Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Smith v. Horn

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT


July 24, 1997

CLIFFORD SMITH

v.

MARTIN HORN, COMMISSIONER, PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS; JAMES PRICE, SUPERINTENDENT, OF THE STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION AT GREENE, AND; JOSEPH P. MAZURKIEWICZ, SUPERINTENDENT, OF THE STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION AT ROCKVIEW DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF BUCKS COUNTY, APPELLANT

NO. 96-9002

CLIFFORD SMITH, APPELLANT

v.

MARTIN HORN, COMMISSIONER, PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS; JAMES PRICE, SUPERINTENDENT, OF THE STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION AT GREENE, AND; JOSEPH P. MAZURKIEWICZ, SUPERINTENDENT, OF THE STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION AT ROCKVIEW

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

(D.C. No. 95-cv-03671)

Before March 26, 1974, the definition of murder in the first degree in Pennsylvania included felony-murder. See 18 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN.Section(s) 2502, Historical Note (1983). Thus, Roux would be inapposite even if the defendant there had been convicted of first-degree murder.

COWEN, Circuit Judge.

Filed July 24, 1997

Argued March 11, 1997

OPINION OF THE COURT

This is an appeal from a judgment of the district court granting in part petitioner-appellee/cross-appellant Clifford Smith's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court held that certain comments made by the prosecutor at the penalty phase of Smith's trial for first-degree murder violated Smith's rights pursuant to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court further held that the failure of Smith's attorney to object to these comments violated Smith's right to the effective assistance of counsel pursuant to the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court rejected Smith's claim that instructions to the jury at the guilt phase of the trial, concerning the elements of first-degree murder pursuant to Pennsylvania law, violated Smith's right to a fair trial pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Similarly, the district court rejected Smith's arguments that other constitutional errors occurred at the penalty phase.

Respondents-appellants/cross-appellees ("Pennsylvania" or "the Commonwealth") contend that the district court erred in its determination that the prosecutor's closing argument at the penalty phase, and the failure of Smith's attorney to object to that argument, violated Smith's federal constitutional rights. Smith cross-appeals, contending that the district court erred in denying him habeas relief with regard to his conviction for first-degree murder, and in rejecting his other arguments for granting relief based on alleged defects at the penalty phase.

We agree with Smith that errors in the jury instructions at the guilt phase of his trial violated his rights pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We thus do not reach the district court's holding that errors at the penalty phase violated Smith's rights pursuant to the Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. We also do not reach Smith's arguments concerning other claims of error that occurred at the penalty phase. Accordingly, we will vacate the judgment of the district court in part, reverse in part, and remand with directions to grant habeas relief.

I.

On November 22, 1983, in the Court of Common Pleas, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Smith was convicted offirst-degree murder, among other crimes. The evidence at trial showed that on June 17 of that year, Smith and Roland Alston entered a pharmacy with the intention of robbing it, that they forced three persons inside the store to lie in a prone position on the floor as they committed the robbery, and that one of the robbery victims, Richard Sharp, sustained a fatal gunshot wound to the head.

Yvette Barrow and Cheryl Yancey, who later pled guilty to being accomplices to the robbery, testified that Alston and Smith committed the robbery while Barrow and Yancey waited in Barrow's car. One eyewitness saw Alston and Smith enter and leave the pharmacy at the time of the robbery. A second eyewitness saw the pair walk in the direction of the pharmacy just prior to the robbery. A third eyewitness identified the car in which Smith and Alston were traveling just after the robbery. All three independent eyewitnesses identified the clothing worn by the robbers, which was later found at the homes of Alston, Yancey, and Frances Atkins, Smith's former girlfriend. Items taken from the three robbery victims were later found at the homes of Barrow and Yancey.

