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04/18/97 COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. VINSON

April 18, 1997

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE
v.
VINSON WASHINGTON, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered on January 5, 1995 in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Nos. 94-03-1031-37. JUDGES BELOW: Hon. David N. Savitt.

Before: Flaherty, Zappala, Cappy, Castille, Nigro And Newman, JJ. Opinion BY Mr. Justice Nigro. Former Chief Justice Nix did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nigro

JUSTICE NIGRO

DECIDED: April 18, 1997

On November 4, 1994, following a jury trial, Appellant Vinson Washington was found guilty of first-degree murder for the killing of Zachary Jackson. The jury returned a verdict of death, and on January 5, 1995, the trial court formally imposed the death sentence. This direct appeal followed. For the reasons presented herein, we affirm the judgment of sentence.

Although Appellant does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, this Court is required in capital cases to review the record to determine whether the Commonwealth has established the elements necessary to sustain a conviction for first-degree murder. See Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 26 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), reh'g denied, 463 U.S. 1236, 104 S. Ct. 31, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1452 (1983). In conducting such a review, we must view the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner and determine whether the jury could find every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. See Commonwealth v. Michael, 544 Pa. 105, , 674 A.2d 1044, 1047 (1996).

To obtain a conviction for first-degree murder, the Commonwealth must prove that a human being was unlawfully killed; that the defendant did the killing; and that the killing was done intentionally. See 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2502(a), (d) (1983); Commonwealth v. Wilson, 543 Pa. 429, , 672 A.2d 293, 297 (1996). Further, the specific intent to kill may be inferred from the defendant's use of a deadly weapon upon a vital part of the victim's body. See Michael, Pa. at , 674 A.2d at 1047; Commonwealth v. Bond, 539 Pa. 299, 305, 652 A.2d 308, 311 (1995).

The relevant facts are as follows. On the evening of December 11, 1993, Appellant and another man, Rasheed Miller, followed the decedent, Zachary Jackson, as he drove through the streets of West Philadelphia. Jackson, a shopkeeper, had just left his store, and Appellant and Miller believed he was carrying a large sum of money. Jackson eventually stopped at an intersection in response to a red light. At that moment, Miller, who was driving, blocked off Jackson's car. Appellant ordered Jackson out of his car at gunpoint, demanded money, and began frisking Jackson. When Appellant looked away briefly, Jackson tried to flee, but fell when Appellant shot him four times in the lower back and legs. Appellant again tried to search for money, but Jackson fought him off. Appellant then retrieved another gun from his car and shot Jackson once in the abdomen. Appellant and Miller then fled the scene. Jackson died the next day. An eyewitness, Denise Grant, viewed the entire episode.

At approximately 4:30 a.m. on December 31, 1993, Appellant was arrested on a charge unrelated to the instant case. At 2:30 p.m. on December 31, 1993, the police received information from a robbery suspect implicating Appellant and Miller in the Jackson killing. Consequently, at 8:45 a.m. on January 1, 1994, Appellant was transported to the offices of the Homicide Unit for questioning concerning the Jackson case. He was given his Miranda warnings and, by 1:55 p.m. that same day, he had confessed to killing Jackson. Miller, who was also being held on unrelated charges, also confessed on January 1, 1994 to his involvement in the case. Further, the weapon Appellant admitted using to shoot Jackson the fifth and final time was later recovered. Ballistics evidence matched this gun to a bullet fragment found in Jackson's body and a cartridge casing found at the scene of the shooting.

This evidence is more than sufficient to demonstrate that Appellant shot Jackson and did so with the specific intent to kill. Thus, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, the jury could have found each element of an intentional killing beyond a reasonable doubt. See 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2502(a), (d) (1983); Wilson, Pa. at , 672 A.2d at 297.

Appellant and Miller were tried jointly. *fn1 On November 4, 1994, the jury found Appellant guilty of first-degree murder, *fn2 robbery, *fn3 criminal conspiracy, *fn4 and possessing an instrument of crime. *fn5 After a penalty hearing, the jury found that one aggravating circumstance, that the killing occurred during the perpetration of a felony, *fn6 outweighed one mitigating circumstance, that Appellant had no significant history of prior criminal convictions. *fn7 The jury therefore returned a verdict of death, which the trial court formally imposed on January 5, 1995. *fn8 Appellant then directly appealed to this Court, *fn9 raising one claim of trial court error and three ineffective assistance of counsel claims.

Appellant first argues that the trial court erred in refusing to sever his trial from Miller's. *fn10 Appellant suggests that he was prejudiced by the admission of Miller's redacted confession because it "contextually implicated" him in the killing and therefore violated Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 88 S. Ct. 1620, 20 L. Ed. 2d 476 (1968).

In Bruton, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the introduction at trial of a non-testifying co-defendant's confession describing the defendant's participation in a crime deprives the defendant of his rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. It is well-settled, however, that no Bruton violation occurs if the co-defendant's statement is redacted to remove any specific references to the defendant and if a proper limiting instruction is given. See Richardson v. Marsh, 481 U.S. 200, 211, 107 S. Ct. 1702, 1709, 95 L. Ed. 2d 176 (1987); Commonwealth v. Jones, 542 Pa. 464, 495-96, 668 A.2d 491, 506 (1996). In the instant case, the phrase "the guy with me" was substituted for any reference to Appellant in Miller's statement. Further, the trial court instructed the jury that it was to consider each co-defendant's confession as evidence only against that co-defendant. Thus, the introduction of Miller's statement did not violate Bruton.

Despite this, Appellant claims that he suffered prejudice nonetheless because the jury, viewing the redacted confession in light of the other evidence connecting Appellant to the murder, could easily have inferred that the unnamed individual mentioned in the confession was actually Appellant. In other words, Appellant contends that he was ...


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