Commonwealth v. Johnson, No. 701 CAP

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtJustice WECHT.
Citation139 A.3d 1257
Docket NumberNo. 701 CAP
Decision Date20 June 2016
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. William A. JOHNSON, Appellant.

139 A.3d 1257

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
v.
William A. JOHNSON, Appellant.

No. 701 CAP

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Submitted July 1, 2015.
Decided June 20, 2016.


139 A.3d 1262

Victor J. Abreu Jr., Esq., Federal Public Defender's Office, Stuart Brian Lev, Esq., Defender Association of Philadelphia, James H. Moreno, Esq., Federal Community Defender Office, Eastern District of PA, for William A. Johnson.

Hugh J. Burns, Esq., Peter Carr, Esq., Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Esq., Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, JJ.

Justice Wecht delivers the Opinion of the Court, except with respect to Part IV(D). Justices Baer and Dougherty join the opinion in full. Justices Todd and Donohue join the opinion, except with respect to Part IV(D), and Justice Todd files a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Donohue. Chief Justice Saylor joins Parts I, II, III, and IV(A), (E) and (F) of the opinion and files a concurring opinion.

139 A.3d 1263

OPINION

Justice WECHT.

In this capital case, William Johnson appeals the lower court's denial of his petition for post-conviction relief and denial of an evidentiary hearing on that petition.1 Johnson raises seven claims. As to the latter six of those listed issues, Johnson has not demonstrated that he is entitled to relief. In a portion of the first of his seven issues, Johnson alleges that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate, discover, and present two alibi witnesses at trial. With respect to that claim alone, Johnson has demonstrated that a genuine issue of material fact exists such that the PCRA court should have held an evidentiary hearing. Hence, we vacate the PCRA court's order on that claim, and we remand this case to the PCRA court for an ineffectiveness hearing on the alibi issue alone.

I. Background

To resolve Johnson's post-conviction issues, we first must provide a detailed description of the facts that were developed at his 1992 murder trial, as well as a recitation of the relevant procedural events that preceded this opinion. In 1991, the Commonwealth charged Johnson with first-degree murder, 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(a), criminal conspiracy, 18 Pa.C.S. § 903, possessing an instrument of crime, 18 Pa.C.S. § 907, and recklessly endangering another person, 18 Pa.C.S. § 2705. Those charges concerned the June 10, 1993 homicide of John McDonald on a street in Philadelphia. The Commonwealth filed similar charges against Robert Holmes and Lamont Bruce. The three defendants were tried together before a jury.

The following is a summary of the relevant evidence presented by the Commonwealth at Johnson's capital jury trial.

During the early morning hours of June 10, 1991, Sonya Carr, who was engaged to be married to the victim John McDonald, was talking to, and listening to music with, Nancy Jennings, Paul McDonald (the victim's uncle), Al McDonald, and two individuals named Billy2 and Rocky on the porch of 4837 Marion Street in Philadelphia. Some of the individuals in this group were drinking beer. Carr did not know the surnames of Billy or Rocky. At one point during the gathering, the home's electrical power suddenly went out. Paul McDonald went inside and then downstairs to flip the tripped circuit breaker back into the on position. Carr explained at trial what happened while Paul McDonald was inside the house:

We were talking on the porch and we were listening to music, and Billy grabbed my butt. Billy was trying to blame it on Rocky, and Rocky knew that Billy did it and I knew that Billy did it and I told Billy, no, that's violating me and not to do it, and Paul McDonald also told him not to do it.

Notes of Testimony (“N.T.”), 5/27/1992, Vol. I, at 54. Upset by the incident, Carr went inside the house. Paul McDonald, the victim's uncle, came back outside and spoke to Billy about the incident. Billy denied that he had touched Carr. He accused Rocky of being the culprit.