Although there was evidence that both Alston and Smith carried handguns that day, the evidence tended to show that Smith actually committed the killing. According to the Commonwealth, Barrow testified that immediately after the murder, Alston yelled at Smith, "Why did you shoot the motherf[uck]er, why did you shoot him?" Appellant's Br. at 11. *fn1 Smith responded, "He walked into the store and he scared me -- the guy lifted his head and I had to do it, I had to do it." Id. Barrow also testified that Smith told Alston that "[s]ince [Smith] did the murder, he wanted the ring" that was one of the proceeds of the robbery. Id. Yancey similarly testified that Alston yelled at Smith, "Why did you shoot that motherf[uck]er, man? You almost shot me," to which Smith replied, "I had to." Id. She also testified that Smith stated that "he should have the ring because he's the one that killed the man." Id. There was also evidence that Smith's shoes had human blood on them. Finally, there was evidence that unfired cartridges found at Yancey's house had been loaded into and ejected from Alston's pistol, indicating that Alston's weapon had not been fired.

At the guilt phase of the trial, the district attorney made the following comments in closing argument:

[W]ho shot Richard Sharp is of no moment in this trial, because as His Honor will tell you, it makes no difference under the law and under the facts. It doesn't make one bit of difference who shot Mr. Sharp, because if you find as a fact, and I suggest you can based on the evidence, that Richard Sharp was killed by either Roland Alston or Clifford Smith, you canfind as a fact that there was murder in the first degree. It makes no difference who pulled the trigger. The acts of one accomplice are the acts of the other. The doings of one are the doings of the other.

. . . .

. . . [I]t makes no difference who fired the fatal shot . . . [F]or your purposes, it doesn't make any difference. The act of one is the act of the other. . . .

. . . .

. . . [I]f you find that this defendant or both defendants or either of them had the conscious purpose to take human life, you can find as a matter of fact and as a matter of law that it's murder in the first degree. . . .

. . . .

. . . [I]f you find that either Smith or Alston fired that bullet . . . if you find that either did this, both as conspirators or as accomplices are guilty of the crime of first degree murder.

. . . .

. . . Does the evidence indicate that Clifford Smith or Roland Alston, either or both of them, made a conscious decision to take human life, a willful, a deliberate, an intentional killing, no accident? Cross App. at 1007-08, 1010, 1012-13, 1014, 1017 (emphasis added).

The court first instructed the jury on homicide without reference to any specific offense or degree:

[I]f . . . you find that Smith and Alston were accomplices of each other, then it is not important for you to determine which one actually pulled the trigger that brought about the killing of Richard Sharp, if you find beyond a reasonable doubt that one of the two did so and were [sic] acting as the accomplice of each other at the time. In order, however, to find Clifford Smith to be guilty, you need not conclude, as I said, that he was the actor; that is, if I can use the word "shooter," but he was, nevertheless, acting as an accomplice of Alston and it was his intent of promoting or facilitating that act and the killing was done in furtherance of the robberies, if you so find, then he would be guilty as though he were the actual perpetrator. . . .

. . . [T]he Commonwealth must prove all of the elements of the case beyond a reasonable doubt, but they do not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt which of the two, Smith or Alston, actually brought about the killing of Richard Sharp by showing who pulled the trigger and placing [sic] the shot in his head. If, and I emphasize this, you find that one was the accomplice of the other and that one of the two actually performed the killing, you, the jurors, need not agree on the role or roles played by the respective parties; that is, by this defendant and his accomplice, if you find that that was the position of both, provided that each of you is satisfied that the crime was actually perpetrated by the defendant or by the accomplice of the defendant. Conversely, if you find that one was not the accomplice of the other but that a criminal homicide occurred, then you must determine who performed the act of killing and, of course, it follows that if Alston was the killer and Smith was not his accomplice, he, Smith, would not be guilty of the crime of murder for the

Commonwealth has not proven this accomplice theory beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 1030-31, 1031-32 (emphasis added).

The court then instructed the jury specifically on first-degree and second-degree murder:

[T]he elements of first degree murder are the unlawful killing of another person done intentionally; that is, willfully, deliberately and with premeditation, plus malice, as I will define that term to you. If these elements have been established beyond a reasonable doubt, you may, on the theory that one was the perpetrator and the other the accomplice, find Clifford Smith guilty of murder in the first degree . . . .

