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11/20/97 COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. WILLIAM R.

November 20, 1997

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE
v.
WILLIAM R. GRIBBLE, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of Death, Entered on August 11, 1994, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Trial Division, at 92-12-2081-2092. JUDGES BELOW: Hon. Paul Ribner.

Before: Nix, C.j., Flaherty, Zappala, Cappy, Castille, Nigro And Newman, JJ. Former Chief Justice Nix did not participate in the decision of this case.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Newman

MADAME JUSTICE NEWMAN

Decided: November 20, 1997

After a joint, nonjury trial, the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court) convicted Appellant, William R. Gribble (Gribble), and his co-defendant, Kelley O'Donnell (O'Donnell), of first degree murder *fn1 for the death of Eleftherios Eleftheriou (Eleftheriou). The trial court also convicted Gribble of criminal conspiracy, *fn2 possessing instruments of crime, *fn3 robbery, *fn4 theft by unlawful taking, *fn5 unauthorized use of automobiles, *fn6 arson, *fn7 risking a catastrophe, *fn8 forgery, *fn9 abuse of a corpse *fn10 and credit card fraud. *fn11 Following the penalty phase, the trial court concluded that the one aggravating circumstance it found outweighed the two mitigating circumstances it found, and sentenced Gribble to death. *fn12 The trial court denied Gribble's post-trial motions and formally imposed the sentence of death. *fn13 The trial court also imposed various prison sentences for the other crimes that Gribble committed. This case is now before us on direct appeal pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(1). For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the judgment of sentence imposed by the trial court.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

In cases of first degree murder where the death penalty has been imposed, this Court performs an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the conviction for first degree murder, regardless of whether the appellant seeks such review. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 500 Pa. 16, 26 n.3, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n.3 (1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1327, 103 S. Ct. 2444 (1983). Here, Gribble specifically challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions for first degree murder and for robbery. When reviewing a sufficiency of the evidence claim, an appellate court must view all of the evidence, and the reasonable inferences to be drawn from that evidence, in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner and must determine if the evidence was sufficient to enable the fact finder to conclude that all of the elements of the offenses were established beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Burgos, 530 Pa. 473, 610 A.2d 11 (1992).

Viewed under this standard, the evidence establishes that in early November of 1992, Gribble, an admitted drug addict, and his girlfriend, O'Donnell, were staying in an apartment at 3123 Richmond Street in Philadelphia. The apartment belonged to Agnes McClinchey (McClinchey), who had given Gribble and O'Donnell permission to stay in the apartment while she traveled to western Pennsylvania. James Mathews (Mathews), an elderly friend of McClinchey who drank heavily, also resided in the apartment.

At approximately 10:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 11, 1992, O'Donnell arrived at a pizza shop that Eleftheriou managed. O'Donnell offered to pawn a leather jacket to Eleftheriou in exchange for ten dollars. An employee of the pizza shop observed Eleftheriou remove a "whole lot of money" in a roll from his pocket to pay O'Donnell for the jacket. O'Donnell and Eleftheriou then made arrangements to meet later that evening. After closing the pizza shop at 1:00 a.m. on November 12, 1992, Eleftheriou left in his car to meet O'Donnell. He met O'Donnell on a street corner and accompanied her to the apartment at 3123 Richmond Street.

In a sworn confession later given to police, Gribble stated that he arrived at the apartment at approximately 2:00 a.m. and saw Eleftheriou and O'Donnell on the couch together. Mathews was asleep in a back room. According to Gribble, Eleftheriou "was feeling all over" O'Donnell. Gribble then "freaked." He hit Eleftheriou once with his fist, grabbed a hammer that was resting on a television, and beat Eleftheriou approximately ten or fifteen times with the hammer until Gribble "knew [Eleftheriou] was dead." Gribble claimed that O'Donnell left the apartment at some point during the attack on Eleftheriou. Next, Gribble dragged Eleftheriou's body behind the house, covered him with a piece of plywood, and returned to the house to decide what to do. A short time later, Gribble uncovered Eleftheriou's body, dropped him through an access hole into the basement, and began to dismember the body. While Gribble was carving apart the body, O'Donnell returned to the apartment and said she was sick. O'Donnell telephoned police, who dispatched a rescue squad to the apartment. After the rescue squad arrived and transported O'Donnell to the hospital, Gribble said he returned to the basement and finished dismembering Eleftheriou. Gribble also admitted that he cut off Eleftheriou's penis "for spite." He then bagged the body parts and cleaned the basement. O'Donnell came back from the hospital a few hours later and she and Gribble went to sleep.

