Commonwealth v. Sanchez

Decision Date21 December 2011
Citation36 A.3d 24
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Abraham SANCHEZ, Jr., Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court


Robert J. Kirwan II, Cirba & Kirwan, P.C., Reading, for Abraham Sanchez Jr.

Craig William Stedman, Lancaster, Christopher Peter Larsen, Lancaster County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, PA Office of Attorney General, Harrisburg, Todd P. Kriner, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.



Chief Justice CASTILLE.

We review the direct appeal of Abraham Sanchez, Jr. (appellant) from the sentence of death imposed on March 30, 2009, following a trial by jury before the Honorable Joseph C. Madenspacher of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas. Appellant raises eight claims of trial court error regarding aspects of the guilt and penalty phases of his trial, including a challenge to the timing and the use of the jury in adjudicating his claim of death penalty ineligibility under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002). In Atkins, the U.S. Supreme Court held that execution of the mentally retarded violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the conviction and judgment of sentence. In addition, we take this opportunity to devise a procedure for implementing the Atkins decision in Pennsylvania. See Section VII, infra.

Case History

On May 2, 2007, appellant and his friends Lorenzo Schrijver, Robert Baker, and Emru Kebede met at the home of Susan Bass, Baker's then-fiancee, to plan a robbery. The four men gathered almost daily in the basement of the Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, home, where Bass shared a room with Baker; appellant and Schrijver were closest to each other. Schrijver, a citizen of the Netherlands and recent arrival in the United States, was dating and later became engaged to appellant's sister, Enid Orona. Appellant, Schrijver, Orona, and Orona's son lived together. Appellant and Schrijver had met Baker two months earlier, at a Burger King that Orona managed and where Schrijver's grandmother worked; Baker and Kebede had been friends for a few years.

Appellant and Schrijver discussed the robbery as a means to finance their burgeoning marijuana sale operation. When Bass returned home from work on May 2, 2007, she found appellant and Schrijver cleaning and “playing” with a gun that the two had left with Baker a few weeks earlier. Appellant had persuaded Schrijver in early April 2007 to purchase the handgun—a .22 caliber Smith & Wesson black revolver—from one of appellant's acquaintances. After one of their marijuana buyers was arrested, appellant and Schrijver had asked Baker to store the gun and some drugs. Baker kept the gun in a shoe box under Bass's bed. At the beginning of May 2007, appellant and Schrijver removed the gun from Bass's house because they learned Baker had been using it to shoot trees and street signs. Appellant and Schrijver stored the gun under the passenger seat of Schrijver's car, a green Geo Metro hatchback.

The night of May 2, 2007, after deciding to go through with the robbery, appellant and Schrijver asked Baker and Kebede to join them. Eventually, the four men agreed to either burglarize a home or break into a car. All obtained gloves. At the time, appellant was dressed in long black jeans and a red short-sleeve shirt with a gray logo on the front. Schrijver was wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans, and Baker was dressed in all-black. Appellant and his companions left Bass's house in Schrijver's Geo Metro and drove towards Elizabethtown.

After driving for a while, Schrijver noticed an isolated house with a light on and an elderly man, Ray Diener (the “victim”), sitting at a table inside. Schrijver parked the car and the four men walked up to the victim's house; Schrijver rang the door bell. The victim turned on the porch light and came to the door. Appellant, Baker, and Kebede remained hidden in the shadows on the right and left of the door. Schrijver asked to use the phone, telling the victim that his car had broken down. While the victim returned to the house to bring his cell phone, Schrijver handed the gun to appellant and prepared to attack the victim.

The victim returned, and Schrijver testified that he took the phone and pretended to make a call because he was uncertain how to proceed. At that point, appellant came out of the shadows, pointed the gun at Mr. Diener and told him to lie down. The victim grabbed the gun and screamed “No, no, no.” The victim and appellant wrestled over the gun. Appellant discharged the gun, and the bullet hit the victim in the groin area and fractured his hip. The victim fell down, and began crying and pleading for help. After the shot, Baker and Kebede fled towards Schrijver's Geo Metro. Schrijver stayed and told appellant to shoot the victim again. Appellant put the gun in the victim's mouth and threatened him to keep quiet but the victim continued crying. Appellant backed up and shot the victim in the chest.

The victim was still alive when his wife, Barbara Diener, who was awakened by her husband's screams, came outside. Mrs. Diener saw her husband on the ground and heard Schrijver say “There's the wife.” She ran back inside, locked the doors, and called 911. Mrs. Diener told the 911 operator that two men were trying to open the door. Then, appellant, who was standing over the victim, shot the victim again, through the neck and shoulder. Schrijver fled towards his car, quickly followed by appellant, and the four men drove away. Mrs. Diener went back outside, covered her husband's body, and sat with him until the police arrived.

