Commonwealth of Pa. v. Gibson

CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtCASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.
Citation19 A.3d 512
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellantv.Ronald GIBSON, Appellee.
Decision Date12 May 2011

19 A.3d 512

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant
v.
Ronald GIBSON, Appellee.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Submitted Nov. 8, 2010.Decided May 12, 2011.


[19 A.3d 515]

Hugh J. Burns, Jr., Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, Philadelphia, Amy Zapp, PA Office of Attorney General, Harrisburg, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.James H. Moreno, Billy Horatio Nolas, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, for Ronald Gibson.CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.

OPINION
Justice SAYLOR.

This capital post-conviction matter relates to Appellee's killing of a Philadelphia police officer, Frederick Dukes, and a bystander, Vernae Nixon, during a failed robbery attempt at a bar in Philadelphia. The underlying factual and procedural background is detailed in the Court's prior opinions in Commonwealth v. Gibson, 547 Pa. 71, 688 A.2d 1152 (1997) (“ Gibson I ”) (direct appeal), and Commonwealth v. Gibson, 597 Pa. 402, 951 A.2d 1110 (2008) (“ Gibson III ”) (post-conviction). After multiple remands, it now remains to address whether Appellee has met his burden to establish that the deficient stewardship of his trial counsel resulted in prejudice at the penalty hearing.1

In Gibson III, a divided Court credited the PCRA court's findings that trial-level counsel were derelict in failing to adequately investigate and present life-history and/or mental health mitigation evidence at the penalty phase of Appellee's trial. See Gibson III, 597 Pa. at 423–25, 951 A.2d at 1122–24.2 The Court concluded, however, that the PCRA court should have resolved certain credibility questions that arose from apparent discrepancies between the penalty phase testimony and the PCRA evidence, and that it should also

[19 A.3d 516]

have included a “specific comparative evaluation concerning the mitigation case actually presented with that which Appell[ee] currently alleges should have been presented.” Id. at 422, 951 A.2d at 1122. Accordingly, the Court remanded for further factual development and analysis.

In the proceedings on remand, the PCRA court considered a number of sources of information, including: statements provided to the police in the wake of the offense by Appellee and another individual, David Green, who had been with Appellee on the night in question; the transcripts of Appellee's October 1991 trial, which included Appellee's own guilt-phase testimony and that of all penalty-phase witnesses; the testimony of Appellee's mother, Joan Gibson, that had been provided at a PCRA hearing on April 10, 2006, after the first remand, see Gibson III, 597 Pa. at 416, 951 A.2d at 1118 (summarizing Mrs. Gibson's 2006 testimony); and a 1999 declaration by defense psychiatrist Dr. Lawson Bernstein. Additionally, the PCRA court conducted a three-day hearing from May 13 to 15, 2009, at which Appellee presented the testimony of several lay witnesses—most notably, his friend Derrick Hook, his former girlfriend Niema Williamson, his grandfather Lavesta Bryant, and his aunt Leora Johnson—as well as three expert witnesses, including Dr. Bernstein and another forensic psychiatrist, Dr. John O'Brien. The Commonwealth presented the report and testimony of its own mental health expert, Dr. Timothy Michals, in rebuttal. 3 Finally, the court considered a 1988 mental health evaluation performed by court-appointed psychologist Lawrence Byrne in connection with Appellee's prior arrest for drug possession, to which some of the post-conviction expert witnesses referred.

The witnesses credited by the PCRA court gave details of Appellee's upbringing in a rough neighborhood of Philadelphia. A fuller life history emerges from their testimony than was heard by the jury at the penalty phase. Appellee was the first child of Joan Gibson, who married Appellee's father, Ronald Gibson, Sr., at the age of 19, and became pregnant with Appellee shortly thereafter. The elder Mr. Gibson was an alcoholic and maintained a highly controlling attitude toward Mrs. Gibson, enforcing his will through threats and violence directed at her. Some of the testimony indicated that he struck Mrs. Gibson while she was pregnant with Appellee. Ronald Gibson, Sr. eventually left the family when Appellee was 21 months old and never returned. Mrs. Gibson consumed alcohol while pregnant with Appellee, although there is no indication that Appellee suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome or any cognitive limitations as a result. See N.T., May 13, 2009, at 222–23, 293.