. . . You may find the defendant guilty of second degree murder if you are satisfied that the following elements have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt: First, again you must find that a person caused the death of Richard Sharp. Secondly, that the defendant, or an accomplice of the defendant, was the person who killed him. Thirdly, that the killing was committed while the defendant was engaged, or an accomplice was engaged, in the commission of . . . the felony of robbery. Fourth, that the act of the defendant, or the defendant's accomplice, that brought about the killing and death of Richard Sharp was done in furtherance of that robbery. Fifth, that the killing was with malice on the part of the defendant [which] may be inferred by you if you conclude that the defendant was engaging in, or was an accomplice in, the commission or attempted commission of a felony dangerous to human life . . . . Id. at 1035, 1035-36 (emphasis added).

The court then instructed the jury on the crime of conspiracy, without reference to a specific substantive crime:

You should . . . determine . . . whether there was the requisite intent to enter into this conspiracy to commit the robbery and the killing which the Commonwealth contends flowed therefrom or whether there was the requisite intent to enter in and be the accomplice with the other in bringing this about. That is to say, did Clifford Smith agree, although not necessarily by words, but by conduct and circumstances to bring about this robbery which, in turn, led to the ultimate shooting, so the Commonwealth contends, and the killing of Richard Sharp? If so, then the major basis of conspiratorial liability exists as to him. Id. at 1047-48 (emphasis added).

Finally, the court distinguished among the different degrees of murder:

You would . . . have to decide whether the act of the perpetrator, or his accomplice, at the time of the killing was acting [sic] with malice, as we have defined that term to you. Was he acting willfully, deliberately and with premeditation, although at that time not having the specific intent to kill, but having the specific intent to inflict grievous bodily harm upon Richard Sharp, because that really is the distinction between third degree murder and first degree murder. . . .

If you would conclude that there was specific intent to take life, you would then have to determine if it was second degree murder, or as we call it felony murder, because it involves killing incidental to a felony. . . . [F]or persons to be accomplices in felony murder they must have a common design. In other words, the shared intent to commit that felony, the robbery in this case, and in furtherance thereof the killing was perpetrated as a natural act which flowed from the robbery itself. However, . . . even though you would conclude that there was the felony of robbery committed, but would further conclude that all of the elements of first degree murder were present, you . . . would be justified in returning a verdict of first degree murder, if you determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing was intentional; that is, that there was a specific conscious intent to kill and this was done willfully, deliberately, and with premeditation. Id. at 1057-58 (emphasis added).

Smith was convicted of, inter alia, first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. He was not convicted of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. At the penalty phase of the trial, the jury found two aggravating factors and no mitigating factors. The jury imposed the death penalty, which it was required to do under these circumstances pursuant to Pennsylvania law. See 42 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. Section(s) 9711(c)(1)(iv) (West 1982).

Smith filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied by the trial court on June 18, 1985. Smith subsequently was sentenced to death. He then appealed his conviction and sentence to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. On July 29, 1986, the judgment was affirmed, and Smith's petition to the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari was denied thereafter. See Commonwealth v. Smith, 513 A.2d 1371 (Pa. 1986), cert. denied, 480 U.S. 951, 107 S.Ct. 1617 (1987) ("Smith I").

The Governor of Pennsylvania subsequently signed Smith's death warrant, fixing his execution for November 13, 1990. On October 16, 1991, *fn2 Smith filed a petition in the Court of Common Pleas, Bucks County, pursuant to the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. Section(s) 9541-9546 (West 1996 Supp.). His execution was stayed several days later. After holding an evidentiary hearing, the court denied the petition. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed on November 22, 1994, and the United States Supreme Court denied Smith's petition for a writ of certiorari. See Commonwealth v. Smith, 650 A.2d 863 (Pa. 1994), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 115 S.Ct. 1799 (1995).

