Commonwealth v. Luster

CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Citation71 A.3d 1029,2013 PA Super 204
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Aaron Thomas LUSTER, Appellant.
Decision Date23 July 2013

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Scott Coffey, Pittsburgh, for appellant.

Michael W. Streily, Deputy District Attorney, Sandra Preuhs, Assistant District Attorney, Pittsburgh, for Commonwealth, appellee.

BEFORE: STEVENS, P.J., BENDER, BOWES, GANTMAN, DONOHUE, ALLEN, OLSON, OTT, and WECHT, JJ.

OPINION BY ALLEN, J.:

Aaron Thomas Luster (Appellant) appeals from the trial court's order denying his petition for relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), 42 Pa.C.S. § 9541 et seq. Claiming ineffective assistance of counsel, Appellant seeks relief from an aggregate sentence of 14 to 28 years' imprisonment, which was imposed following his conviction by a jury of third degree murder and murder of an unborn child.1 We affirm.

We glean the following facts and procedural history from the record. On January 28, 2003, at approximately 2:30 a.m., the corpse of Christine Karcher, (“victim”), was discovered by police on Route 60 in the Moon Township/Coraopolis area of Allegheny County. At that time, the victim was approximately seven months pregnant. She was romantically involved with Appellant, but lived with Chester Bell. Bell had been the victim's boyfriend for ten years. She had informed Bell that Appellant was the father of her unborn child.

On January 27, 2003, at approximately 9:00 p.m., Bell had a drink with the victim at a Coraopolis bar known as the Black Stones. The victim was a drug user and a heavy drinker. The victim left the bar stating that she was going to play cards with some friends. About one hour later, Bell went home and fell asleep. At approximately 3:30 a.m. on January 28, 2003, Bell awoke and discovered that the door to his residence was open, and that his Dodge Dynasty, cell phone, and a red Toyota Camry belonging to his employer were missing. Bell assumed that the victim had borrowed the missing items and went back to sleep. When he awoke the following morning, the items were still missing. Bell was unable to reach the victim on the cell phone. Bell contacted his employer, and the red Toyota Camry was reported as stolen. Later that day, Bell learned that the police wanted to speak with him in connection with the victim's death.

At approximately 10:30 p.m., on January 27, 2003, Eric Branaugh, the victim's friend, was walking home after work when he encountered the victim driving the Dodge Dynasty. The victim appeared drunk, nervous, and afraid. The victim explained to Branaugh that she and Appellant had argued, and that she feared Appellant was planning to harm her. Although Branaugh refused the victim's request to accompany her to a bar, he gave her his telephone number and told her that she could call him.

Between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. on January 27, 2003, Michael Smith arrived at Chez Lounge, a bar near the Black Stones. Smith knew the victim and Appellant. Smith saw the victim drinking at Chez Lounge. Sometime before 1:00 a.m. on January 28, 2003, Smith accompanied the victim to a nearby bar named Wayne's Lounge, and then back to Chez Lounge. During their return drive to Chez Lounge, the victim's cell phone “kept ringing,” but she “kept ... turning it off.” N.T., 3/15–19/04, at 109. Smith and the victim encountered Appellant when they arrived at the parking lot of Chez Lounge between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. on January 28, 2003. Appellant appeared to be angry with Smith and the victim. Appellant approached Smith with clenched fists and accused Smith of having sex with the victim. Smith explained to Appellant that they were merely friends. Appellant then said to the victim, [G]et the f––– out of the car, now, you bitch.” Id. at 111. Smith described Appellant as “real angry” and reported that Appellant also said “get the F out of the car, are you F'ing my girlfriend, what the hell, I've been calling you, what the F.” Id. at 112. Smith entered the bar after being assured by the victim that she was “okay.” Id. at 111. Smith exited the bar approximately five minutes later and noted that Appellant and the victim had left. Smith observed that the Dodge Dynasty that the victim had been driving was in the parking lot, while the red Toyota Camry that Appellant had been driving was gone.

Following her departure with Appellant, the victim made several calls to 911 with Bell's cell phone. The conversations with the 911 operator began at 1:52 a.m. on January 28, 2003. During the 911 calls, the victim was either moaning and crying, or desperately pleading for help while a male voice was heard in the background. The recordings of those 911 calls were played for the jury and they lasted twelve to fifteen minutes. Bell listened to the 911 calls and identified the male voice as belonging to Appellant. Id. at 377. On January 28, 2003 at 2:09 a.m., state police in the area of Route 60 were advised “to be on the lookout for a red Toyota Camry with a female possibly being assaulted on the interstate.” Id. at 190.