Mrs. Gibson used alcohol and marijuana in the home in Appellee's presence. After the elder Mr. Gibson's departure, Mrs. Gibson had a series of boyfriends who were violent and were also alcohol and drug abusers. Their substance abuse took place in Appellee's presence in the home while he was a minor. Furthermore, Appellee was disciplined by Mrs. Gibson with her hand and with belts and sticks, sometimes while she was heavily intoxicated. Appellee stated that, during some of these beatings, he wished he were dead, although he denied suicidal ideation and reported no history of suicide attempts. See Report of John S. O'Brien at 4, reproduced

[19 A.3d 517]

in Petitioner's Composite Exhibit II, at Tab 2 (O'Brien Report). Overall, Mrs. Gibson was unloving toward her children, and neglected them often, preferring to go out, “party,” and drink alcohol with her friends, rather than stay home and care for her children.

Appellee lived with his mother and two younger siblings on the third floor of a house. His maternal grandparents and their other children (Appellee's aunts and uncles) lived on the floors below. They could hear when an altercation was taking place on the third floor, and would bring Appellee downstairs to stay with them on such occasions. Although Appellee's grandparents were alcoholics, they tried to provide a nurturing environment. Thus, Appellee preferred to be with them because they were kinder toward him than was Mrs. Gibson who, in any event, was often absent. Appellee's aunt, Leora Johnson, who lived on the first floor of the house, tried to attend to Appellee's needs when his mother was not at home. Appellee's grandfather, Lavesta Bryant, also cared for Appellee, but he was strict and would discipline Appellee by administering corporal punishment. According to Mr. Bryant, Appellee was amenable to discipline, and would never have to be warned twice not to misbehave. Indeed, Mrs. Gibson confirmed at the penalty phase that Appellee had no serious disciplinary problems while he was a minor. See N.T., Oct. 10, 1991, at 10.

As Appellee advanced in school, it became clear that he had academic gifts. He was admitted to Simon Gratz High School, a “magnet” school in Philadelphia. While there, he performed well on standardized achievement tests and graduated near the top of his class, having been elected class president by his peers. Thereafter, Appellee attended community college in Philadelphia for a year. He also held a clerical position with the Social Security Administration for approximately three years, beginning in his later high school years. Appellee fathered a daughter with his girlfriend, Niema Williamson, who testified at the penalty phase that Appellee was a good father. 4 During the 2009 post-conviction hearing, Ms. Williamson added that Appellee's father's absence from Appellee's life bothered him, and she described Appellee's escalating alcohol and drug use after graduating high school. See N.T., May 13, 2009, at 180–83.

Appellee eventually lost his college tuition benefits and was separated from his employment at the federal agency after being arrested in 1988, at age 19, for drug possession—an arrest that led to Mr. Byrne performing his mental health evaluation in connection with a court directive that Appellee be diverted to a substance-abuse rehabilitation program. Although that evaluation reflects Appellee's statement he had used alcohol and marijuana since age 17, testimony from other witnesses and Appellee's admissions to health experts indicate that he began drinking earlier, at age 14, and that his alcohol consumption increased over the years. Furthermore, notwithstanding that Appellee was doing well academically in high school, by the time he was a senior he was also using cocaine and, shortly thereafter, began smoking “turbos,” which are marijuana cigarettes laced with cocaine.