In May of 1995, the Governor of Pennsylvania again signed Smith's death warrant, fixing July 11, 1995, as the date of execution. On June 30, 1995, the district court granted Smith a stay of execution. Smith subsequently filed the instant petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the district court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section(s) 2254 (1994). That court held an evidentiary hearing. On February 22, 1996, the court granted the petition in part and denied it in part on the grounds that the prosecutor's comments in summation at the penalty phase violated Smith's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights pursuant to Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633 (1985), and California v. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992, 103 S.Ct. 3446 (1983). The district court also held that the failure of Smith's counsel to object to the closing argument constituted ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court rejected Smith's contention, regarding the guilt phase, that the jury instructions on first-degree murder denied him due process. It also rejected Smith's additional arguments concerning the penalty phase that his sentence violated the federal constitution. The court ordered that Smith be either re-sentenced or released from confinement within 180 days, and stayed its order pending appeal. See Smith v. Horn, No. CIV. A. 95-3671, 1996 WL 172047 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 22, 1996).

This appeal and cross-appeal followed.

II.

As an initial matter, we find it necessary to address two issues raised by the dissent. The dissent suggests, for the first time, that we require the parties to brief the threshold procedural issues of exhaustion of state remedies and procedural default. See Dissent slip op. at 38, 40. We note at the outset that the Commonwealth never raised either of these issues at any time: not in the district court, not in its briefing before this Court, and not at oral argument.

A.

The dissent concedes that it is likely an exhaustion argument would fail on the grounds that further state review of the due process issue would be foreclosed to Smith. See id. at 37-38. Nevertheless, the dissent presses the point, arguing that this might present a case where the Pennsylvania courts would apply the narrow "miscarriage of justice" exception to the stringent requirements of the PCRA. See Doctor v. Walters, 96 F.3d 675, 681-83 (3d Cir. 1996). In Doctor, 96 F.3d at 683, we concluded that we ought to require exhaustion unless there is "no chance that the Pennsylvania courts would find a miscarriage of justice."

However, in that case, the exhaustion issue was raised and addressed in the district court. See id. at 678. Where the issue was never raised in the district court, we are afforded discretion pursuant to Granberry v. Greer, 481 U.S. 129, 134, 107 S.Ct. 1671, 1675 (1987), to "determine whether the interests of comity and federalism will be better served by addressing the merits forthwith or by requiring a series of additional state and district court proceedings before reviewing the merits of the petitioner's claim." See also Evans v. Court of Common Pleas, 959 F.2d 1227, 1233 (3d Cir. 1992); Brown v. Fauver, 819 F.2d 395, 398 (3d Cir. 1987). We must exercise our discretion on a case-by-case basis and with reference to the values of, not only comity and federalism, but also "judicial efficiency," Granberry, 481 U.S. at 135, 107 S.Ct. at 1675, and "the ends of justice," Keller v. Petsock, 853 F.2d 1122, 1127 & n.6 (3d Cir. 1988).

The dissent suggests that we ought to exercise our discretion in favor of requiring exhaustion in this case on the ground that it "falls squarely within" the category of cases that " `present[] an issue on which an unresolved question of fact or of state law might have an important bearing,' " Dissent slip op. at 36 (quoting Granberry, 481 U.S. at 134-35, 107 S.Ct. at 1675) (alteration added), and "it would be helpful to have the benefit of a decision by the Pennsylvania courts on the underlying issue of state law." Id. at 6. See Brown, 819 F.2d at 399; cf. Zettlemoyer v. Fulcomer, 923 F.2d 284, 309-10 (3d Cir. 1991). However, this case presents no "unresolved question . . . of state law." Granberry, 481 U.S. at 134, 107 S.Ct. at 1675. The only question of state law presented -- the elements of first-degree murder in Pennsylvania -- has been resolved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, not once but twice. See infra at 16-18. No one disputes that specific intent to kill is one of those elements. All remaining questions presented by this case -- whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury understood its instructions in a certain way, whether this understanding had the effect of relieving the Commonwealth of the burden of proving this element beyond a reasonable doubt, and whether this error was harmless -- present issues of federal law.

Accordingly, we see no reason to delay review of this petition in order to provide briefing on an issue the Commonwealth never raised in any court and on which even the dissent concedes the Commonwealth has very little chance of succeeding.