According to Gribble's confession, they awoke early on the morning of Thursday, November 12, 1992, and he loaded the body into Eleftheriou's car. He drove to Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia and threw half of the bags from the car into a dump site. Gribble said he then took the remainder of the bags back to the apartment and he and O'Donnell went to sleep. Gribble also admitted that he took money and a credit card from Eleftheriou's wallet, and later that evening, he and O'Donnell drove to a children's clothing store in Philadelphia, where O'Donnell used Eleftheriou's credit card to purchase clothing for Gribble's children. *fn14

On the morning of Friday, November 13, 1992, Philadelphia police received a report that someone had found human body parts in a trash dump in the 3900 block of North Delaware Avenue. When they arrived on the scene, they found a blood stained quilt and a left arm next to a trash bag. Inside another nearby trash bag, they found a torso with the head missing. In a smaller bag there was a blood-covered head, with the left eye missing. A short distance away, police found a right arm inside another bag. These body parts were later identified as belonging to Eleftheriou. Among papers strewn around the site, police found a letter addressed to Agnes McClinchey, 3123 Richmond Street, Philadelphia.

Later on November 13, 1992, McClinchey returned to 3123 Richmond Street from western Pennsylvania. She found blood on the front door and a stain on the carpet. She also noticed that the walls were cleaner than when she left. O'Donnell told McClinchey that she and Gribble were involved in a murder and that the victim's head had been found on Delaware Avenue. McClinchey also heard O'Donnell tell Gribble to burn the car. When Gribble returned from this task, O'Donnell said to him "thank God, you didn't get caught." That same evening, police received a report of a car fire on D Street. When police and fire fighters arrived on the scene, they found a car in flames. After extinguishing the fire, police examined the interior of the car and found two human legs and the lower portion of a male torso with its penis missing. The body parts were later identified as belonging to Eleftheriou.

McClinchey subsequently called the police, who interviewed her at a gas station near her apartment. The police then went to her apartment and arrested Gribble and O'Donnell. A search of the basement revealed, among other things, a serrated kitchen knife, a chisel, and a claw hammer, each containing traces of human tissue and blood. Stuffed inside a pipe, police found a pencil case containing a human eye and a penis. Police took Gribble and O'Donnell into custody for questioning. After waiving their rights, Gribble and O'Donnell gave their separate statements confessing to the murder of Eleftheriou.

At trial, an assistant medical examiner testified that there were numerous abrasions on Eleftheriou's head that were consistent with blows from a hammer. The injuries to Eleftheriou's head indicated that he was not moving when most of the blows were inflicted. The assistant medical examiner also testified that red abrasions at the site where the head and right arm were sawed off indicate that the heart was still beating when those body parts were severed. He further testified that it would have taken two people working together to dismember Eleftheriou's body in the estimated fifteen minutes before he bled to death.

To sustain a conviction for first degree murder, the Commonwealth must prove that a human being was unlawfully killed; that the accused did the killing; that the killing was done with malice aforethought; and that the killing was willful, deliberate and premeditated. Commonwealth v. Mitchell, 528 Pa. 546, 599 A.2d 624 (1991). The element that distinguishes first degree murder from all other degrees of murder is the presence of a willful, deliberate and premeditated intent to kill. Commonwealth v. Wilson, 543 Pa. 429, 672 A.2d 293, cert. denied, 136 L. Ed. 2d 255, 117 S. Ct. 364 (1996). This specific intent to kill may be proven by circumstantial evidence. Id. Such circumstantial evidence may consist of the accused's use of a deadly weapon on a vital part of the victim's body. Commonwealth v. Rivers, 537 Pa. 394, 644 A.2d 710 (1994), cert. denied, 134 L. Ed. 2d 217, 116 S. Ct. 1270 (1996).

Gribble argues that the evidence here was insufficient to prove that he had a specific intent to kill Eleftheriou. *fn15 Specifically, Gribble claims the trial court erroneously found that he used a deadly weapon on a vital part of the body by relying on the fact that Eleftheriou's heart was still beating when Gribble cut off his head and right arm. Gribble contends that although Eleftheriou was not technically dead at this point, Gribble believed him to be dead, and Gribble's attempt at dismemberment after his apparent death cannot be evidence of a specific intent to kill. In support of this argument, he relies on the following exchange between defense counsel and the court during closing arguments:

MR. MIRARCHI: What the District Attorney wants you to do is . . . believe that because this man was dismembered and because his heart was still beating at the time, that that shows a specific intent.

THE COURT: The law is that using a deadly weapon on a vital part of the body can be evidence of intent to kill.

MR. MIRARCHI: Right.

THE COURT: When you chop somebody's head off while the heart is still beating, that's a pretty vital part.

MR. MIRARCHI: Judge, of course it is. Of course it is.

Notes of testimony, June 30, 1993 at 507-08.

