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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. MARTIN DANIEL APPEL (03/04/88)

decided: March 4, 1988.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE,
v.
MARTIN DANIEL APPEL, APPELLANT



Appeal from Judgments of Sentence of Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County, Criminal Division, entered September 3, 1986, at Nos. 1076-1078, 1986.

Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ. Papadakos, J., joins in the majority opinion and files a concurring opinion. Larsen and Zappala, JJ., concur in the result.

Author: Nix

[ 517 Pa. Page 531]

OPINION

The instant case comes before this Court on automatic direct appeal, pursuant to section 9711(h) of the Sentencing Code, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h), from sentences of death imposed by the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County on three counts of first degree murder. The appellant, Martin Daniel Appel, has, throughout these proceedings, waived his right to counsel, and has declined to file a brief on his own behalf.*fn1 Appellant has, in fact, expressed his desire to die in the electric chair, and views the instant appeal merely as an impediment to that end. Nevertheless, automatic review by this Court in all cases in which the sentence of death has been imposed is an integral and absolutely essential procedural safeguard prescribed by the legislature in the enactment of Pennsylvania's death penalty statute, 42

[ 517 Pa. Page 532]

Pa.C.S. § 9711. Thus, although no issues have been presented for our consideration in this matter, we must fulfill our statutory obligation by examining the record lodged in this Court to ensure that the sentences imposed comport with the requirements of our death penalty statute and may be legitimately executed. Our task, therefore, is to determine, first, whether the evidence is sufficient to support appellant's three convictions of first degree murder, 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), reh. denied, 463 U.S. 1236, 104 S.Ct. 31, 77 L.Ed.2d 1452 (1983), and second, whether the sentences were "[T]he product of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor," 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(3)(i); whether the evidence supports the finding of a valid aggravating circumstance, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(3)(ii); and whether the sentences are excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(3)(iii).

Prefatory to undertaking our mandatory review, we feel it is appropriate to set forth a brief procedural history of this case. Appellant and a co-defendant were arrested on June 6, 1986, in connection with a bank robbery on the same day in East Allen Township, Northampton County, in the course of which three persons were killed and two others seriously injured. Appellant was brought before the trial court on June 12, 1986, at which time he indicated his desire to represent himself and expressed concern that professional representation would hamper the prosecution's case against him. N.T. June 12, 1986 at 22. The trial court then conducted a thorough colloquy on the question of waiver and ordered a psychiatric evaluation as to appellant's competency to make a knowing, voluntary and intelligent decision to waive his right to counsel. A psychiatrist's report, received by the trial court on June 20, 1986, expressed the professional opinion that appellant was suffering from no mental disorders and was competent to make such a decision. Appellant was again brought before the trial court and repeated his intention to proceed without counsel. The court then accepted appellant's waiver and appointed two

[ 517 Pa. Page 533]

    members of the Northampton County public defender's office to serve as standby counsel. See Pa.R.Crim.P. 318(d).

Appellant subsequently waived his preliminary hearing, and, on July 20, 1986, pleaded guilty to three counts of criminal homicide, two counts of attempted homicide, one count of robbery, two counts of aggravated assault and various other charges. Appellant's request to plead guilty to first degree murder on the criminal homicide counts was refused. Instead, pleas were entered to murder generally.

A degree of guilt hearing was conducted beginning on August 7, 1986. The Commonwealth presented extensive testimony and numerous exhibits over a three-day period. After the conclusion of the hearing on August 9, 1986, the trial court found appellant guilty of three counts of first degree murder. Appellant was subsequently informed of his right to counsel during the sentencing phase of the proceedings and again waived counsel. The Commonwealth presented no additional evidence at the sentencing hearing. Appellant testified in support of the validity of his guilty pleas and indicated that he would not appeal from whatever judgments of sentence might be imposed. He also offered as mitigating circumstances the facts that he had no prior felony convictions and was employed at the time of the commission of the crimes of which he had been convicted. Appellant then expressed the view that the death penalty was the only possible verdict and requested that he be sentenced to death.

During closing argument, the Commonwealth urged the court to sentence appellant to death. When questioned as to his position, appellant again requested the death penalty. After deliberation, the sentencing court returned a verdict of death on all three counts of first degree murder. That court found that two aggravating circumstances had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt: that the victims were killed to prevent their testimony against him in a criminal proceeding, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(5), and that the ...


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