Commonwealth v. Baumhammers

Citation92 A.3d 708
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court
Decision Date27 May 2014
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Richard Scott BAUMHAMMERS, Appellant.


Caroline Roberto, Esq., for Richard Scott Baumhammers.

Francesco Lino Nepa, Esq., Ronald Michael Wabby Jr., Esq., Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Esq., PA Office of Attorney General, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.



Justice SAYLOR.

This is a capital post-conviction appeal.

The underlying facts are set forth in this Court's opinion resolving Appellant's direct appeal. See Commonwealth v. Baumhammers, 599 Pa. 1, 960 A.2d 59 (2008). Briefly, on April 28, 2000, Richard Baumhammers (Appellant) went on a two-hour crime spree in Allegheny and Beaver Counties in which he shot six individuals with a firearm. Appellant first shot to death a Jewish neighbor and set her house on fire. He then drove to public places such as a Chinese restaurant and an Indian grocery store, where he shot five additional persons, all racial or ethnic minorities. Four of these additional victims died of their wounds; the fifth was paralyzed from the neck down. During the crime spree, Appellant also damaged two synagogues by spray-painting swastikas and the word “Jew” onto one of them, and shooting bullets into both. See id. at 13–21, 960 A.2d at 67–71. Appellant was charged with five counts of first-degree murder and related offenses, and the matter proceeded to trial from April 27th to May 9th of 2001. The jury found Appellant guilty on all charges. At the conclusion of the penalty phase, the jury determined that the aggravating circumstances outweighed any mitigation and set the penaltyat death for all five murders.1 Appellant's post-sentence motions were denied, and this Court affirmed the judgments of sentence. See id. at 66, 960 A.2d at 99.

Appellant filed a counseled, amended petition under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541–9546 (“PCRA”), raising nineteen claims. The PCRA court, per Judge Manning (who was also the trial judge), scheduled a hearing on four of the claims and noted its intent to dismiss the remaining fifteen claims without a hearing. A three-day hearing was held in September 2011, at which numerous witnesses testified. The court ultimately denied relief. After Appellant appealed and filed a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal, seePa.R.A.P. 1925(b), the PCRA court issued an opinion addressing each of the alleged errors and concluding that it had properly denied relief. See Commonwealth v. Baumhammers, CC Nos. 2000–14712–14714, slip op. (C.P. Allegheny June 29, 2012) (“PCRA Court Opinion).

The statutory framework governing our review is well settled. To be eligible for relief, a PCRA petitioner must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that his conviction or sentence resulted from one or more of the circumstances enumerated in Section 9543(a)(2) of the PCRA, and that the allegation of error has not been previously litigated or waived. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Sneed, 616 Pa. 1, 16–17 & n. 13, 45 A.3d 1096, 1105 & n. 13 (2012). For present purposes, the circumstances that would warrant relief are a constitutional violation, or ineffective assistance of counsel, which so undermined the reliability of the truth determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place. See id.;42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(2). Details of the trial and post-conviction proceedings are discussed below as necessary in connection with specific claims. We note that, because Appellant's direct appeal was filed after this Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Grant, 572 Pa. 48, 813 A.2d 726 (2002), any claims that rest on an allegation of ineffective assistance of trial counsel need not be layered to address appellate counsel's stewardship. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. McGill, 574 Pa. 574, 589, 832 A.2d 1014, 1023 (2003).

I. Claims Decided Based on an Evidentiary Record

For the claims on which a hearing was held, we consider whether the PCRA court's findings are supported by the record and free of legal error. See Commonwealth v. Rega, 620 Pa. 640, 662–64, 70 A.3d 777, 790 (2013).

A. Post-trial statements of the Commonwealth's forensic psychiatrist

Appellant first contends that his constitutional rights to due process and to be free of cruel and unusual punishment were violated when the Commonwealth's expert testified in the guilt phase that Appellant did not have schizophrenia. To address this argument, it is helpful to review certain aspects of the trial and PCRA testimony.

