Commonwealth v. Sanchez

Citation82 A.3d 943
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Alfonso SANCHEZ, Appellant.
Decision Date17 December 2013
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania


Stuart Brian Lev, Esq., Helen A. Marino, Esq., Defender Association of Philadelphia, for Alfonso Sanchez.

Thomas Gary Gambardella, Esq., Office of the District Attorney, Stephen B. Harris, Esq., Michelle Ann Henry, Esq., Robert J. Salzer, Esq., Maureen Flannery Spang, Esq., Bucks County District Attorney's Office, Amy Zapp, Esq., PA Office of Attorney General, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.



Justice McCAFFERY.

This is a direct appeal nunc pro tunc from a death sentence imposed after a jury convicted Appellant of two counts of first-degree murder for the shooting deaths of Mendez Thomas and Lisa Diaz, both of whom were killed by gunshots to the head fired at close range. The jury concluded, with respect to the circumstances of the murder of Mendez Thomas, that the aggravating factors did not outweigh the mitigating factors, and thus imposed a sentence of life imprisonment. With respect to the murder of Lisa Diaz, the jury concluded that the aggravating factors, which included that the killing occurred during perpetration of a felony burglary and that Appellant had murdered Mendez Thomas only seconds before, outweighed the mitigating circumstances. Thus, the jury imposed a sentence of death for that offense. The main issue presented in the present appeal is whether the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's verdicts of guilty with respect to burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary. Appellant argues that because there was insufficient evidence to prove that the killings had been committed during the perpetration of a felony, the jury considered a non-existing aggravating circumstance when it imposed the sentence of death. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

The facts, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict-winner, are that on October 16, 2007, Appellant and two co-conspirators, Alex Martinez (“Martinez”) and Steven Miranda (“Miranda”) (collectively “the trio”), spent the evening hours smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol at various locations in Philadelphia and Bucks County. At some point during the night, the trio decided that they would go to the Bucks County apartment of Mendez Thomas (“Thomas”) to assault him. Miranda arranged by phone to meet Thomas under the ruse of wanting to procure marijuana. Appellant drove the trio to Thomas's apartment in a tan Ford Explorer. When they arrived near midnight, Thomas and his paramour, Jessica Carmona (“Carmona”), who shared the apartment with Thomas and their two young children, were not home. Instead, Lisa Diaz (“Diaz”), the sister of Carmona and the girlfriend of Miranda, was in the apartment with the two children. She opened the door to Miranda and the trio entered.

Several minutes later, Thomas and Carmona arrived, and shortly thereafter, a physical and verbal altercation between Thomas and Appellant ensued during which Appellant displayed a gun. Thomas began to retreat down a hallway toward a bedroom. Appellant advanced into the hallway and shot Thomas in the head from a distance of six to ten inches, killing him instantly. Appellant emerged from the hallway, turned, and fired two shots at Diaz, one of which struck her in the shoulder, and she fell to the floor. Appellant then advanced to where she lay and shot her in the head. Prior to fleeing the apartment, Appellant fired a shot at Carmona, who was in a protective fetal position on the floor, shielding her two-year-old son beneath her. The bullet passed completely through Carmona's leg, and she was able to get up and call 911. She informed the dispatcher that numerous persons had been shot, identified “Alfonso” as the shooter, and stated that the shooting had been “a set-up.” Notes of Testimony (“N.T.”) Trial, 9/22/08, at 176.

The next day, Martinez and Miranda voluntarily surrendered themselves to police and gave statements that implicated Appellant as the shooter, and asserted that the purpose of their collective visit to the apartment had simply been to purchase marijuana, and not to assault anyone. Both men were charged with multiple counts of criminal homicide and related offenses including burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary for their roles in the events of the previous night. Appellant, meanwhile, had fled to Altoona, but soon returned to Horsham, Montgomery County, to the home of a boyhood friend. He was apprehended there on October 25, 2007, while attempting to conceal himself in an upper floor bathroom of that residence. Three days later, the police recovered the Ford Explorer that Appellant had been driving on the night of the killings. The vehicle was registered in the name of Appellant's mother, and a 9 mm. handgun, later determined to be the murder weapon, was retrieved from the rear passenger-side floor of the vehicle. Appellant was charged with multiple counts of criminal homicide and related offenses, including burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary.

