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09/29/95 COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. DONETTA HILL

September 29, 1995

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE
v.
DONETTA HILL, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered on March 11, 1993, by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Division, at Nos. 41-45, and 1839-1841, May Term, 1991.

Before Nix, C.j., Flaherty, Zappala, Cappy, Castille And Montemuro, JJ. Mr. Justice Montemuro is sitting by designation.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nix

NIX, C.J.

DECIDED: September 29, 1995

On April 6, 1992, Appellant, Donetta Hill, was convicted by a jury of two counts of murder of the first degree, *fn1 robbery, *fn2 and two counts of possession of an instrument of crime. *fn3 At the Conclusion of the penalty phase of Hill's trial, the jury returned a sentence of death for each of the two first degree murder convictions. Based upon the imposition of a sentence of death, we have jurisdiction to review this direct appeal of Hill's conviction and sentence pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(1). *fn4

In all death penalty cases, we begin by performing our self-imposed obligation to independently review the evidence underlying each first degree murder conviction. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 26-27 n.3, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n.3 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 103 S. Ct. 2444, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1327 (1983). The standard upon which we review the sufficiency of the evidence is whether the evidence, and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, supports the jury's finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Rhodes, 510 Pa. 537, 539-40, 510 A.2d 1217, 1218 (1986).

On June 28, 1990, seventy-two-year-old Nghia Quy Lu propositioned Donetta Hill to have sex with him for money. The two went to the basement of Mr. Lu's home at 1931 South 8th Street in Philadelphia and had sex. Lu was five feet, six inches tall, and weighed one hundred twenty-six pounds. Hill stood five feet, five inches, and weighed one hundred sixty pounds. After engaging in sex, Hill grabbed a hammer and struck Lu in the back of the head several times. Lu collapsed and died from his injuries. Hill then ransacked the house and took several items, including a Longines watch, two gold rings with Chinese inscriptions, and a pair of gold-rimmed eye glasses.

Later that day, Lu's son and daughter-in-law returned home and found Lu's body lying in a pool of blood on the basement floor with his pants pulled down to his knees. There was a large burn wound on Lu's chest, and a blood stained hammer was found lying near the body.

Hill brought the items stolen from Lu to the home of her friend Melinda Williford. She asked Williford to sell the watch and gold rings at a neighborhood jewelry store. Williford sold one of the gold rings to the jeweler for twenty-five dollars and split the proceeds with Hill. *fn5

Approximately nine months later, twenty-one-year-old Nairobi Dupont offered money to Hill to have sex with him in his father's house. Dupont, who was "mentally slow," stood four feet, eleven inches tall and weighed eighty-five pounds. The Dupont home was located at 504 Emily Street in Philadelphia, less than four blocks from the site of the Lu murder. Hill entered the home and had sex with Nairobi Dupont. Afterwards, she grabbed a hammer and struck Dupont repeatedly in the back of the head. As Dupont lay dead or dying on the floor. Hill ransacked the house and took several items, including two video cassette recorders, a number of video cassettes, and a television remote control. She then fled the scene.

On March 9, 1991, Nairobi Dupont's father returned from a two week vacation and found his house in a state of disarray. He eventually discovered the body of his son on the kitchen floor. The police arrived shortly thereafter and recovered a blood-stained hammer near the victim's body. They also recovered from the crime scene a red pocketbook which contained an identification card belonging to Donetta Hill.

Hill took the two videocassette recorders stolen from the Dupont residence to the home of an acquaintance, Dwayne Culler. Culler gave her twenty dollars and four vials of crack cocaine in exchange for the equipment. Hill returned to Culler's home sometime thereafter with a bag of video cassettes stolen from the Dupont home for which she received two additional vials of crack cocaine.

After Hill learned that police wanted to question her, she went to the office of her probation officer. Accompanied by her probation officer and another member of his office, Hill went to the homicide division of the Philadelphia police department. Once there, Hill was taken to an interview room and fully advised of her Miranda rights. She ultimately confessed to the murder of Nairobi Dupont and signed a written statement to that effect. Shortly thereafter, Hill was again advised of her Miranda rights and questioned about the murder of Nghia Quy Lu. Hill told the detectives questioning her that she was present when Lu was murdered, but that her friend, Bruce Baldwin, had committed the killing.

At the Conclusion of the interview, the detectives faxed Hill's statement to the district attorney's office where the decision was made to hold Hill and charge her with the murder of Nairobi Dupont. Four days later, while in custody, Hill returned to the homicide division to speak with detectives regarding the in murder. After once again being informed of her Miranda rights, Hill admitted that she had killed Lu and later signed a written statement attesting to that fact.

Based upon the foregoing facts, it is evident that sufficient evidence was presented to support the first degree murder convictions. We therefore proceed to address Hill's allegations of error relating to her trial and defense counsel's ineffectiveness.

Hill first claims that the prosecutor committed misconduct which prejudiced her and thereby deprived her of a fair trial. In support of this contention, Hill cites six separate instances where the prosecutor cross-examined her and presented rebuttal evidence concerning: the fact that she was on welfare; her cocaine use during pregnancy; her prior sentences of imprisonment; her probation violation; the fact that "wanted cards" had been issued for her; and her use of profanity during questioning by police. Our review of these allegations is guided by the fact that a defendant is not entitled to relief for a claim of prosecutorial misconduct unless the "unavoidable effect" of the prosecutor's comments or actions "is to 'prejudice' the jury so that a true verdict cannot be rendered because the existence of bias and hostility makes it impossible to weigh the evidence in a neutral manner." Commonwealth v. Baker, 531 Pa. 541, 558, 614 A.2d 663, 671 (1992) (quoting Commonwealth v. Carpenter, 511 Pa. 429, 515 A.2d 531 (1986)).

First, the revelation that Hill was on welfare was made by Hill herself. On direct examination by her attorney, Hill indicated that the only form of photographic identification that she possessed was a card issued by the Department of Public Assistance. (N.T. 3/31/92, 66-67). This information was elicited by defense counsel in order to provide an explanation as to why a purse containing that particular identification card was found at the scene of Nairobi Dupont's murder. Hill testified that she had given the card to her sister so that she could pick up Hill's welfare check. (N.T. 3/31/92, 66-67). This testimony was offered to explain why the identification card was no longer in Hill's possession and consequently could not have been left by her at the murder scene. Clearly then, it was permissible for the prosecutor to inquire further into the subject matter raised on direct examination, and Hill's claim that this information was elicited for purposes of inflaming the jury's passion is totally unfounded. See e.g. Commonwealth v. Schmidt, 437 Pa. 563, 263 A.2d 382 (1970) (the scope and limits of cross-examination are largely within the discretion of the trial court and its decisions pertaining thereto will not be reversed in the absence of a clear abuse of discretion or error of law).

Hill next argues that the prosecutor improperly exploited her admission that she used illegal drugs. The subject of Hill's cocaine use was raised by the defense during the cross-examination of Melinda Williford and by both the prosecution and defense during the direct and cross-examination of Donetta Hill. Again, this subject was first raised by defense counsel, and thus, the prosecutor was entitled to further explore it during cross-examination. See id.

Hill also takes exception to the prosecutor's questions concerning her use of cocaine while she was pregnant. She claims that this information had no probative value and was elicited solely to assail her character in front of the jury. We disagree and find that such information was relevant in light of her claim that she was coerced by police to confess. Hill contended at trial that she signed a written confession admitting to the two murders because police threatened to take her children away if she refused. It was therefore entirely proper for the prosecutor to call into question ...


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