Commonwealth v. Holt

Decision Date28 April 2022
Docket Number789 CAP
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Rahmael Sal HOLT, Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

273 A.3d 514

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
Rahmael Sal HOLT, Appellant

No. 789 CAP

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Submitted: October 13, 2021
Decided: April 28, 2022

Timothy Paul Dawson, Esq., for Appellant.

Ronald Eisenberg, Esq., Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, James Thomas Lazar, Esq., John W. Peck II, Esq., Westmoreland County District Attorney's Office, for Appellee.


Justice Donohue delivers the Opinion of the Court as to Parts I, III, IV, V(A), V(C), V(E), VI, VII, VIII, IX and X and announces the Judgment of the Court with respect to Parts II, V(B) and V(D). The Opinion is joined in full by Chief Justice Baer and Justice Todd. Justice Dougherty files a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Mundy and Brobson.


This is a direct appeal from appellant Rahmael Holt's sentence of death. We affirm.

I. Factual History

On November 17, 2017, Patrolman Brian Shaw of the City of New Kensington Police Department was shot and killed in the line of duty. At 8:06 p.m. Officer Shaw informed dispatch that a vehicle had failed to stop for his lights and sirens. Shortly afterwards, Officer Shaw announced that he was pursuing on foot. Moments later he radioed that he had been shot. Because no one witnessed the shooting, the Commonwealth established Holt's guilt through circumstantial evidence, including the testimony of Tavon Harper, the driver of the vehicle Officer Shaw attempted to stop. We summarize the facts adduced by the Commonwealth.

Harper testified that he moved to New Kensington sometime around August 24, 2017, the day he was released from prison after serving a sentence for robbery. He lived at 1105 Kenneth Avenue with his then-wife, Morgan Harvin. On the day of Officer Shaw's murder, Harper initiated a video call with Vanessa Portis, "a girl that [he] talked to socially." However, Rahmael Holt answered, who Harper recognized as they had attended elementary and middle school together. The two talked, and Holt asked if Harper had any drugs. Harper said he could sell him some cocaine after he showered. N.T., 11/5/2019, at 243. Holt texted that Harper should meet him at 1206 Victoria Avenue. When Harper arrived,

273 A.3d 523

Holt walked next to the vehicle and showed a gun, which Harper said looked like a .40 caliber pistol. Id . at 247. After buying the cocaine, Holt asked if Harper could sell him some marijuana. Harper told him he would try to get some.

Later that afternoon, Harper met a friend in McKeesport who sold marijuana. Harper bought the drugs and made his way back to New Kensington. Holt bought the marijuana and then asked Harper to drive him to a nearby convenience store. Shortly after leaving the store, Harper heard and saw police sirens. Harper did not pull over, explaining in his testimony that his home on Kenneth Avenue was nearby and he intended to park there. Officer Shaw pursued the vehicle and radioed its license plate.

During the pursuit, Holt pulled a gun from underneath his jacket and asked Harper to hide it. Harper declined because he was on parole and feared going back to prison. He told Holt to get out and run. After a brief vehicular pursuit, Harper turned onto Leishman Avenue. Holt, still holding the pistol, jumped out of the vehicle and ran. Harper saw a police officer chase Holt. He then closed the passenger door and drove back to his house on Kenneth Avenue.

Nicole Drum, who resided at 1237 Leishman Avenue, testified that she heard gunshots and went to her window. Directly across from her home is a parking lot and the City Reach Church. She observed someone running down the alley behind the church parking lot. Video footage from Drum's home and the church were obtained, which together showed the following. Officer Shaw's patrol vehicle is seen pursuing a Jeep, which disappears from the camera's view. Moments later, a male who cannot be clearly identified runs on the sidewalk with Officer Shaw pursuing at a close distance. Both individuals can be seen turning into the church parking lot. A muzzle flash is seen, but the footage does not otherwise indicate anything about the shooting.