The victim also telephoned Branaugh. In that telephone conversation, the victim told Branaugh that Appellant was trying to kill her. Branaugh overheard Appellant in the background threatening to kill the victim. Branaugh was unable to ascertain where the victim was calling from and he did not obtain help for her.

At approximately 2:15 a.m. on January 28, 2003, the victim was lying prone on Route 60 when she was struck by a vehicle driven by James Caleffi. Caleffi had a few beers prior to the incident and thought that he had hit a deer or other object. He stopped his vehicle in a hotel parking lot nearby. Caleffi phoned 911 to report that there was an obstruction on the road. Police discovered the victim's corpse on Route 60 at approximately 2:30 a.m. Most of the victim's brain was on the road next to her body. Her unborn child had died as well. A police accident reconstructionist was immediately dispatched to the scene, and his subsequent investigation included a review of the accident scene, Caleffi's car, and the red Toyota Camry. He concluded that Caleffi ran over the victim's head while she was lying on the road.

Sometime in the early morning hours of January 28, 2003, Appellant gave the red Toyota Camry to James Dixon in exchange for crack cocaine. During the same time frame, Appellant used Bell's cell phone to call his wife, Cherryl Ann Luster (Wife). Appellant asked his wife, “will you love me no matter what I did[?] Id. at 132. Wife answered affirmatively, but Appellant refused to tell her what he had done. Later in the day on January 28, 2003, Wife saw Appellant at his mother's home. Wife testified that she observed Appellant kneeling over a bed with his hands on his face. Appellant would not respond to Wife's inquiries about why he appeared upset. Police then arrived at the residence.

Appellant gave two statements to police. On January 28, 2003, at approximately 5:00 p.m., State Trooper Kevin S. Scott went to Appellant's home. Appellant agreed to accompany Trooper Scott to the police station. Trooper Scott testified that during the trip, Appellant asked Trooper Scott whether the investigation was “about the girl that got hit on 60 last night.” Id. at 399. Trooper Scott responded affirmatively and said that police were attempting to ascertain a timeline of the victim's whereabouts the previous night.

Trooper Scott further testified that Appellant stated he had been “partying in Coraopolis” with the victim, that they had gone to Bell's home “to get some money for crack,” and that the victim had left Appellant at Bell's home. Id. Appellant reported to Trooper Scott that following the victim's departure, Appellant took the keys to the red Toyota Camry and Bell's cell phone and began looking for her. Id. at 399–400. Appellant told Trooper Scott that Appellant found the victim with another man. Id. at 400. Trooper Scott testified that Appellant explained that “there was an argument” and Appellant “put [the victim] into the Camry and said we're going to go to Carnegie [where Appellant and the victim had an apartment together] to try to work things out.” Id. Appellant explained to Trooper Scott that the “fighting intensified” while they were on the way to Carnegie. Id. According to Trooper Scott, Appellant “said that [the victim] didn't want to go to Carnegie so he was going to put her out of the car.” Id. Trooper Scott stated that Appellant's exact words were that he planned to “put her out of the car.” Id. Appellant relayed that at that point, Appellant and the victim observed a police car and “the fighting relaxed,” but as soon as they “passed the police car, the fighting got more intense.” Id. at 400–401. Appellant “said that is when he put her out of the car. Slammed the gear shift into park and put her out of the car.” Id. Appellant offered to show Trooper Scott “where he put her out of the car.” Id. at 401. “After [Appellant] told [Trooper Scott] that he put her out of the car four times, then he showed [Trooper Scott] where it occurred.” Id. at 401. Appellant showed Trooper Scott that Appellant removed the victim from the Camry at the point where the victim's body was found. Id. Appellant concluded his conversation with Trooper Scott by relating that after he removed the victim from the car, he went to another section of Pittsburgh to purchase crack cocaine. Id. at 401–402.

State Trooper Pierre Wilson testified that Appellant agreed to speak with police once Appellant arrived at the police station. A tape recording of this interview was played for the jury at trial. Id. at 379. That interview was not placed in the trial transcript, but trial counsel's closing arguments indicate that Appellant told police that Appellant and the victim were arguing while they were traveling along Route 60 in the red Toyota Camry. Id. at 455. According to Appellant, the victim “threw the car into park,” propelling Appellant and the...

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