Although the trial court may have explored during oral argument whether specific intent could be inferred from Gribble's severance of Eleftheriou's head, it is clear that in its Opinion, the trial court based the finding of specific intent on Gribble's use of a hammer on Eleftheriou's head. The trial court held that "smashing [Eleftheriou's] skull with a hammer" supports a finding that a deadly weapon was used on a vital part of the victim's body and "permits an inference of a specific intent to kill." Trial Court Opinion at 4. Indeed, this court has held that the use of a hammer on a vital part of the victim's body provides sufficient evidence for a fact finder to infer a specific intent to kill. Commonwealth v. Marshall, 534 Pa. 488, 633 A.2d 1100 (1993) (hammer blows to body of young girl were sufficient to demonstrate specific intent to kill); Commonwealth v. Goins, 508 Pa. 270, 495 A.2d 527 (1985) (approximately twenty-five hammer blows to the head supported finding of specific intent to kill); see also Commonwealth v. Nelson, 514 Pa. 262, 523 A.2d 728, cert. denied, 484 U.S. 928, 98 L. Ed. 2d 253, 108 S. Ct. 293 (1987) (striking the head with a hammer, stabbing the chest with a chisel, and strangling the neck with an electric cord showed specific intent to kill). Accordingly, even assuming Eleftheriou was dead when Gribble severed his head and right arm, the ten to fifteen hammer blows that Gribble admittedly rained on Eleftheriou's head while he was alive were more than sufficient to establish Gribble's specific intent to kill.

Gribble further argues that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the killing was premeditated, and therefore, there was no specific intent to kill. In a related argument, he also claims that the Commonwealth failed to present sufficient evidence to establish its theory that he and O'Donnell killed Eleftheriou as part of a preconceived robbery. *fn16 We disagree. The evidence adduced at trial showed that O'Donnell went to the pizza shop to pawn a leather jacket and noticed that Eleftheriou was carrying a large amount of cash. She arranged to meet him after work and brought him back to McClinchey's apartment where she and Gribble had been staying. Although Gribble claims to have interrupted Eleftheriou's assault on O'Donnell and grabbed a hammer from on top of the television set, McClinchey testified that her tool box was usually kept in the basement, thus supporting the Commonwealth's theory that the hammer was brought from the basement in anticipation of the attack on Eleftheriou. Additionally, the assistant medical examiner testified that it would have taken two people to dismember Eleftheriou's body in the estimated fifteen minutes before he bled to death. Moreover, on the day of the killing, Gribble took Eleftheriou's cash and credit card, and then he and O'Donnell drove Eleftheriou's car to a store to buy clothing for Gribble's children with the credit card. Viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, this evidence is sufficient to support the inference that Gribble and O'Donnell formed a premeditated plan to lure Eleftheriou to the apartment with the intention to kill him and rob him of the money that O'Donnell had seen him carrying earlier. Commonwealth v. Breakiron, 524 Pa. 282, 571 A.2d 1035, cert. denied, 498 U.S. 881, 112 L. Ed. 2d 179, 111 S. Ct. 224 (1990) (circumstantial evidence and reasonable inferences drawn from that evidence are sufficient to demonstrate that the defendant killed the victim in the course of a robbery).

Gribble next claims that he was incapable of forming the requisite specific intent to kill necessary for first degree murder because he had consumed drugs and alcohol on the day of the killing, and therefore, the trial court erred in convicting him of first degree murder. Voluntary intoxication can reduce the crime of murder from first degree to third degree. 18 Pa.C.S. § 308; Marshall. Evidence of intoxication induced by drugs or alcohol, however, does not by itself negate otherwise sufficient evidence of specific intent. Wilson. Instead, the evidence must show that the defendant was overwhelmed by an intoxicant to the point of losing his faculties. Wilson ; Commonwealth v. Edmiston, 535 Pa. 210, 634 A.2d 1078 (1993). The fact finder can choose to believe any, all, or none of the defendant's testimony concerning his intoxication. Commonwealth v. Stoyko, 504 Pa. 455, 475 A.2d 714, cert. denied, 469 U.S. 963, 83 L. Ed. 2d 297, 105 S. Ct. 361 (1984).

The only evidence of intoxication adduced during the trial was Gribble's statement to police, in which he claimed that he was "out drinking" on the night of the murder, admitted to being a drug addict, and admitted to using drugs almost forty-eight hours after the murder. Gribble's bare assertion that he was "out drinking" on the night of the murder, without more, is insufficient to show that alcohol overwhelmed him to the point where he lost his faculties. Wilson ; Edmiston. Additionally, his admissions that he is a drug addict and that he used drugs after the murder lend no support to his claim that he was intoxicated at the time of the murder. To the contrary, Gribble's statement showed that he was sufficiently in control of his ...


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