Officer James Noble testified that he heard Officer Shaw report on the radio that a vehicle was failing to yield. Officer Noble responded to the given location, which was one block over and parallel to Officer Noble's police car. Officer Shaw reported that the vehicle turned onto Leishman Avenue and "[a]t some point he had indicated that he had one running, which I believe was a foot pursuit in progress." N.T., 11/4/2019, at 71. Officer Noble then proceeded to the 1200 block of Leishman, which was the last location given by Officer Shaw. As he arrived at the intersection of Catalpa and Leishman, he heard several gunshots. Officer Noble then exited his vehicle and quickly located Officer Shaw, who was on the ground. He went to render aid and observed that Officer Shaw's firearm holster still had its flap closed, meaning that it had not been drawn.1 Despite emergency measures, Officer Shaw died. Jennifer Hammers, M.D., performed the autopsy and testified to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Officer Shaw primarily died from blood loss, with the accumulation of blood outside of his lungs and within the chest cavity as a secondary cause. N.T., 11/7/2019, at 781.

Multiple police forces and agencies investigated. Thomas Klawinski, an agent employed by the Office of Attorney General, told the jury that at approximately 9:30 p.m. he received word that a cell phone had been found on Victoria Avenue, which runs parallel to Leishman Avenue and is separated from Leishman Avenue by

273 A.3d 524

Equator Alley. Agent Klawinski retrieved the cell phone, which was powered on and appeared operational, from the backyard of 1204 Victoria Avenue. The straight-line distance between Officer Shaw's body and the yard was measured as approximately 165 yards. N.T., 11/5/2019, at 184. Meanwhile, authorities quickly closed in on Harper based on the license plate relayed by Officer Shaw. Detective Ray Dupilka of the Westmoreland County District Attorney's office received a call at approximately 10:30 p.m. informing him that the Jeep had been located at 1105 Kenneth Avenue. Detective Dupilka then proceeded to that address, where officers had already contacted Harper and Harvin.

Harper and Harvin both testified at trial that they jointly decided to lie and tell the police that Harvin had been driving the Jeep. The next day, she told police that she had lied, and that Harper was the driver. Harper eventually admitted to driving the Jeep and claimed that the passenger was known on the street as "Reese." Harper denied that he was in regular communication with Reese. The next morning, authorities searched the phone recovered from the backyard of 1204 Victoria Avenue and learned that the device had been in contact with Harper's phone on multiple occasions on November 17. Harper was then arrested.

At that point, Harper provided more details, including identifying the passenger as Holt. He indicated that after closing the passenger door, he parked the Jeep at home because he knew the police had the license plate and would find the vehicle. Id. at 276. He then took Harvin's Nissan to 1206 Victoria Avenue where he saw Holt standing in the doorway. Holt said, "I'm fucked ... I dropped my phone." Id . at 295. Harper took Holt to another location then returned to Kenneth Avenue.

Multiple people testified to Holt visiting 1206 Victoria Avenue shortly after Officer Shaw was shot. Michael Luffey and his fiancée, Holly Clemons, lived there along with Lakita Cain, Cain's daughter Taylor Mitchell, and Cain's niece Antoinette Strong. Luffey testified that Mitchell and Holt were in a relationship and that Holt stayed over most evenings. The night of the shooting, Luffey and Clemons came home and saw Holt on the second floor. Luffey observed Mitchell trying to bandage Holt's right hand, which was bleeding. Holt left within thirty minutes of Luffey's arrival. Clemons testified that Holt appeared nervous and was pacing. He left and "got into some type of dark-colored vehicle" and did not return. N.T., 11/6/2019, at 493. Antoinette Strong testified that she was inside the home and heard gunshots outside. N.T., 11/7/2019, at 661. Approximately three minutes later, she heard knocking. Id . She opened the backdoor and Holt asked if Lakita Cain was home. Id . at 664. Holt came in and went to the basement, which did not function as a living space. A few minutes later, Holt went upstairs to Cain's room. Strong returned to her room and did not see Holt again. Id . at 665-66.

The Commonwealth also presented evidence suggesting that Holt made efforts to have others remove evidence from 1206 Victoria Avenue.2 Luffey testified that on November 18, 2017, he came home in the afternoon and saw Lisa Harrington, a relative of Holt's, speaking to Cain. After smoking a cigarette on the porch, Luffey saw "Lisa ... taking a paper bag out of

273 A.3d 525

the house[.]" N.T., 11/6/2019, at 426. Harrington then left. Clemons also testified to this interaction, saying that she was in the residence when Harrington arrived. Cain "ma[de] a...

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