B.

The dissent also suggests that we direct the parties to brief the related issue of procedural default. The dissent correctly notes that we and several of our sister circuits have held that this issue may be raised sua sponte by the court of appeals. See Dissent at 38 (citing Hull v. Freeman, 932 F.2d 159, 164 n.4 (3d Cir. 1991), overruled on other grounds by Caswell v. Ryan, 953 F.2d 853 (3d Cir. 1992), Ortiz v. Dubois, 19 F.3d 708, 714 (1st Cir. 1994), Washington v. James, 996 F.2d 1442 (2d Cir. 1993), and Hardiman v. Reynolds, 971 F.2d 500, 502-04 & n.4 (10th Cir. 1992)). Nonetheless, it is evident from these cases that whether we do so is discretionary, and that our discretion is guided by the same considerations as those discussed in Granberry. See Hull, 932 F.2d at 164 n.4; Washington, 996 F.2d at 1448-49; Hardiman, 971 F.2d at 504.

In Washington, 996 F.2d at 1449-50, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recognized that it might be inappropriate for the court to raise the issue of procedural default sua sponte where " `it is evident that a miscarriage of justice has occurred' " (quoting Granberry, 481 U.S. at 135, 107 S.Ct. at 1675). The court also recognized that "miscarriage of justice" in this context should be defined somewhat more loosely than in the nonexhaustion context because "[u]nlike in exhaustion cases, if we decline to reach the merits in a procedural default case, the defendant has no further recourse to either state or federal relief." Id. at 1450. Nevertheless, the court narrowly limited the application of the miscarriage of justice exception to those cases where the habeas petitioner challenges the validity of the trial itself and not just the conviction, and those cases where the claimed federal violation was the product of malice. See id.; see also Ortiz, 19 F.3d at 715.

We believe, as did Judge Oakes in dissent in that case, that the court unduly limited the meaning of "miscarriage of justice" in contravention of the language of Granberry, 481 U.S. at 135, 107 S.Ct. at 1675. See Washington, 996 F.2d at 1454 (Oakes, J., dissenting). We agree with Judge Oakes, and with Judge Stahl of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, that " `miscarriage of justice' should include cases where the record is well developed and the merits strongly support the petitioner's claim." Id. at 1453 (Oakes, J., dissenting); see also Ortiz, 19 F.3d at 717 (Stahl, J., dissenting).

In this case, not only do the merits strongly support Smith's claim, as we shall demonstrate, but the record as it relates to the merits is as well-developed as it can be. We have been presented with the entirety of the charge delivered at Smith's trial. We can lay alongside this charge the unequivocal holdings of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in two separate cases that specific intent to kill is an essential element of first-degree murder.

By contrast, the record with regard to the procedural default issue itself is sparse. For example, we have not been provided with the crucial jury instruction defining first-degree murder requested by Smith's trial counsel and rejected by the trial court. There is similarly nothing in the record with regard to whether Smith can show "cause" for the alleged default (such as by showing that appellate counsel was constitutionally ineffective) and "prejudice" resulting therefrom, or that the procedural rule does not provide an independent and adequate basis for precluding habeas review. See Doctor, 96 F.3d at 683. Thus, consideration of the procedural default issue at this late stage in the proceedings would likely require not simply supplemental briefing but a remand to the district court for supplemental fact finding. In these circumstances, where relief is "plainly warranted," Granberry, 481 U.S. at 135, 107 S.Ct. at 1676, and consideration of the procedural default defense would result in undue delay, see Odum v. Boone, 62 F.3d 327, 330 (10th Cir. 1995); Manlove v. Tansy, 981 F.2d 473, 476 n.4 (10th Cir. 1992), we exercise our discretion to decline to raise that defense sua sponte.

C.