At some time in his late-teen years, Appellee began selling illegal drugs, at least in part as a means of supporting his drug and alcohol habit. He continued to operate as a drug dealer for several years

[19 A.3d 518]

before the homicides occurred in this case. During those years, Appellee regularly carried a .38–caliber weapon for protection, which he felt was necessary because he was selling thousands of dollars' worth of drugs each day. This lifestyle, involving the trafficking of significant quantities of drugs, as well as the regular consumption of drugs and alcohol, continued until Appellee committed the present homicides at age 22, although there is little indication in the record that Appellee had acted violently on any prior occasion.5

In addition to a fuller picture of Appellee's life history, a significant issue that arose in the proceedings on remand concerned his possible state of intoxication at the time of the offenses. See Gibson II, 596 Pa. at 1, 940 A.2d at 323 (remanding for a hearing on the ineffectiveness claim based on counsel's failure “to investigate and present evidence of Appell[ee]'s severe intoxication at the time of the murders, history of drug and alcohol abuse, and of his dysfunctional family life”). While the testimony is conflicting as to the amount of alcohol Appellee consumed in the hours leading up to the murders, it appears undisputed that he drank at least several shots of Southern Comfort (a type of liqueur) at Dooner's Bar, where he was socializing before he travelled to Woody's Playhouse Bar where the killings occurred. According to Derrick Hook,...

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33 practice notes
  • Commonwealth v. Padilla
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • October 31, 2013
    ...penalty phase prejudice, primarily in cases posing claims of counsel ineffectiveness. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Gibson, 610 Pa. 332, 19 A.3d 512 (2011); Commonwealth v. Lesko, 609 Pa. 128, 15 A.3d 345 (2011). That task requires assessment of whether there is a reasonable probability that t......
  • Commonwealth v. Bomar, No. 659 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 21, 2014
    ...would have concluded that the mitigating circumstances collectively outweighed the aggravating ones.” Commonwealth v. Gibson, 610 Pa. 332, 19 A.3d 512, 526 (2011). In evaluating the probability of a different outcome, “we reweigh the evidence in aggravation against the totality of available......
  • Commonwealth v. Sepulveda
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 28, 2012
    ...would have concluded that the mitigating circumstances collectively outweighed the aggravating ones.” Commonwealth v. Gibson, 610 Pa. 332, 19 A.3d 512, 526 (2011). 22.Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). Batson held that peremptory challenges may not be use......
  • Commonwealth v. Tharp, No. 637 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • September 24, 2014
    ...more appropriate.” Id.In support of its ruling, the PCRA court relied on this Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Gibson, 610 Pa. 332, 19 A.3d 512 (2011). In Gibson, the defendant had been convicted of two counts of first degree murder after he fired his gun into a crowded bar during a robb......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
33 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Padilla
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • October 31, 2013
    ...penalty phase prejudice, primarily in cases posing claims of counsel ineffectiveness. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Gibson, 610 Pa. 332, 19 A.3d 512 (2011); Commonwealth v. Lesko, 609 Pa. 128, 15 A.3d 345 (2011). That task requires assessment of whether there is a reasonable probability that t......
  • Commonwealth v. Bomar, No. 659 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 21, 2014
    ...would have concluded that the mitigating circumstances collectively outweighed the aggravating ones.” Commonwealth v. Gibson, 610 Pa. 332, 19 A.3d 512, 526 (2011). In evaluating the probability of a different outcome, “we reweigh the evidence in aggravation against the totality of available......
  • Commonwealth v. Sepulveda
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • November 28, 2012
    ...would have concluded that the mitigating circumstances collectively outweighed the aggravating ones.” Commonwealth v. Gibson, 610 Pa. 332, 19 A.3d 512, 526 (2011). 22.Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). Batson held that peremptory challenges may not be use......
  • Commonwealth v. Tharp, No. 637 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • September 24, 2014
    ...more appropriate.” Id.In support of its ruling, the PCRA court relied on this Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Gibson, 610 Pa. 332, 19 A.3d 512 (2011). In Gibson, the defendant had been convicted of two counts of first degree murder after he fired his gun into a crowded bar during a robb......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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