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Commonwealth v. Walter

March 20, 2009


Appeal from the Order dated April 19, 2005 of the Court of Common Pleas of Clinton County, Criminal Division, No. 179-2003.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Madame Justice Greenspan


SUBMITTED: December 2, 2008


This is a direct capital appeal following Appellant's conviction for first-degree murder and the trial court's imposition of the death sentence.*fn1 We affirm.

On Sunday, March 31, 2003, Lock Haven police discovered the dead body of James Sementelli inside his home. Mr. Sementelli, an 83 year-old veteran, had suffered a brutal attack. He sustained over 60 wounds, 18 fractures, and 45 bruises to various parts of his body, many of them to his head, face, and neck. Mr. Sementelli's left ear was nearly severed from his head. His nasal bone and skull were fractured and his right eye punctured. He had numerous defensive wounds on his arms and hands and multiple gaping chop wounds all over his body. The killer used a hatchet.

Based on a number of factors, including the last time the victim was seen alive, as well as old newspapers found on his porch and another paper found near his body, police determined that Mr. Sementelli had been murdered on Tuesday, March 25, 2003. The investigation soon focused on Appellant Shonda Dee Walter, a young woman who lived with her mother in a house across the street from Mr. Sementelli.

A neighbor, Monica Rupert, told police that she saw Appellant pacing outside the Sementelli residence on the evening of the 25th, talking on a cordless telephone. Appellant's mother, Judith Walter, told police that her daughter had been out of the house on that evening, only to return later and leave again, taking the telephone with her. Mrs. Walter never saw her daughter again that night, but when she awoke the next morning she noticed that the phone had been returned and Appellant had left a note explaining that she was staying at her friend Michelle's house.

Shanee Gaines became the Commonwealth's primary witness against Appellant. Gaines, who lived in Williamsport, knew Appellant through Michelle Mathis, a young woman who was allegedly a member of the Bloods street gang and lived on the same street as Gaines. According to Gaines, she was at Mathis's home on the night of the murder, caring for Mathis's child. Mathis had been involved in an altercation on the street earlier that evening and had been taken to the hospital for treatment. While Mathis was at the hospital, Appellant appeared at Mathis's Williamsport residence. Appellant was driving Mr. Sementelli's white Toyota. Gaines granted Appellant entrance to Mathis's home and noticed that Appellant had blood on her forehead and was wearing rubber gloves that also had blood on them. Appellant promptly went upstairs to shower while Gaines waited downstairs. At some point Mathis returned. Ultimately, the three women left the house and traveled in Mr. Sementelli's car to his house in Lock Haven. While en route, Appellant told Gaines and Mathis that she had killed the victim and described how she struck him repeatedly with the hatchet while she ignored his pleas that she call for help.

When the trio arrived at Mr. Sementelli's house, Appellant used a key to enter and showed the other two women the victim's body. According to Gaines, the purpose of the visit was to dispose of a cigarette that Appellant had left at the scene and to remove the body from the house. Gaines refused to assist Appellant and Mathis and quickly returned to the car. Appellant and Mathis soon joined her, with Appellant carrying a large plastic tub of quarters. Before leaving, Appellant ran into her mother's house to leave a note and get a change of clothes. The women then drove to a grocery store and redeemed the coins, receiving a receipt for $510.25 from a coin machine.*fn2 The supermarket video camera recorded the women's visit. During the drive back to Williamsport, Appellant flung the hatchet from the car into a wooded area.

Gaines's involvement with Appellant continued in the hours and days after the murder. That same night, the three women purchased some marijuana and then watched movies together at Gaines's house.*fn3 A few days later, Gaines accompanied Appellant and others, including her good friend Aaron Jones, on a trip to Philadelphia where Appellant attempted to sell Mr. Sementelli's car. Appellant told Jones and others that the car belonged to her father, who had died, and she wanted to sell it because she had "bad memories" about it. When the sale was unsuccessful, the group returned to Williamsport and Appellant permitted Jones to drive the vehicle. Police stopped Jones while he was driving the car and Gaines feared that Jones, who knew nothing about Mr. Sementelli's death, would be implicated in the crime. As a result, Gaines contacted police and told them everything she knew.

Police recovered the hatchet, which a Williamsport resident found on his property days after the murder and turned over to state police. Blood on the hatchet matched that of Mr. Sementelli. A friend of Appellant's told police that a similar hatchet had been stolen from his parents' house years earlier during a party that Appellant attended. The friend's father confirmed that the murder weapon was the one he had owned. Another Williamsport resident told police that she had seen Appellant wearing a hatchet on her belt in the weeks before the murder. Appellant's mother explained that when Appellant moved into her house with her young daughter in 2002, one of Appellant's possessions was a hatchet, which she placed in a kitchen drawer. When Appellant was arrested, Mrs. Walter searched for the hatchet with police, but it was no longer in the drawer.

Appellant was charged with the murder of Mr. Sementelli and felony theft of his automobile. The Commonwealth gave notice of its intent to seek the death penalty, based on a single aggravating circumstance: murder committed while in the perpetration of a felony. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6). Appellant was bound over for trial in May 2003. Following an unsuccessful attempt to dismiss the aggravating circumstance, Appellant was convicted of first-degree murder and felony theft on April 18, 2005. A penalty hearing followed, at which Appellant asserted three mitigating circumstances.*fn4 The jury found the single aggravating circumstance and no mitigating circumstances. It returned a sentence of death, which the trial court formally imposed on April 19, 2005. This automatic appeal followed.

Appellant raises four issues on appeal, none of which are completely clear in their rationale and some of which are unintelligible. Appellant makes no claims with respect to the guilt phase of her trial. At the conclusion of her brief, Appellant asks that this Court "consider vacating the death sentence imposed upon [her]." Appellant's Brief at 11. Before we address Appellant's issues, we begin with our mandatory, independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support the conviction for first-degree murder. Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 454 A.2d 937 (Pa. 1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 970, reh'g denied, 463 U.S. 1236 (1983). Our task is to determine "whether the evidence, and all the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, is sufficient to establish that the jury could have reasonably determined that all the elements of the offenses were established beyond a reasonable doubt." ...

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