Commonwealth v. Weiss

Decision Date31 October 2013
Citation81 A.3d 767
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Ronald Lee WEISS, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

James Joseph McHugh Jr., Esq., Shawn Nola, Esq., Defender Association of Philadelphia, for Ronald Lee Weiss.

Gregory Joseph Simatic, Esq., Amy Zapp, Esq., PA Office of Attorney General, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, STEVENS, JJ.

OPINION

Justice BAER.

Ronald Lee Weiss (Appellant) appeals from the denial of guilt-phase claims raised in his petition for post-conviction relief, filed pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9541 et seq. We conclude that the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) court's rejection of Appellant's guilt-phase claims was supported by the record and free from legal error. Because the PCRA court granted relief on a penalty phase issue and the Commonwealth has not cross-appealed, Appellant will be afforded a new penalty hearing. Accordingly, the order of the PCRA court is affirmed.

As we described in our opinion on Appellant's direct appeal, sixteen-year old Barbara Bruzda (Victim) was last seen on October 23, 1978, playing pool with Appellant at her family's tavern and later that evening at a party with Appellant at the home of Henry Hobart. See Commonwealth v. Weiss, 565 Pa. 504, 776 A.2d 958 (2001)( Weiss I ). Several witnesses saw Victim and Appellant leave the party together. Before he left the party, Appellant may have borrowed a jack and tire iron from Mr. Hobart, which he never returned. 1 Five months later, on March 20, 1979, hikers found the victim's body wrapped in a distinctive, homemade red and white quilt in a remote area of Indiana County.

At the time of Victim's disappearance, Appellant lived with his wife, Sharon Pearson (Ex-wife). Although suspicion immediately fell on Appellant, the police were initially unable to obtain sufficient evidence of Appellant's guilt. In 1985, however, after Ex-wife separated from Appellant, she reported to the police that on the night of October 23, 1978, Appellant had been driving the Buick the couple shared. She cleaned out the car on October 24, 1978, as was her custom after Appellant drove the vehicle, and she made two important observations. First, she observed blood on the back of the front seat, on the interior of the roof, and on the back seat of the car. Second, she observed that the red and white quilt she kept in the car to cover the damaged back seat was missing. She was able to identify the quilt in which the victim's body was found as the handmade quilt that was missing from the car. Appellant gave the car to a junkyard in the Spring of 1979 even though, according to Ex-wife's subsequent testimony, nothing was apparently wrong with it.

Appellant was arrested in 1985. However, the prosecutor nolle prossed the charges in 1987, when the trial court determined that Ex-wife was incompetent to testify due to spousal privilege. See42 Pa.C.S. § 5913 (1987) (barring spouses from testifying against each other).2 This section was amended in 1989 to permit spousal testimony in cases of homicide.3An investigative grand jury was empaneled in 1993, but did not return an indictment.

Meanwhile, in 1989 Appellant committed a robbery and assault with a codefendant, David Townsend, which involved striking another man with a tire iron. During his incarceration before and after the assault, Appellant was briefly confined, at different times, with Kermeth Wright and Samuel Tribuiani. Each of these three men (Townsend, Wright, and Tribuiani) later testified at Appellant's trial that they heard Appellant confess to the murder of Victim.

In 1995, police still had made no arrest in Victim's murder, other than the aborted 1985 arrest of Appellant. The Commonwealth again reviewed the circumstances surrounding the murder, and concluded that it still had insufficient evidence to prosecute Appellant successfully. Following this 1995 decision not to prosecute, prosecutors became aware of the statements from two jailhouse informants, Kermeth Wright and Samuel Tribuiani, who stated that Appellant confessed to them individually and at separate times that he killed the victim. Finally, with this new evidence, Appellant was arrested and charged with Victim's murder on February 19, 1997. The trial court appointed counsel to represent Appellant. Appointed counsel moved for the appointment of new counsel, asserting a conflict of interest premised on one of Appellant's attorneys' prior representation of one of the Commonwealth witnesses against Appellant, Kermeth Wright. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing.

