Com. v. Williams, No. 430 CAP.

Decision Date17 June 2008
Docket NumberNo. 430 CAP.,No. 431 CAP.
Citation950 A.2d 294
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee/Cross-Appellant v. Kenneth J. WILLIAMS, Appellant/Cross-Appellee.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Michael Wiseman, Esq., Philadelphia, for Kenneth J. Williams (430 CAP).

Joan L. Reinsmith, Esq., James Bernard Martin, Esq., Amy Zapp, Esq., for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (430 CAP).

Joan L. Reinsmith, Esq., James Bernard Martin, Esq., Amy Zapp, Esq., for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (431 CAP).

Michael Wiseman, Esq., Philadelphia, for Kenneth J. Williams (431 CAP).



Justice SAYLOR.1

In these consolidated capital post-conviction cross-appeals, the designated appellant, Kenneth J. Williams, challenges the denial of relief from his convictions for first-degree murder and related offenses, and the Commonwealth seeks to overturn the award of a new penalty hearing.

The factual circumstances underlying Appellant's judgments of sentence are set forth in Commonwealth v. Williams, 537 Pa. 1, 640 A.2d 1251 (1994). Briefly, Appellant shot and killed the victim, truck driver Edward Miller, on or around October 20, 1983, in the trailer portion of the victim's rig while stopped alongside the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The police investigation centered on Appellant upon the discovery of his possession and use of Mr. Miller's credit cards as Appellant traveled with another trucker, Monica Manion. Ms. Manion related to police that: Appellant was driving Mr. Miller's rig in a timeframe near the time of the victim's death as determined by a medical examiner; Appellant parked the trailer at a truck stop in Kuhnsville in the location where the victim's body was later discovered; and Appellant gave her a flashlight belonging to the victim. Upon his apprehension, Appellant confessed to having shot Mr. Miller in the back and to having taken his rig and various items of his personal property. The Commonwealth charged Appellant, inter alia, with criminal homicide and robbery and furnished notice of its intent to seek the death penalty.

At the pre-trial stage, Appellant was represented by then-Chief Lehigh County Public Defender Frederick E. Charles, Esquire. Attorney Charles was permitted to withdraw, however, in light of an asserted conflict of interest arising from Appellant's complaints lodged against him relative to the representation. Initially, Attorney Charles was replaced by other members of his office. He maintained, however, that the conflict was shared by his staff, a matter which he ultimately raised before this Court. Then-Chief Justice Nix convened a conference with Attorney Charles, the two appointed assistant public defenders, and the district attorney, and he directed the attorneys to convey to the trial judge his suggestion that the judge should reconsider his order requiring the assistant public defenders to represent Appellant. The attorneys complied, and the trial court appointed new counsel, Charles Sieger, subject to a $3,500 fee cap and, apparently, a $500 limitation on available reimbursement for investigative services.2 The trial court also rescheduled trial, which commenced twenty-two days later.

At trial, the Commonwealth introduced Appellant's confession and testimony from various witnesses, including Ms. Manion, tracing Appellant's movements prior and subsequent to the date of the killing. The Commonwealth also offered evidence demonstrating that Appellant was familiar with handguns, including .38 caliber pistols such as that used in the killing of Mr. Miller, and that he had access to such weapons. Appellant testified in his defense, admitting to having taken possession of the victim's tractor-trailer and credit cards, but indicating that his confession was falsely given on account of threats directed toward his intimates by a personal adversary. He also presented an alibi defense, claiming that Mr. Miller was killed while he was traveling west in Ms. Manion's company.

In addition to the first-degree murder conviction, Appellant was found guilty of robbery and related offenses. The death sentence followed, upon the jury's finding of one aggravating circumstance, namely, that the defendant killed the victim while in the perpetration of a felony, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6), which outweighed the mitigation found by at least one juror under the catch-all factor, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(e)(8).

Attorney Sieger withdrew from the representation and substitute counsel was appointed. Post-verdict motions were filed and denied. A further substitution of counsel occurred; Appellant filed a direct appeal; and this Court affirmed the conviction and sentence. See Williams, 537 Pa. at 31, 640 A.2d at 1266.