With regard to both nonexhaustion and procedural default, we are also persuaded that when the state has never raised an issue in either the district court or this Court we should be even less inclined to raise it sua sponte than when the state either has raised the issue here only belatedly or has raised it in the district court but has not pursued that line of attack in the court of appeals. But see Washington, 996 F.2d at 1448 n.3 (stating that complete failure to raise defense should be treated same as belatedly raising defense); Hardiman, 971 F.2d at 504 n.6 (same). In any of these situations, consideration of the issue contravenes our standard practice. However, where the issue has been raised either in the district court or the court of appeals, we are at least maintaining our roles as judges, addressing only the issues flagged, at some point, by the parties. Moreover, we are often aided in our endeavor by the fact that the district court has addressed the issue.

By contrast, where the state has never raised the issue at all, in any court, raising the issue sua sponte puts us in the untenable position of ferreting out possible defenses upon which the state has never sought to rely. When we do so, we come dangerously close to acting as advocates for the state rather than as impartial magistrates. See United States v. Burke, 504 U.S. 229, 246, 112 S.Ct. 1867, 1877 (1992) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment) ("The rule that points not argued will not be considered . . . at least in the vast majority of cases, distinguishes our adversary system of justice from the inquisitorial one."); accord Hardiman, 971 F.2d at 505. While considerations of federalism and comity sometimes weigh in favor of raising such issues sua sponte, consideration of that other great pillar of our judicial system -- restraint -- cuts sharply in the other direction.

We certainly have the discretion to raise these issues sua sponte. As Granberry and its progeny direct, that discretion should be exercised with reference to the values of federalism and comity, judicial efficiency, and the ends of justice. In cases in which an issue has not been raised by either party in either the district court or in this Court, we will decline to address the issue unless consideration of these factors clearly indicates that we should depart from our standard practice. We apply this presumption in such cases lest we subtly transform our adversarial system into an inquisitorial one.

The dissent has not persuaded us that consideration of federalism and comity, judicial efficiency, and the ends of justice clearly dictate that we consider the defenses of nonexhaustion and procedural default. Accordingly, we decline to do so.

III.

Smith argues that the jury instructions rendered by the trial court erroneously informed the jury that Smith could be convicted of first-degree murder even if he did not have the specific intent to kill. He asserts that the jury was incorrectly instructed that if it found beyond a reasonable doubt that one of the men had the specific intent to kill, and that Smith intended to commit the robbery that resulted in the killing, this would be sufficient to convict Smith of first-degree murder. He further argues that this instruction was incorrect under Pennsylvania law, and that this incorrect instruction violated his constitutional rights. The district court summarily rejected Smith's contention, stating: "Smith has raised several other arguments in his petition concerning both the guilt and penalty phases of his 1983 trial. These we find to be without merit." Smith v. Horn, 1996 WL 172047, at *15.

We conclude from a fair reading of the jury instructions that there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury convicted Smith of first-degree murder without finding beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended that Sharp be killed. Such an instruction is contrary to Pennsylvania law. We hold that these jury instructions had the effect of relieving the Commonwealth of its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt one of the elements of first-degree murder under Pennsylvania law. The delivery of these improper instructions amounted to a violation of Smith's right to a fair trial pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Finally, we hold that this constitutional error was not harmless and that Smith must be discharged unless the Commonwealth determines to retry him for first-degree murder.

A.

Under Pennsylvania law, both today and at the time of Smith's trial, an accomplice or co-conspirator in a crime during which a killing occurs may not be convicted of first-degree murder unless the Commonwealth proves that he harbored the specific intent to kill. See 18 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. Section(s) 2502(a) (West 1983); Commonwealth v. Huffman, 638 A.2d 961, 962-63, 964 (Pa. 1994); Commonwealth v. Bachert, 453 A.2d 931, 935 (Pa. 1982). This is so even where the identity of the actual killer is unknown. See Huffman, 638 A.2d at 964-65 (Papadakos, J., dissenting). The Commonwealth need not prove that the defendant actually performed the killing, see Commonwealth v. Bachert, 412 A.2d 580, 583 (Pa. Super. 1979), aff'd in part, rev'd on other grounds in part, 453 A.2d 931 (Pa. 1982), but it must prove he intended for the killing to occur. In other words, felony-murder simpliciter does not constitute murder in the first degree in Pennsylvania.