During pre-trial discovery, the Commonwealth identified Kermeth Wright and Samuel Tribuiani as potential witnesses. The Commonwealth averred that there were no deals with these witnesses, and it had not made any promises to them in exchange for their cooperation. At Appellant's trial, the Commonwealth introduced twenty-six witnesses. The Commonwealth's forensic evidence demonstrated that the victim died of massive skull fractures inflicted with an object such as a pry bar, pipe, or tire iron, and that Victim was hit at least twice.

The victim's mother, Roxie Bruzda, (Victim's Mother) testified that she observed Victim and Appellant playing pool at the family's tavern on the night she disappeared. Several other witnesses testified that they saw Appellant with Victim at Mr. Hobart's house the night she disappeared, and Mr. Hobart testified about possibly providing Appellant with a jack and tire iron. Ex-wife testified consistently with her prior statement to police that she and Appellant shared a car, that Appellant used the car the night the victim disappeared, and that the day after the disappearance, she observed “a lot” of blood in the car, specifically, on the back of the front seats, the back seat, and the interior roof. She testified that Appellant told her the blood came from a small abrasion on his knuckle. Ex-wife further identified the distinctive handmade quilt, in which Victim's body was found, as the one she kept in the back seat of the Buick, which was missing from the car the morning after Victim disappeared.4

Additionally, through the testimony of several witnesses, the Commonwealth introducedevidence of Appellant's evolving explanations of what transpired on October 23, 1978. Specifically, Victim's Mother telephoned Appellant on October 25, 1978, looking for her daughter. Appellant explained that he left the tavern shortly after Victim left, and saw the victim hitchhiking with a young man. Appellant stated that he picked up the two hitchhikers, who indicated they were on their way to Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, and dropped them off in Clarksburg, Pennsylvania. Appellant added that Victim had been running away from home. Unsatisfied with his response, Victim's Mother drove to Appellant's residence and confronted him. Appellant added to his prior explanation that when he dropped the two hitchhikers off, there was a black pick-up truck waiting for them, and the two hitchhikers got into the truck and it drove away in the direction of Saltsburg.

A police officer with the Young Township, Pennsylvania, Police Department, Trooper Jakela, testified that on October 25, 1978, he received information that the victim may be at Appellant's residence. While he was investigating this tip, Appellant repeated the explanation he had provided to Victim's Mother. Appellant also offered a physical description of the driver of the pick-up truck. Appellant repeated this explanation to police again in November and December, 1978, and January, 1979, explaining that after he dropped the hitchhikers off, he went straight home. Appellant did not mention attending the party at Mr. Hobart's house. None of the witnesses who observed Appellant in the days following Victim's disappearance observed any injuries on Appellant.5

Following the presentation at trial of testimony of Appellant's repeated assertions to others that he picked up Victim while she was hitchhiking and dropped her off in Clarksburg, the Commonwealth offered the testimony of several witnesses who observed Appellant and Victim arrive together at Henry Hobart's house on the evening of October 23, 1978, and testified that the two were affectionate to each other, and that they left the party together. The Commonwealth next offered the testimony of two witnesses who received correspondence from Appellant after he was arrested for the victim's murder, and after he was aware that the Commonwealth had several witnesses who saw Appellant with Victim at Mr. Hobart's house (thereby refuting his explanation that he dropped her off in Clarksburg and went home).

In this correspondence, Appellant detailed a different version of what transpired on October 23, 1978. Specifically, he indicated that he did not kill Victim but he knew who did, and identified his ex-wife's two brothers, Larry and Gary Priest. Appellant explained that he believed his ex-wife asked her brothers to kill him because of a life insurance policy, and that the brothers attempted to comply while Appellant was driving Victim home after leaving Mr. Hobart's party. He stated that as he was driving down a remote road, the Priest brothers, driving two separate cars, intercepted him, stopped his car, pulled him out of the vehicle, beat him until he was unconscious, left him to die, and when he awoke, the victim was gone. He believed they killed Victim because she witnessed the assault. He explained that he did not come forward with what happened because the brothers had threatened the life of his parents, wife, and children if he ever told anyone what had happened.

Ernest Sachweh testified for the Commonwealth that he was with Appellant on a day in the fall of 1978, just after the disappearance, when Victim's Mother came to Appellant's house looking for the victim. After Victim's Mother left, Appellant told Mr. Sachweh that he wished she...

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