Commonwealth v. Mitchell

Decision Date30 December 2003
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Isaac MITCHELL, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Louis Theodore Savino, Philadelphia, for Isaac Mitchell, Appellant.

Hugh J. Burns, Philadelphia, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, for the Com. of PA, Appellee.



Chief Justice CAPPY.

This is a direct appeal from the imposition of two sentences of death. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711. On February 22, 1999, Isaac Mitchell, Sr. and his two sons, Isaac, Jr. (Hasan) and Yusef, were tried before a jury, for the murders of Jamika Wright and Derrick Washington. Yusef Mitchell was acquitted of all charges prior to the case being given to the jury. Hasan Mitchell was found not guilty on all counts.

Isaac Mitchell, Sr., Appellant herein, was convicted of two counts of first degree murder, possession of an instrument of crime and aggravated assault.1 After further deliberation the jury found the existence of three aggravating circumstances as to each murder and no mitigating circumstances.2 Appellant was sentenced to death on both counts of murder in the first degree. This appeal followed from the imposition of sentence.

Although Appellant does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence with regard to his convictions for first-degree murder, we are required to undertake an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence in all capital cases. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n. 3 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983). The standard for reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence is whether the evidence admitted at trial and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as the verdict winner, is sufficient to support all the elements of the offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Miller, 541 Pa. 531, 664 A.2d 1310, 1314 (1995).

In order to sustain a conviction for first-degree murder, the evidence must establish that a human being was unlawfully killed, that the accused did the killing, and that the killing was done in an intentional, deliberate, and premeditated way. 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(a), (d); Commonwealth v. Mitchell, 528 Pa. 546, 599 A.2d 624, 626 (1991). It is the specific intent to kill which distinguishes murder in the first degree from lesser grades of the crime. Commonwealth v. Smith, 548 Pa. 65, 694 A.2d 1086, 1088 (1997),cert. denied, 525 U.S. 847, 119 S.Ct. 118, 142 L.Ed.2d 95 (1998). The use of a deadly weapon on a vital part of a human body is sufficient to establish the specific intent to kill. Commonwealth v. Walker, 540 Pa. 80, 656 A.2d 90, 95,cert. denied, 516 U.S. 854, 116 S.Ct. 156, 133 L.Ed.2d 100 (1995).

On November 9, 1997, Hasan Mitchell and Montrell Washington were among a group of individuals that attended a professional basketball game in Philadelphia. After the game, Hasan and Montrell returned to the neighborhood where Hasan lived, at Montrose Street and Hall Place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Montrell had previously lived in the same neighborhood and returned there after the game to visit some of his relatives. Hasan and Montrell exchanged differing views as to the merits of certain basketball players. The exchange of opinions became heated and Montrell slapped Hasan. Before the two men became further engaged in a physical dispute, friends intervened to separate them, and Montrell walked away from the area. Hasan called the Philadelphia police to report the physical encounter between himself and Montrell. A patrol car was dispatched to the scene, and Hasan explained to Officer Revell that Montrell struck him during an argument. As Hasan was not in need of medical attention, the officer explained that the matter would be a summary offense and directed Hasan on how to proceed with a private complaint. The discussion between Hasan and Officer Revell concluded at approximately 9:30 p.m.

About 10:00 p.m. Montrell was returning to his grandmother's house at 321 Hall Place, through the rear yard, when he observed that a small crowd had gathered. Montrell identified his brother Derrick, his cousin Jamika, and Appellant with his sons Yusef and Hasan; there was another man in the crowd who Montrell could not identify. As Montrell approached the group he observed Appellant fire a gun twice in the direction of Derrick. Montrell immediately turned away from Appellant and began to run. As he was running Montrell heard three more gunshots. Montrell was shot in the left shoulder. Montrell turned back towards the direction of the gunfire and saw Jamika lying on the ground and heard her crying. Montrell flagged down a car driven by a friend and was transported to a nearby hospital. The cause of death for both Derrick and Jamika was a gunshot wound to the chest, fired at close range, from the same gun that injured Montrell.

