Rompilla v. Horn

Decision Date13 January 2004
Docket NumberNo. 00-9005.,No. 00-9006.,00-9005.,00-9006.
PartiesRonald ROMPILLA v. Martin HORN, Commissioner, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Martin Horn, Appellant/Cross-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Ronald L. Buckwalter, J.


Amy Zapp (Argued), Senior Deputy Attorney General, Office of Attorney General, Harrisburg, PA, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

Billy H. Nolas (Argued), David W. Wycoff, Michael Wiseman, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Federal Court Division, Philadelphia, PA, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

Before SLOVITER, ALITO, and STAPLETON, Circuit Judges.


ALITO, Circuit Judge.

The Commissioner of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (hereinafter "the Commonwealth") appeals from a District Court order granting the petition for a writ of habeas corpus that was filed by Ronald Rompilla, a Pennsylvania prisoner who was sentenced to death. The District Court ordered that Rompilla be released unless he is either resentenced to life imprisonment or a new penalty phase trial is held. Rompilla cross-appeals from the denial of his petition insofar as it challenged his conviction. We conclude that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision regarding Rompilla's sentencing proceeding was not contrary to and did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent, and therefore we reverse the decision of the District Court with respect to Rompilla's sentence. We affirm the decision of the District Court with respect to his conviction. By separate order, however, we have granted Rompilla's application to file a successive petition for a writ of habeas corpus so that he will be able to assert his claim that, under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002), he may not be executed because of mental retardation.


In 1988, Rompilla was tried for the murder of James Scanlon. Scanlon's body was found lying in a pool of blood in his bar, the Cozy Corner Café in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Scanlon had been stabbed repeatedly and set on fire. There were no eyewitnesses to the killing, but the Commonwealth introduced substantial circumstantial evidence of Rompilla's guilt. In its opinion on direct appeal, the state supreme court summarized the prosecution's evidence as follows:

Appellant was seen in the Cozy Corner Café on January 14, 1988, from approximately 1:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. During that time, he was observed going to the bathroom approximately ten times. A subsequent police investigation determined that the window in the men's bathroom was used as the point of entry into the bar after it had closed.

When questioned by an investigating detective from the Allentown Police Department, Appellant stated that he had been in the Cozy Corner Café on the night of the murder and left between 2:00 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. because he had no money. He stated that he had only $2:00 to buy breakfast at a local diner. A cab driver testified that he picked up Appellant at the diner and drove him to two different hotels where Appellant was unable to rent a room. The driver then took Appellant to the George Washington Motor Lodge where he was able to rent a room. Appellant paid the cab fare of $9.10.

Appellant rented a room for two nights at the George Washington Motor Lodge. In doing so, he paid $121.00 in cash and flashed a large amount of cash to the desk clerks. Appellant also used a false name when he checked in.

The police secured a search warrant for Appellant's motel room and seized several items, including Appellant's sneakers. These sneakers matched a footprint in blood that was discovered near the victim's body. In addition, the blood found on the sneakers matched the victim's blood type.

The Commonwealth also presented other circumstantial evidence that linked Appellant with the robbery and murder of James Scanlon. First, Mr. Scanlon's wallet was found by a groundskeeper in the bushes, six to eight feet outside the room that Appellant had rented at the George Washington Motor Lodge. Second, Appellant's fingerprint was found on one of the two knives used to commit the murder. Finally, there were numerous inconsistencies between what Appellant had told the police concerning his activities on January 14 and 15, 1988, and the testimony of other witnesses.

Commonwealth v. Rompilla, 539 Pa. 499, 653 A.2d 626, 629 (1995). The jury found Rompilla guilty of first degree murder and other related offenses.

At the penalty phase of the trial, the prosecution attempted to establish three aggravating factors: (1) that Rompilla committed the murder while perpetrating a felony, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6), namely, the burglary and robbery of the bar; (2) that he committed the murder by means of torture, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(8); and (3) that he had a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence to the person, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(9). To establish torture, the Commonwealth called Dr. Isidore Mihalakis, a forensic pathologist, who testified to the multiple wounds inflicted on Scanlon and opined that Scanlon was conscious and alive when many of those wounds were inflicted. App. 698-707. Based on the nature of the wounds, Dr. Mihalakis also opined that Scanlon's killer had deliberately attempted to inflict pain before Scanlon died. Id. at 707-08. To show the defendant's prior history of violent felonies, the Commonwealth proved that he had been convicted in 1976 of rape, burglary, and theft. App. 651-52. Commonwealth v. Rompilla, 250 Pa.Super. 139, 378 A.2d 865 (1977). The testimony of the rape victim, which was read into the record, showed that Rompilla had burglarized a bar after closing and had raped the bar owner and slashed her with a knife. App. 662-696.