At trial, Appellant offered an insanity defense. He presented the testimony of several treating psychiatrists as fact witnesses, and of forensic psychiatrist Dr. James Merikangas as an expert witness. Dr. Merikangas testified that, on the day of the crime, Appellant may have been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and, although he understood the nature and quality of his actions, he did not know that what he was doing was legally or morally wrong. See18 Pa.C.S. § 315 (setting forth Pennsylvania's insanity defense in terms of the defendant's failure to understand the nature and quality of his conduct or that it “was wrong”). Dr. Merikangas's testimony supported the defense theory that Appellant was suffering from hallucinations in which he believed the FBI was harassing him and causing him physical pain through the use of lasers and poisons, and promised to stop doing so if he would kill ethnic and racial minorities. Dr. Merikangas elaborated that Appellant thought the FBI wanted to discredit his nascent “Free Market” political party and, to that end, directed him to conduct a “right-wing hit.” The expert witness opined that Appellant understood that it is ordinarily wrong to kill others, but he believed his conduct was legally and morally justified because he was obeying a government order.

In its rebuttal case, the Commonwealth adduced the testimony of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner. Based on a records review involving 230 sources and many hours of interviews with Appellant, Dr. Welner produced a lengthy report. He testified consistent with the report, disputing Dr. Merikangas's conclusions and opining that Appellant was not schizophrenic, he understood the nature and quality of his actions, and he knew his actions were wrong. Dr. Welner disbelieved Appellant's claims of hallucinations, attributing such assertions to after-the-fact malingering. He concluded instead that Appellant acted based on hatred toward non-European immigrants and other minorities. The witness indicated that, although Appellant met the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, possible antisocial personality disorder, and delusional disorder of a persecutorial type, delusions are different from hallucinations,2 and moreover, the delusional facet of Appellant's personality had largely receded during the months leading up to the killings. Dr. Welner testified that his conclusion regarding Appellant's hatred-based motive for the killings was supported by Appellant's desecration of the two synagogues, as well as trial testimony and information he gathered for his report suggesting that Appellant had: angrily threatened two Pakistani restaurant patrons in a Pittsburgh suburb in August 1999, telling them to leave America or they would die; stricken a woman with his fist while traveling in France two months later because he thought she was Jewish; visited white-supremacist websites prior to the day in question; and made anti-minority and white-supremacist statements to fellow inmates shortly after his arrest and while awaiting trial.

Six years after the trial, when a massacre occurred at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech), Dr. Welner was workingas a paid consultant for ABC News. In that capacity, he was interviewed about the Virginia Tech shootings and, in passing, made reference to Appellant's case. Dr. Welner also made comments to other media organizations as well as an educational institution between 2007 and 2011, in which he mentioned Appellant's case. In at least three of these comments or interviews, Dr. Welner stated that Appellant suffered from schizophrenia, albeit his actions were motivated by ethnic hatred separate and apart from his schizophrenia.

This suggestion was, of course, inconsistent with Dr. Welner's trial testimony in which he rejected a schizophrenia diagnosis for Appellant. Appellant viewed the inconsistency as material because, in Appellant's view, a schizophrenia diagnosis would have supported his insanity defense better than the personality disorders Dr. Welner described at trial. Thus, at the PCRA hearing, Appellant presented the testimony of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Phillip Resnick concerning the effect if, hypothetically, Dr. Welner had testified at trial that Appellant suffered from schizophrenia. Dr. Resnick testified that: (a) if Dr. Welner had diagnosed Appellant with schizophrenia, the diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder and possible antisocial personality disorders would have been difficult to support; and (b) a schizophrenia diagnosis would have explained, in terms of a disease of the brain—as opposed to mere personality traits—certain items that may have cast Appellant in a negative light before the jury, such as Appellant's alleged: grandiosity; inappropriate affect (e.g., smiling) at the time of his arrest; lack of empathy; lack of remorse; aloofness; argumentativeness; and inability to maintain steady employment. See N.T., Sept. 12, 2011, at 15–24.

Appellant also called Dr. Welner as a PCRA witness and questioned him about the inconsistency between his trial testimony and his subsequent media comments. Dr. Welner preliminarily agreed that schizophrenia is the “most extreme manifestation of paranoia,” N.T., Sept. 13, 2011, at 190, and acknowledged that, in...

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