mulberry Street, 4th and Mulberry Street. They said they was going to come along with us. So, we went to an arcade and Roy said he just got out of jail. The first white man he see he was going to kill.

(N.T., 1/29/92, Vol. 1, p. 36-37).

The Commonwealth made no further inquiry and the witness offered no further testimony which referred to appellant's incarceration. Moreover, no other evidence was introduced at trial that indicated that appellant was incarcerated as a result of having been convicted of another unrelated crime.

At the outset, appellant's counsel failed to object to this testimony at trial. However, appellant's counsel then utilized this now challenged testimony in an attempt to impeach the witness's testimony on direct that she had seen appellant throughout the year before the murder with her testimony that appellant stated that he was recently released from jail. On cross-examination, appellant's counsel asked Paula Bowens the following questions:

Q: But you never had any problems with him did you?

A: No.

Q: And that was for a whole year?

A: Right.

Q: All right. Now, when you were going to the arcade, you said Mr. Williams told you that he had just got out of jail; he's going to kill the first white man he saw. Were those his exact words?

A: Yes.

Q: And he told you he had just gotten out of jail?

A: Yes.

Q: But you had seen him around for a year, hadn't you?

A: Well, I, would you believe [sic] go to the project every day like this [sic] and the house.

(N.T., 1/29/92, Vol. 1, pp. 55-56) (emphasis added).

Thus, counsel's tactical decision to employ the now challenged evidence should prohibit his complaint that the trial court erred by failing to sua sponte exclude the evidence.

Admissibility of evidence is a matter addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court, which may only be reversed upon a showing that the court abused its discretion. Commonwealth v. Claypool, 508 Pa. 198, 203-204, 495 A.2d 176, 178 (1985). Evidence of a defendant's prior arrest or incarceration is generally inadmissible because the trier of fact may infer past criminal conduct by the defendant from such evidence. Commonwealth v. Tomoney, 488 Pa. 324, 333, 412 A.2d 531, 535 (1980) (citation omitted). Reversible error occurs where evidence of prior criminal conduct unjustifiably blackens the character of a defendant in the minds of the jury. Commonwealth v. Spruill, 480 Pa. 601, 607, 391 A.2d 1048, 1051 (1978). However, such evidence is generally admissible where it tends to establish motive, intent, absence of mistake or accident, commission of the crime, or where it was part of a chain or sequence of events which formed the history of the case. Commonwealth v. Ross, 413 Pa. 35, 195 A.2d 81 (1963) (evidence regarding the death of defendant's second victim admissible as sequence of the events forming the history of the case); Commonwealth v. Lark, 518 Pa. 290, 302, 543 A.2d 491, 497 (1988) (evidence of defendant's offenses of murder, terroristic threats, and kidnapping admissible to complete the story and natural...

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