In Bachert, 453 A.2d at 933-34, the evidence showed that the defendant and a cohort committed a kidnaping and robbery, during the course of which the cohort killed the victim. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote that to constitute first-degree murder, the evidence had to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant harbored "a specific intent to kill." Id. at 935. It wrote:

To determine the kind of homicide of which the accomplice [defendant] is guilty, it is necessary to look to his state of mind; the requisite mental state must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be one which the accomplice harbored and cannot depend upon proof of intent to kill only in the principal. Id. (emphasis added).

In Huffman, 638 A.2d at 962, the trial court had advised the jury that

"in order to find a Defendant guilty of murder in the first degree, you must find that the Defendant caused the death of another person, or that an accomplice or co-conspirator caused the death of another person . That is, you must find that the Defendant's act or the act of an accomplice or co-conspirator is the legal cause of death of [the victim], and therefore you must determine if the killing was intentional."

(quoting trial transcript) (emphasis added) (alteration in original). This, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held, was "patently erroneous" and "an outright misstatement of the law on a fundamental issue relating to culpability." Id. The court wrote that Bachert "express[ly] and unambiguous[ly]" held that an accomplice to an underlying felony that results in death could be convicted of first-degree murder only if the Commonwealth proves that the accomplice specifically intended to kill. Id. at 962-63.

The Commonwealth cites in its reply brief two cases in support of the proposition that a shared intent to enter into a conspiracy to commit a crime is sufficient to confer criminal liability for a killing that is the natural and probable result of the conspiracy, even if the killing were not shown to be specifically intended by the defendant. See Commonwealth v. Roux, 350 A.2d 867, 870 (Pa. 1976); Commonwealth v. La, 640 A.2d 1336, 1345-46 (Pa. Super. 1994). However, neither of these cases involved first-degree murder. See Roux, 350 A.2d at 868 (second-degree murder and conspiracy); *fn3 La, 640 A.2d at 1340 (third-degree murder and conspiracy); see also Huffman, 638 A.2d at 964 n.9 (criticizing dissent for relying on cases involving manslaughter and lesser degrees of murder). As the Commonwealth unambiguously conceded at oral argument, Huffman and Bachert make clear that specific intent to commit a killing, not simply intent to commit some other crime from which a killing results, is a prerequisite to a conviction for first-degree murder in Pennsylvania. Cf. Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137, 175 n.13, 107 S.Ct. 1676, 1697 n.13 (1987) (Brennan, J., dissenting) (listing Pennsylvania as a jurisdiction that "restrict[s] the imposition of capital punishment to those who actually and intentionally kill").

B.

Our analysis of jury instructions claimed to impair a constitutional right "must focus initially on the specific language challenged." Francis v. Franklin, 471 U.S. 307, 315, 105 S.Ct. 1965, 1971 (1985); see also Rock v. Zimmerman, 959 F.2d 1237, 1246 (3d Cir. 1992) (en banc). The allegedly constitutionally infirm language must be considered in the context of the charge as a whole. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 72, 112 S.Ct. 475, 482 (1991); Flamer v. Delaware, 68 F.3d 736, 752 (3d Cir. 1995); Kontakis v. Beyer, 19 F.3d 110, 115-16 (3d Cir. 1994). The proper inquiry is " `whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury has applied the challenged instructions in a way' that violates the Constitution." Estelle, 502 U.S. at 72, 112 S.Ct. at 482 (quoting Boyde v. California, 494 U.S. 370, 380, 110 S.Ct. 1190, 1198 (1990)) (emphasis added); see also Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 6, 114 S.Ct. 1239, 1243 (1994); Flamer, 68 F.3d at 752.

A fair reading of the jury instructions given in this case permitted the jury to convict Smith of murder in the first degree without first finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Smith intended that Sharp be killed. Portions of the instructions are ambiguous as to the requisite finding of intent. Other portions affirmatively inform the jury that it need not find beyond a reasonable doubt that Smith specifically intended that the victim die in order for Smith to be guilty of murder in the first degree. Taken as a whole, there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury understood the instructions in this way.