Appellant and his companions drove towards Elizabethtown. Appellant wiped down the gun and threw the spent shell casings out of the car window, one by one. Schrijver asked appellant how he felt about shooting a man, and appellant answered that he felt like a “G”—a gangster. N.T., 3/3/2009, at 1641. According to Schrijver, appellant looked “excited” and showed no remorse. Schrijver gave appellant Mr. Diener's cell phone and suggested calling 911. At the suggestion of the other men, however, appellant turned off the cell phone. Then, appellant and his companions went to pick up Orona's son from the home of Schrijver's grandmother. From there, the men drove to an abandoned house where appellant and Schrijver normally hid drugs, and appellant got out and hid the gun under a concrete block on the floor of the abandoned house. Schrijver dropped off Baker and Kebede at Baker's house, and went with appellant to pick up Orona from work. Outside the Burger King, Schrijver asked appellant again about how it felt to shoot somebody. Appellant “shrugged it off,” and told Schrijver that, at the third shot, he saw the victim's “hair fly up and the eyes rolling back in the head.” N.T., 3/3/2009, at 1649. According to Schrijver, appellant was acting “tough” and bragging about his actions.

Barbara Diener called 911 at approximately 10:45 p.m., and police officers were dispatched to her home in West Donegal Township, on the outskirts of Elizabethtown. Officers Shuey and Cleland arrived at the scene and found Mrs. Diener on her porch, kneeling and holding the victim's body. Officer Shuey took Mrs. Diener inside and surveyed the property for the possible presence of perpetrators. Meanwhile, Officer Cleland approached the victim who was lying face-down in the flower bed, with the lower half of his body on the porch steps. Cleland concluded that the victim was dead and noted that blood was coming from wounds caused by a small caliber weapon to the victim's chest and thigh. Dr. Newman, a local assistant coroner and neighbor of the victim, arrived at the scene and confirmed Officer Cleland's observations. Subsequently, other emergency personnel and police arrived to begin the investigation, and secure and process the scene.

The main investigator, Police Officer Wahl, interviewed Mrs. Diener, who stated that, when she came outside to the porch, she was confused and her focus was on her injured husband. Mrs. Diener said that she briefly heard a man addressing another person, from which she concluded that there were two perpetrators. She described them as male, 5'8? or 5'9? in height. According to Mrs. Diener, they were white because they weren't black. I don't know if they were Mexican or [H]ispanic or Spanish.” Mrs. Diener also stated that one of the perpetrators may have been wearing a red T-shirt and khakis, but she was unable to describe his facial features. A sketch artist drew a composite from Mrs. Diener's description of a second perpetrator.

Following the murder, appellant spoke to several persons about the night of May 2, 2007. On May 4, while he was riding in Schrijver's Geo Metro, appellant opened the glove box and showed the other passengers the victim's cell phone, saying it was [his] new cell phone.” According to Bass, who was in the car, appellant boasted that he shot the victim “for fun” in the foot, stomach, and head. Around the same time, appellant also confessed to his friend Marcus Pendleton while the two played videogames. Appellant told Pendleton that he and his friends robbed and shot the victim, taking his cell phone. Finally, appellant described the night of the murder to his Burger King co-worker, Chad Forry, and admitted to shooting the victim three times. According to Forry, appellant said that he was trying “to shut the nigga up.” N.T., 3/5/09, at 2129. Forry described appellant as smiling when he told the story. Bass, Pendleton, and Forry gave the police written statements after appellant and his companions were arrested.

The police arrested appellant, Schrijver, Baker, and Kebede on May 22, 2007. Appellant, Schrijver, and Baker gave the police statements regarding the events of May 2, 2007, and minimized their involvement in the victim's murder....

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2 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Knight
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • November 18, 2020
    ...intellectual functioning and deficiencies in adaptive skills that establish mental retardation. Id. at 631. In Commonwealth v. Sanchez , 614 Pa. 1, 36 A.3d 24 (2001), this Court held that a "colorable Atkins issue" should be submitted to the jury for a penalty phase decision. Id. at 62. How......
  • State v. Grell, CR–09–0199–AP.
    • United States
    • Arizona Supreme Court
    • January 9, 2013
    ...Constitution's proscription on executing defendants who have mental retardation. See536 U.S. at 351, 122 S.Ct. 2242;Commonwealth v. Sanchez, 36 A.3d 24, 60–61 (Pa.2011) (discussing different approaches states have taken to determination of mental retardation). 1. For a more detailed stateme......

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