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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. RONALD WHEELER (04/21/88)

decided: April 21, 1988.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE,
v.
RONALD WHEELER, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County, Criminal Division, dated April 28, 1983, at Information No. 4849 of 1982, No. 98 E.D. Appeal Dkt. 1985.

COUNSEL

Gregory F. Mondjack, Perkasie, for appellant.

Alan M. Rubenstein, Doyletown, Stephen B. Harris, Warrington, for appellee.

Nix, C.j.,*fn* and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson and Papadakos, JJ. Zappala, J., did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Hutchinson, Former Justice, did not participate in the decision of this case. Larsen, J., files a concurring opinion in which McDermott, J., joins. Papadakos, J., files a concurring and dissenting opinion.

Author: Nix

[ 518 Pa. Page 106]

OPINION

The appellant, Ronald Wheeler, was convicted of first-degree murder following a jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County. After further proceedings and deliberation, the jury decided in favor of imposing the death penalty. The aggravating circumstance found by the jurors was that set forth in section 9711(d)(9) of the Sentencing Code, i.e., that the defendant had "a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence to the person." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(9). Upon the denial of the defendant's post-trial motions, the trial court formally imposed the judgment of sentence of death. There followed this direct appeal pursuant to section 722(4) of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. § 722(4).

In the early morning hours of November 13, 1982, one Danny Thomas was struck down by bullets as he entered the parking lot of the Kim Graves Bar in Bristol Township, Bucks County. Thomas had just emerged from the bar in the company of his girlfriend, Ms. Etta Miller. He died at

[ 518 Pa. Page 107]

    the scene as a result of multiple gunshot wounds to the head and back. The shots had been fired at close range. Two days later Ronald Wheeler was arrested for the killing, and was charged with first-degree murder, possession of a instrument of crime, and possession of a firearm by a former convict.*fn1

Part of the Commonwealth's case at trial included the testimony of Etta Miller, the victim's companion when he was shot. Ms. Miller positively identified Wheeler as being the gunman. Two other prosecution witnesses, Ulysses Moore and Jerome Gibson, both of whom testified they were outside the bar at the time of the shooting, also identified defendant Wheeler as the shooter. Among the items of physical evidence presented by the Commonwealth was a pair of eyeglasses, which the police had found at the scene of the crime. Testimony was produced from an optometrist who had prescribed glasses for Wheeler, and from the optician who had made them, that the glasses found at the crime scene were of the type prescribed and made for the defendant.

In further support of its case against Ronald Wheeler, the Commonwealth presented testimony revealing that the defendant sought to have one person fabricate evidence in his behalf and sought to induce another person to withhold evidence. A Mrs. Jetta Flowers, who was related to Wheeler by marriage, testified that he had asked her to create a bogus alibi for him. Ulysses Moore, who, as noted, testified to having seen the defendant shoot Danny Thomas, added that the defendant had offered him money not to testify for the prosecution.

Another element of the case against the defendant consisted of testimonial and documentary evidence showing

[ 518 Pa. Page 108]

    that he, on various occasions before the killing, had made threats against Thomas' life. Apparently, Ronald Wheeler and the victim had known each other from a time when both were incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. Witnesses who had been acquainted with the two men while at Graterford testified to having heard Wheeler say in prison that he was going to kill Thomas. Also introduced into evidence by the prosecution were several handwritten letters, allegedly written by Wheeler to various people after his release from Graterford, in which he threatened to kill Thomas when the latter got out of prison. Experts from the FBI Laboratory testified that the handwriting on the letters matched the defendant's, and that the fingerprints on them were his.

The defendant's uncle, Harlist Murchison, gave testimony for the Commonwealth concerning actions and statements of Wheeler shortly before and shortly after the killing. The substance of Murchison's testimony was that, on the day of the crime, Wheeler showed him a handgun and remarked that he had "some business to take care of on the street." This witness further testified that, at some point shortly after the killing, Wheeler made an admission to him of having killed Thomas and said that he had committed the crime in return for a promise of money from some third person.

The Commonwealth's theory of the case was that the defendant, after having made several threats against the victim's life, carried them out by lying in wait for him outside the Kim Graves Bar, and deliberately and willfully shooting him to death when he emerged from that establishment in the early morning hours. Under section 2502 of the Crimes Code, 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502, a criminal homicide constitutes murder of the first degree when it is ...


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