139 A.3d 1264

The victim arrived at the residence a short time later. Carr met the victim at his vehicle and explained what had happened on the porch. Visibly angered, the victim told Carr to get into the vehicle, and the two drove up and down the street looking for Billy and Rocky.

The victim found Rocky nearby and chased him until Rocky ran into a nearby house. Lamont Bruce (also known as Wayne), who was one of Johnson's co-defendants, approached the victim and told him that his aggressive and accusatory behavior was disrespectful to Bruce's aunt, who apparently owned the residence into which Rocky had fled. The victim explained that he did not mean to be disrespectful, but that he only wanted to locate the person who had touched Carr inappropriately. Bruce grew angrier, and stated that “I am going to have to have you knocked off.” N.T., 5/28/1992, at 6.

The victim returned to his vehicle and retrieved a car phone. As he walked, the victim saw Billy and confronted him, threatening Billy with physical violence if he touched Carr again. N.T., 5/27/1992, Vol. II, at 81. The victim and Billy immediately began arguing about whether Billy had touched Carr's buttocks. Billy denied fondling Carr. The victim removed the chain that he was wearing around his neck and the rings on his fingers, acts that the people on the aunt's porch recognized as a step in preparation for a fight. Paul McDonald pulled the victim away to prevent the fight that was about to ensue. Billy then fled the scene.

Bruce remained at the scene and continued to argue with the victim, repeating his prior assertions that the victim was being disrespectful by being aggressive on his aunt's porch. The victim went to his vehicle and removed a two-by-four piece of lumber from the trunk, placing it under his car. Bruce, believing that the victim was going to the car to retrieve a weapon, stated that “this nigger wants to die tonight.” Id. at 53. By this point, someone had called the police, who had arrived in a marked police van. Paul McDonald and his brother-in-law, Ardell McDaniel, took the victim a few houses away to talk to the police. After that discussion, the police left the scene.

Soon after the police departed, Carr looked toward the parking area of a Pep Boys automotive service station and noticed a white Chevrolet Blazer in the empty lot. She also noticed Johnson and Robert Holmes, another of Johnson's co-defendants, walking from the Blazer toward Bruce, who was on the porch of his aunt's nearby residence. Johnson and Holmes talked to Bruce for a brief period, and then approached Carr and Jennings. One of the men yelled out to Carr, “where is your punk boyfriend now?” Id. at 56. Jennings sent for Paul McDonald, believing that something dangerous was afoot.

Ardell McDaniel arrived first. Holmes asked if Ardell McDaniel was one of the people involved in the earlier argument. Someone yelled out that he was not one of them. One of the men in the Johnson–Holmes–Bruce group then yelled to Carr and Jennings that “he didn't give a fuck about [the victim's] bitch, and the man was going to die tonight.” N.T., 5/27/1992, Vol. I, at 59. Carr then took the radio that the group had been listening to into the house at 4837 Marion Street, so that she and Jennings could go inside and shut the door and windows. When she came back outside, she saw Paul McDonald walking back towards the 4837 Marion Street house with the victim walking behind him. When Paul McDonald arrived, Holmes and Bruce were standing nearby. Some witnesses reported seeing Holmes brandishing a gun. Bruce told Paul McDonald that he hoped that the victim would die. Paul McDonald responded by telling Bruce that

139 A.3d 1265

the victim had calmed down, and that violence was unnecessary. The victim then arrived at the residence. Notably, all of the Commonwealth's witnesses, including police officers who had interacted with him, stated that the victim had calmed down by this point and just wanted to resolve the situation. Nonetheless, Johnson ran between two parked cars and fired approximately six shots at the victim. Johnson, Holmes, and Bruce then ran from the scene.

Meanwhile, Carr had reentered the house to take the radio upstairs, whereupon she heard gunshots. She ran outside, and saw the victim fall to the ground. People scattered from the scene, and Carr saw a group of men running toward the white Blazer.