Appellant commenced post-conviction proceedings in state and federal court, and, after protracted litigation including a limited evidentiary hearing, this Court directed the PCRA court to proceed to resolve the petition before it on the merits. See Commonwealth v. Williams, 573 Pa. 613, 828 A.2d 981 (2003). Among the claims asserted were allegations that: former Chief Justice Nix improperly interfered with the appointment of Appellant's trial counsel and with the establishment of his trial date, thereby creating a structural error; by setting an assertedly unreasonable trial date, the trial court created conditions under which Appellant was denied counsel at a critical stage and/or trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to secure a continuance; trial counsel was ineffective for failing to consult with and retain experts to rebut the prosecutor's presentation of false evidence; Appellant was denied his right to a meaningful appeal since there was no transcript from a pre-trial suppression hearing; the trial court erred in admitting evidence of Appellant's ownership and alleged theft of firearms which were unconnected with the case; there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction for robbery and, correspondingly, the in-perpetration-of-a-felony aggravating factor; the trial court erroneously excluded relevant mitigation evidence in the form of expert testimony concerning a lack of future dangerousness on Appellant's part; and trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance in the penalty phase by failing to investigate and present available mitigation evidence. Appellant also included various assertions of deficient stewardship on the part of all his prior counsel in an effort to overcome any potential waiver of his claims. See generally Commonwealth v. McGill, 574 Pa. 574, 832 A.2d 1014 (2003) (discussing the waiver of claims not asserted at the first available opportunity and the advancement of derivative claims of deficient stewardship).3

The PCRA court subsequently issued an opinion denying relief on all guilt-phase claims. However, the court awarded a new penalty hearing upon a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel in the investigation and presentation of mitigating evidence, and error on the part of the trial court in prohibiting the presentation of defense expert testimony concerning a lack of future dangerousness on Appellant's part. See Commonwealth v. Williams, No. 981/1984, slip op. (C.P. Lehigh Oct. 17, 2003).

Both Appellant and the Commonwealth filed appeals. Initially, we remanded, because the PCRA court's opinion supporting the award of sentencing relief was couched solely in terms of waived claims. The PCRA court conducted an evidentiary hearing to permit Appellant an opportunity to further develop the derivative, non-waived claims, and it subsequently reinstated its award of sentencing relief, as authorized by our remand Order. See Commonwealth v. Williams, No. 981/1984, slip op. (C.P. Lehigh Oct. 3, 2006). Supplemental briefs were filed by both parties, and the matter is now ripe for our review.

In addressing the grant or denial of post-conviction relief, an appellate court will consider whether the PCRA court's conclusions are supported by record evidence and are free of legal error. See Commonwealth v. Jones, 590 Pa. 202, 216, 912 A.2d 268, 276 (2006) (citing Commonwealth v. Travaglia, 541 Pa. 108, 117 n. 4, 661 A.2d 352, 356 n. 4 (1995)). The level of deference accorded to the post-conviction court may vary depending upon whether the decision involved matters of credibility or matters of applying the governing law to the facts as so determined. See Commonwealth v. Reaves, 592 Pa. 134, 142, 923 A.2d 1119, 1124 (2007).

As indicated, and consistent with the eligibility requirements for PCRA relief, Appellant frames his claims as involving violations of the United States or Pennsylvania Constitutions, including the denial of effective assistance of counsel. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(2)(i, ii). As also noted, to prevail on his allegations of deficient stewardship, Appellant must demonstrate that the underlying claim is of arguable merit; that no reasonable strategic basis existed for counsel's act or omission; and that counsel's error resulted in prejudice, or, in other words, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different. See supra note 3. In addition, Appellant is required to establish that his claims have not been waived or previously litigated. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(3). As to waiver, since Appellant was represented by new counsel at the post-verdict stage and on direct appeal, his claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel that were not raised at that time are waived, and the only extant ineffectiveness claims are derivative ones challenging appellate counsel's performance relative to the underlying ineffectiveness claims. See McGill, 574 Pa. at 586, 832 A.2d at 1021-22. While in a number of instances, our review entails evaluation of the potential merits of waived underlying claims, such assessment is employed solely as a means of determining the viability of extant derivative claims. See id. at 591-92, 832 A.2d...

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