One of the two portions of the jury charge that specifically mentions first-degree murder reads as follows:

[T]he elements of first degree murder are the unlawful killing of another person done intentionally; that is, willfully, deliberately and with premeditation, plus malice, as I will define that term to you. If these elements have been established beyond a reasonable doubt, you may, on the theory that one was the perpetrator and the other the accomplice, find Clifford Smith guilty of murder in the first degree . . . .

Cross App. at 1035 (emphasis added). Taken in isolation, this charge might convey the idea that the jury must find that Smith harbored the specific intent to kill Sharp. This interpretation would be reasonable only if the jury were to understand the word "accomplice" to mean "accomplice in the killing," and not simply "accomplice in the robbery." Only in that way would the instructions convey the critical idea that Smith must be found to have intended to kill Sharp for Smith to be found guilty of first-degree murder.

Taken together with the remainder of the pertinent instructions, it is clear that jury was not made to understand "accomplice" in this way. In other portions of the charge, in which the trial court mentioned the killing but did not specifically discuss first-degree murder, the court generally did not clarify whether it was using "accomplice" in reference to the robbery, the killing, or both. Further, when it did make the meaning of "accomplice" reasonably clear, it appears that the court was using that term in reference to the robbery only.

For example, the court instructed:

[T]he Commonwealth must prove all of the elements of the case beyond a reasonable doubt, but [it] do[es] not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt which of the two, Smith or Alston, actually brought about the killing of Richard Sharp by showing who pulled the trigger and plac[ed] the shot in his head. If, and I emphasize this, you find that one was the accomplice of the other and that one of the two actually performed the killing, you, the jurors, need not agree on the role or roles played by the respective parties; that is, by this defendant and his accomplice, if you find that that was the position of both, provided that each of you is satisfied that the crime was actually perpetrated by the defendant or by the accomplice of the defendant.

Conversely, if you find that one was not the accomplice of the other but that a criminal homicide occurred, then you must decide who performed the act of killing and, of course, it follows that if Alston was the killer and Smith was not his accomplice, he, Smith, would not be guilty of the crime of murder for the Commonwealth has not proven this accomplice theory beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 1031-32 (emphasis added).

The court also instructed:

[I]f . . . you find that Smith and Alston were accomplices of each other, then it is not important for you to determine which one actually pulled the trigger that brought about the killing of Richard Sharp, if you find beyond a reasonable doubt that one of the two did so and were [sic] acting as the accomplice of each other at the time. In order, however, to find Clifford Smith to be guilty, you need not conclude, as I said that he was the actor; that is, if I can use the word "shooter," but he was, nevertheless, acting as an accomplice of Alston and it was his intent of promoting or facilitating that act and the killing was done in furtherance of the robberies, if you so find, then he would be guilty as though he were the actual perpetrator. Id. at 1030-31 (emphasis added).

The jury was further instructed on "the distinction between third degree murder and first degree murder." Id. at 1057. Murder in the third degree occurs where"the perpetrator, *fn4 or his accomplice . . . [w]as . . . acting willfully, deliberately and with premeditation, although . . . not having the specific intent to kill." Id. (emphasis added). The clear implication is that first-degree murder occurs where "the perpetrator, or his accomplice" did have "the specific intent to kill."

In these portions of the charge, the court did not clarify whether "accomplice" means "accomplice in the killing," "accomplice in the robbery," or both. The charge thus blurred the distinction between "accomplice in the robbery" and "accomplice in the killing," leading the jury to believe that an accomplice for one purpose is an accomplice for all purposes. This confusion was exacerbated when, in the course of enumerating the elements of second-degree murder, the court repeatedly used the word "accomplice" to mean "accomplice in the robbery." Without an explicit disclaimer, it is extremely unlikely that the jury understood the same word to have two different meanings when used only moments apart in the same charge. The charge thus allowed Smith to be convicted of first-degree murder if the jury found that either he or his accomplice in the robbery intended to kill Sharp.

Additionally, with regard to the conspiracy count


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.