The defense presented the testimony of five members of the Rompilla family. Rompilla's older brother, Nicholas, and his wife, Darlene, testified that Rompilla had lived in their home with their children for the three and one-half months before the killing. Nicholas testified that he and the defendant had grown up together, that the defendant had worked for him as a house painter before his arrest, and that the defendant had also helped out around the house. App. 738-41. Nicholas said that he had visited his brother frequently in prison and that they had a good relationship. Id. at 739. Nicholas added that he did not think that his brother had killed Scanlon, whom he had known for about 10 or 11 years, and that his heart went out to the Scanlon family. Id. at 740. He concluded his testimony by asking the jury to have mercy on his brother. Id. at 741.

Darlene Scanlon testified that her children were "very attached" to the defendant and that he "was very good in our house." App. 734-35. Darlene said that he helped out in the home and that "he was a good family member" who felt "strongly about family" and "respected the family very well." Id. at 735. While the defendant was in prison, Darlene testified, he frequently wrote to her and spoke about "[f]amily, his son, his wife, his brothers and sisters." Id. She stated that the defendant's relationship with his son was good. Id. at 736. Like her husband, Darlene testified that she had known Scanlon, that she did not believe that the defendant had killed him, and that she felt for the Scanlon family "[v]ery, very much." Id. Weeping, she concluded her testimony by telling the jury: "We go to bed crying, we wake up crying, it's been very hard on my children.... [W]e want Ron alive even if it's in jail, we want him alive." Id.

Another brother, Bobby, also took the stand. Bobby testified that during the time when the defendant was out of prison they had an "[e]xcellent relationship" and were "[v]ery close." App. 745. Before then, according to Bobby, he had visited the defendant in prison and the defendant had written him letters in which he expressed great concern for his son and other family members. Id.

The defendant's sister, Sandra Whitby, testified that she had grown up with the defendant. App. 754. Crying, she said that she loved him very much and that she thought that he was a "good person." Id. at 755. Asked what things were important for the defendant, she answered: "Family, his son, his wife, things my children were doing, my brothers." Id. She testified that she was praying for the Scanlon family and for her brother's life. Id. at 756. She added: "[W]e're not God, and we can't take people's lives (crying) ... I love my brother. Taking one life is never going to replace another life." Id.

Finally, Aaron Rompilla, the defendant's 14-year old son testified. He said that after his father's release from prison they had regular visits, which he enjoyed, that his father was proud of him, that he loved his father, and that he would visit him if he was sentenced to prison. Id. at 757-59. He said that he did not think it would be "right" to sentence his father to death, and when he was asked whether there was anything else he wanted to tell the jury, he simply cried. Id. at 759.

In her closing argument, defense counsel made an impassioned plea for Rompilla's life. Her closing appears to have had three major themes. First, she repeatedly stressed that, although the jury had found the defendant guilty, they must have had at least some lingering doubt about what had happened, and therefore they should not sentence him to death, which "is final, irreversible." Id. Second, she reminded the jury of the good qualities mentioned by Rompilla's family members. She argued that Rompilla was "more than this act that you have found him to have committed," id. at 769, and she emphasized the love of Rompilla's family members. Id. at 773. She particularly asked the jury to keep in mind the defendant's 14 year old son, who had come to court to ask the jury ...

To continue reading

Request your trial
141 cases
  • Com. v. Bryant
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • August 18, 2004
    ...572 Pa. 535, 817 A.2d 1060, 1066 (2002); Commonwealth v. Williams, 566 Pa. 553, 782 A.2d 517, 524 (2001). Accord Rompilla v. Horn, 355 F.3d 233, 246-50 (3d Cir.2004); Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 203 (3d Cir.2000), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 980, 121 S.Ct. 1621, 149 L.Ed.2d 483 To better focu......
  • Washington v. Ricci
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of New Jersey
    • September 29, 2008
    ...judicata effect, that is based on the substance of the claim advanced, rather than on a procedural, or other, ground." Rompilla v. Horn, 355 F.3d 233, 247 (3d Cir.2004) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted), reversed on other grounds sub nom. Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 125 ......
  • Jamaine Grissom v. Mee
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of New Jersey
    • June 5, 2012
    ...judicata effect, that is based on the substance of the claim advanced, rather than on a procedural, or other, ground " Rompilla v. Horn, 355 F.3d 233, 247 (3d Cir. 2004)(citations and internal quotation marks omitted), reversed on other grounds sub nom. Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374 (2005......
  • Jenkins v. Allen
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
    • August 31, 2016
    ...mitigating evidence of child abuse materially affected the imposition of [the defendant's] death sentence."). See also Rompilla v. Horn, 355 F.3d 233 (3d Cir. 2004); Byram v. Ozmint, 339 F.3d 203 (4th Cir. 2003); Lovitt v. Warden, 266 Va. 216, 585 S.E.2d 801 (2003).It is apparent from the r......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT