Commonwealth of Pa. v. Houser

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation18 A.3d 1128
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appelleev.Darien HOUSER, Appellant.
Decision Date29 April 2011

18 A.3d 1128

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
Darien HOUSER, Appellant.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued Oct. 20, 2009.Decided April 29, 2011.

[18 A.3d 1131]

Bernard L. Siegel, Philadelphia, for Darien Houser.Hugh J. Burns, Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, Philadelphia, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, JJ.

Justice EAKIN.

This is a direct appeal from a sentence of death following appellant Darien Houser's conviction of first degree murder for killing Sergeant Joseph LeClaire. We affirm the conviction and the sentence.


A warrant was issued for appellant after he failed to appear for a rape trial. Sergeant Vincent DeSandro of the First Judicial District Warrant Unit was assigned the warrant and learned appellant was likely residing in Apartment 336 of a complex known as Fisher's Crossing at 4901 Old Stenton Avenue, Philadelphia. Sergeant DeSandro requested his partner Officer Eric Jones, Sergeant LeClaire, and Officer Carlo Del Borrello to assist him in executing the warrant. Sergeant LeClaire and Officer Del Borrello wore the required Warrant Unit uniform, which consisted of cargo pants, a shirt identifying them as officers in the Warrant Unit, a ballistics vest and cover containing the phrase “Warrant Unit” on both the front and back, and a baseball hat or wool cap with the phrase “Warrant Unit” on it. Sergeant DeSandro and Officer Jones, assigned to the FBI Fugitive Task Force, wore civilian clothing with ballistics vests with “Warrant Unit” on the front and back, along with their badges.

The officers met near the apartment complex shortly before 2:00 a.m. on March 19, 2004. Philadelphia Police were called to assist and positioned themselves at the rear of the complex. As the Warrant Unit approached Apartment 336, they heard movement inside. After an initial knock on the door, the noise stopped. One of the officers covered the peephole, and the police pounded on the door, identifying themselves and their purpose.

Appellant and his girlfriend, Naki Hutchinson, were inside the apartment, Hutchinson in the kitchen and appellant in the bedroom. Hutchinson told appellant someone was at the door, telling him it was either the police due to a noise complaint or an acquaintance playing a joke on them. Appellant instructed her not to open the door because it was the police. Nevertheless, Hutchinson heard the officers identify themselves and opened the door.

Sergeant LeClaire entered first and informed Hutchinson he had a warrant for appellant. Sergeant DeSandro was directly behind him, followed by Officers Del Borrello and Jones. Inside the apartment, the kitchenette light was on, as well as a television and an aquarium light. Light from the exterior hallway also entered the apartment as Officer Del Borrello held the door open. The officers were only a few feet inside the door and approximately 14 to 15 feet from the bedroom when Sergeant LeClaire was heard to tell appellant to drop his weapon. At the same time, Sergeant DeSandro saw a barrel flash in the bedroom and sustained a gun shot wound to his left wrist.1 Sergeant LeClaire

[18 A.3d 1132]

returned fire. Officer Del Borrello, at the threshold of the apartment, heard Sergeant LeClaire repeatedly direct appellant to put his gun down; he also heard him call for help, saying he was hit and “officer down.”

Officers Del Borrello and Evans removed Sergeant DeSandro to the exterior hallway. Officer Del Borrello later heard appellant reloading bullets into a magazine; appellant then attempted to run out the front door. As appellant neared the front door, he shot Officer Del Borrello in the abdomen. Officer Del Borrello returned fire as he ran past the front door on his way to seek cover and assistance down the hallway. As appellant extended his arm and gun into the hallway, Officer Jones began to fire, causing appellant to return into the apartment. At least one more shot was heard coming from inside the apartment.

Philadelphia Police began arriving on the scene, including the two officers who were assigned to the rear of the apartment complex. Sergeant Frank Hayes arrived while gunfire was still being exchanged and positioned himself outside the apartment. After a lull in the gunfire, Sergeant Hayes entered the apartment; he found a living room window was open with its security bars wrenched from the wall. He also saw Sergeant LeClaire on his knees at the end of a sofa with a large blood spot on the left side of his head. Sergeant Hayes proceeded to search the apartment for appellant, while other officers attended to Sergeant LeClaire. Appellant was not found in the apartment. Another officer searched the alley below the open apartment window. He observed blood in the snow, which he was able to track to an apartment on the first floor. He radioed for the SWAT team, which subsequently entered the apartment and arrested appellant.

Sergeant LeClaire sustained two gunshot wounds, each from a .45 caliber bullet. The first shot was to his abdomen, striking his external iliac artery. Without immediate medical attention, this wound was fatal; however, Sergeant LeClaire would have been able to speak and fire his weapon for several minutes before sustaining fatal blood loss. The second wound was also fatal; it penetrated the left side of Sergeant LeClaire's forehead, passing through the left side of his brain and lodging between his scalp and skull.

Despite an extensive search of the area the day of the shooting, the gun used to kill Sergeant LeClaire was not found. Police attempted to search a drain near where appellant entered the lower-level apartment, but the magnet used to recover evidence stuck to the sides of the drain, rendering it ineffective. Police returned over a year later and lowered a camera into the drain, revealing what appeared to be a gun inside. The drain was cut, and a gun was recovered with the magazine still inside, the hammer cocked, and one bullet in the chamber. Due to corrosion, the Commonwealth's ballistics expert could not say conclusively that it was the gun used to kill Sergeant LeClaire, although it was a .45 caliber with a seven-round magazine and matched Hutchinson's description of a gun owned by appellant. A loaded .32 caliber revolver, 19 spent .45 caliber casings and 18 unfired .45 caliber bullets were recovered in the apartment. Blood found on a .45 caliber ammunition box located on the sofa near Sergeant LeClaire's location was matched to appellant through DNA analysis.

[18 A.3d 1133]

The Commonwealth charged appellant with murder, three counts of aggravated assault, and related crimes. A jury convicted him of three counts of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon; the jury could not reach a verdict on the murder charge. As a third-strike offender, appellant received two life sentences for two of the aggravated assault charges, 25 to 50 years imprisonment on the third aggravated assault charge, and five to 10 years imprisonment on the firearms violation. Retrial on the murder charge resulted in a conviction of first degree murder.

The jury found two aggravating circumstances: the victim was a law enforcement officer, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(1); and appellant had a significant history of felony convictions. Id., § 9711(d)(9). One or more of the jurors found the “catch-all” mitigating circumstance, “other evidence of mitigation concerning the character and record of the defendant and the circumstances of his offense.” Id., § 9711(e)(8).2 The jury found the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances; accordingly, the sentence was death. See id., § 9711(c)(iv) (verdict must be sentence of death if jury finds aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances).

When a death sentence is imposed, “this Court has an obligation to review the record to ensure the evidence sufficiently supports the first degree murder conviction and the finding of aggravating circumstances, and that the sentence was not the product of passion, prejudice, or other arbitrary factors.” Commonwealth v. Dick, 602 Pa. 180, 978 A.2d 956, 958 (2009) (citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(3)(i)-(ii)). Appellant additionally raises the following issues: the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that he acted with malice; the verdict was not supported by the weight of the evidence; and the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on the mitigating circumstance that he was acting under extreme mental or emotional distress at the time of the offense.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

Appellant first challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his first degree murder conviction. Specifically, appellant argues the evidence was insufficient to prove he acted with malice because his use of force was in self-defense. In determining whether there was sufficient evidence to support a jury's finding, we are “obliged to determine whether the evidence presented at trial and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, are sufficient to satisfy all elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.” Commonwealth v. Brown, 605 Pa. 103, 987 A.2d 699, 705 (2009) (citing Commonwealth v. Baumhammers, 599 Pa. 1, 960 A.2d 59, 68 (2008)). To convict a defendant of first degree murder, the Commonwealth must prove: a human being was unlawfully killed; the defendant was responsible for the killing; and the defendant acted with malice and a specific intent to kill. See 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(a); Brown, at 705; Commonwealth v. Sherwood, 603 Pa. 92, 982 A.2d 483, 491–92 (2009) (citations omitted). The Commonwealth may use solely circumstantial evidence to prove a killing was intentional, and the fact-finder “may infer that the defendant had the specific intent to kill the victim based on the defendant's use of a deadly weapon upon a vital part of...

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