Appellant, Martinez and Miranda each had separate counsel, and their joint preliminary hearing was scheduled for November 2, 2007. It was continued first until December 7, 2007, at the request of Appellant's counsel, Jack McMahon, and then twice more, both times at Mr. McMahon'srequest, until February 8, 2008. On that date, counsel for Appellant's co-defendants were present, but Mr. McMahon failed to appear; the Magisterial District Justice conducted the preliminary hearing despite Mr. McMahon's absence, and all charges against all defendants were held for court.

Thereafter, Mr. McMahon filed a motion requesting a remand for a preliminary hearing, and a hearing on the remand motion was scheduled for March 7, 2008. On that date, the court received a letter by facsimile indicating that Mr. McMahon was out of the country on a pre-paid vacation until March 15, 2008; the court dismissed the remand motion. Ultimately, despite the court's dismissal of the motion, the Commonwealth agreed to re-conduct Appellant's preliminary hearing. On May 22, 2008, a second preliminary hearing just for Appellant took place with counsel present, and the charges against Appellant, including burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary, were once again held for court.1

On September 30, 2008, after a seven-day long jury trial at which Appellant and Miranda were tried jointly, Appellant was found guilty of two counts of murder in the first-degree and fifteen related counts, including burglary, attempted homicide, aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of crime, criminal conspiracy (to commit criminal homicide, burglary, aggravated assault, and possession of an instrument of crime), flight to avoid apprehension, and recklessly endangering another person.2 On October 2, 2008, with respect to the murder of Lisa Diaz, the jury returned a sentence of death.


The Commonwealth's theory of the case was that Appellant, Miranda and Martinez had conspired to assault Thomas in his apartment using Miranda's association with Diaz and the ruse of attempting to obtain marijuana from Thomas to gain entry. The Commonwealth further theorized that once inside, during the assault on Thomas, Appellant, who had brought a handgun, shot three people, killing two of them. The defense theory of the case was that Appellant had only intended to obtain marijuana from Thomas, had no knowledge of any weapon, and was simply present at the scene when Miranda went on a homicidal rampage.

Dr. Ian Hood, the forensic pathologist who performed autopsies on the bodies of Thomas and Diaz, testified at trial that Thomas had suffered a single, immediately fatal gunshot wound to the head, fired from a distance of six to ten inches. He further testified that Diaz had been shot twice: once in the right shoulder, which would not normally have been a life-threatening wound, and once in the head, which had been a rapidly fatal wound. He testified that Diaz had been shot from a distance of up to three feet.

Detective James Boston of the Warminster Township Police Department testified that he was part of the team responsible for processing the crime scene on the night of the shootings, and he described the apartment, the locations of the victims, and the recovery of 9 mm. caliber shell casings, bullets, and bullet fragments from the crime scene. He testified that he had recovered bullets and/or fragments from within the wall in the hallway next to where Thomas's body had been found; from within a closet door in the living room; from within linens and sheets in that closet; and also from the concrete in the floor beneath the living room carpet. He testified that the fragment below the carpet had been part of a bullet that had passed through a child's play-pad lying on the floor. He also testified that a .45 caliber handgun had been found in a rear-bedroom closet.

Officer Sean Harold of the Warminster Township Police Department testified that Miranda and Martinez had voluntarily surrendered themselves to police on October 17, 2007, and that at that time, Appellant had not yet been located. He also testified that on October 28, 2007, he recovered a 9 mm. Hi–Point Luger from the rear passenger-side floor of a tan Ford Explorer registered to Darlene Sanchez, Appellant's mother. Montgomery County Detective John Finor, a firearms and ballistics expert, testified that, by using tool-mark identification procedures, he had determined that the bullets, fragments and casings recovered from the crime scene had been fired from the 9 mm. Hi–Point Luger recovered from the Explorer.

Bucks County Detective Mark Zielinski testified that, during a search of the location in which Appellant had been arrested on October 25, 2007, police had recovered a gym bag belonging to Appellant that contained several boxes of black...

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