On November 18, 1997 Officer Garland of the Philadelphia police arrested Appellant. At the time of the arrest the officer asked Appellant if he knew why the police were looking for him; Appellant responded, "[y]eah, I got two bodies on me." (Trial Transcript, hereinafter "T.T.", 2/25/99, p. 41). Appellant added that he was glad about the arrest as he had planned to turn himself in to the police later that day. (T.T., 2/25/99, p. 44).

At trial, Appellant testified that he had gone to 321 Hall Place on the night of November 9, 1997, along with his two sons and his brother, Thomas Mitchell, to talk to Montrell about the earlier incident between Montrell and Hasan. While Appellant was talking to Derrick Washington, Montrell approached through the yard carrying a gun. Appellant turned and ran when he saw the gun. As he was running away, Appellant heard three gunshots. Appellant remained in hiding until his arrest, as he was afraid for his life. In reviewing the above evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, as the verdict winner, we find it was sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt to support Appellant's convictions for first degree murder in the deaths of Derrick Washington and Jamika Wright. 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(a), (d); Mitchell, supra.

In turning our attention to the issues raised by Appellant, we note initially that three of the six issues presented in his brief to this court raise questions as to the ineffectiveness of trial counsel. In Commonwealth v. Grant, 572 Pa. 48, 813 A.2d 726 (2002), this court overruled the requirement that claims of ineffectiveness of trial counsel must be raised at the first opportunity or said claims would be deemed waived. Grant examined the utility of this approach to ineffectiveness of counsel claims, and concluded that ineffectiveness of counsel claims are at their core collateral claims, and are best pursued through the avenue of post-conviction relief. Id. at 738. The new rule announced in Grant is retroactive to all cases that were pending at the time it was announced, where a claim of ineffectiveness was properly preserved. However, where a merits disposition of the claim was rendered in the intermediate appellate court or by the trial court, in cases brought on direct appeal, this court will address the claim on the merits. Commonwealth v. Bomar, 573 Pa. 426, 826 A.2d 831 (2003), 2003 Pa. Lexis 920 (2003). In Bomar, also a direct capital appeal, the trial court had conducted a post-trial hearing on the ineffectiveness claims and rendered a merits decision as to those issues, accordingly; this court proceeded to dispose of the ineffectiveness claims on the existing record rather than refer disposition of the claims to the collateral review process per Grant. Bomar, 826 A.2d at 853.

After the trial in this case, Appellant obtained new counsel, who prepared post-trial motions raising several claims of ineffectiveness as to trial counsel's performance. The trial judge died prior to disposition of the post-trial motions and another judge was assigned the case. There is no record of a hearing on post-trial motions. In its opinion, the post-trial court found no merit to any of the claims raised. The issues of ineffectiveness addressed and rejected by the post-trial judge do not exactly correspond to the claims raised by Appellant in his brief to this court.3 This disparity between the claims addressed by the post-trial judge and those raised in the current brief are not fatal to Appellant's claims as the doctrine of relaxed waiver, when applicable, permits Appellant to raise new claims of error for the first time before this court. See Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 454 A.2d 937 (1982),cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S.Ct. 2444, 77 L.Ed.2d 1327 (1983).4 Rather, the dilemma that is presented by the disparity between the claims that were addressed by the post-trial court in its opinion regarding post-trial motions and the claims raised in the current brief, is how to apply the decisions in Grant and Bomar to the circumstances of this case. Taking into account the strong preference set forth in Grant to postpone review of all ineffectiveness claims to the collateral process, and the limitation of the exception allowed in Bomar to consider only those ineffectiveness claims where the lower court conducted a hearing and provided a full consideration of the issue, we believe the claims raised in this case are best left to the collateral stage. Because the post-trial judge in this case was not also the trial judge, he did not have the benefit of observing trial counsel in action, there was no hearing on the allegations of ineffectiveness, and, as noted previously, there are subtle yet important differences in the claims as raised below and as now raised before this court. Accordingly, the allegations of ineffectiveness of trial counsel are dismissed without prejudice. Grant, 813 A.2d at 739.

We now turn to the remaining issues raised by Appellant. First, A...

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