Carr did not see anyone fire the shots, nor did she see anyone carrying a gun. Two days after the shooting, in an attempt to have Carr identify the men involved in the victim's death, police detectives provided Carr with two envelopes, each of which contained eight photographs of black men. Carr was unable to make any positive identifications from the photographs. However, during her trial testimony, Carr identified Johnson, Bruce, and Holmes as the perpetrators of the murder.

Nancy Jennings, who was Paul McDonald's wife and the victim's aunt by marriage, had departed the scene after the victim and Billy argued about whether Billy had touched Carr's buttocks. Jennings returned when she saw the white Blazer pull into the Pep Boys lot. She...

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51 practice notes
  • Commonwealth v. Edwards, No. 436 EDA 2015
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • January 19, 2018
    ...chance is extremely small. Statistics alone are insufficient to prove discriminatory intent. Commonwealth v. Johnson , 635 Pa. 665, 139 A.3d 1257, 1282–1283 (2016) (citations omitted). Statistics can be used, however, when considering the totality of the circumstances to determine if the Co......
  • Commonwealth v. Brown, No. 728 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • October 17, 2018
    ...of record or upon legitimate inferences drawn from evidence of record. Id. at 43-44 (citing Commonwealth v. Johnson , 635 Pa. 665, 139 A.3d 1257, 1275 (2016) ). Brown further claims that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to this portion of the prosecutor's closing argument......
  • Commonwealth v. Reid, No. 752 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • August 18, 2020
    ...most recently in Commonwealth v. Rivera , 650 Pa. 169, 199 A.3d 365 (2018) ; see also Commonwealth v. William Johnson , 635 Pa. 665, 139 A.3d 1257, 1282-83 (2016) ; Commonwealth v. Blakeney , 631 Pa. 1, 108 A.3d 739, 768 (2014).Reid urges this Court to break from Uderra ’s requirement that ......
  • Commonwealth v. Cousar, No. 704 CAP
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • February 22, 2017
    ...slip op. at 24, citing Commonwealth v. Kloiber , 378 Pa. 412, 106 A.2d 820 (1954) ; see Commonwealth v. Johnson, ––– Pa. ––––, ––––, 139 A.3d 1257, 1281 (2016) (defendant entitled to a Kloiber charge instructing jury identification testimony must be received with caution where witness was n......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
53 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Edwards, No. 436 EDA 2015
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • January 19, 2018
    ...chance is extremely small. Statistics alone are insufficient to prove discriminatory intent. Commonwealth v. Johnson , 635 Pa. 665, 139 A.3d 1257, 1282–1283 (2016) (citations omitted). Statistics can be used, however, when considering the totality of the circumstances to determine if the Co......
  • Commonwealth v. Brown, No. 728 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • October 17, 2018
    ...of record or upon legitimate inferences drawn from evidence of record. Id. at 43-44 (citing Commonwealth v. Johnson , 635 Pa. 665, 139 A.3d 1257, 1275 (2016) ). Brown further claims that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to this portion of the prosecutor's closing argument......
  • Commonwealth v. Reid, No. 752 CAP
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • August 18, 2020
    ...most recently in Commonwealth v. Rivera , 650 Pa. 169, 199 A.3d 365 (2018) ; see also Commonwealth v. William Johnson , 635 Pa. 665, 139 A.3d 1257, 1282-83 (2016) ; Commonwealth v. Blakeney , 631 Pa. 1, 108 A.3d 739, 768 (2014).Reid urges this Court to break from Uderra ’s requirement that ......
  • Commonwealth v. Cousar, No. 704 CAP
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • February 22, 2017
    ...slip op. at 24, citing Commonwealth v. Kloiber , 378 Pa. 412, 106 A.2d 820 (1954) ; see Commonwealth v. Johnson, ––– Pa. ––––, ––––, 139 A.3d 1257, 1281 (2016) (defendant entitled to a Kloiber charge instructing jury identification testimony must be received with caution where witness was n......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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