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Commonwealth v. Sinnott

June 23, 2009


Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence November 26, 2007, In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Division at No. CP-51-CR-0007913-2007.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bender, J.

Petition for Reargument Filed July 8, 2009



¶ 1 Daniel Sinnott appeals the judgment of sentence imposed following his conviction of Terroristic Threats and Ethnic Intimidation, 18 Pa.C.S. §§ 2706(a), 2710(a) (respectively). Sinnott contends that the Commonwealth failed to adduce sufficient evidence in support of either conviction and asserts accordingly that his judgment of sentence must be reversed. We find the evidence ample to sustain Sinnott's conviction of Terroristic Threats, but insufficient to sustain his conviction of Ethnic Intimidation. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of sentence in part and reverse in part.

¶ 2 Sinnott's conviction arose out of his angry escalation of a dispute with victim Evelin Rojas (Rojas) after Rojas observed Sinnott in a tirade throwing power tools at the rear steps of the home where Rojas's parents lived. Rojas's father, Benny Rojas, was Sinnott's employer and also owned the home next door where Sinnott lived with his family. Rojas, while visiting with her mother in the kitchen of her parents' home, heard Sinnott outside shouting, swearing, and slamming doors. Although the women at first discounted the display, Rojas eventually ventured from the house to investigate, at which point Sinnott threw power tools that Rojas's father had given to him down on the steps where Rojas was standing. When Rojas admonished Sinnott that he could have hurt her, he berated her as a "fucking bitch" and a whore, and asserted angrily that Rojas's father had cheated him. N.T., 11/26/07, at 8-10. He then insulted Rojas for her supposed ethnicity saying "Fuck you, Mexicans. Go back across the border," and made repeated references to the Alamo. Id. Although Rojas corrected Sinnott and told him that she and her family were not Mexican, but Puerto Rican, he continued to rail against her and her family, asserting that they were Panamanian. He also threatened that when her father returned, the two men would go for a drive but that Mr. Rojas would not return as Sinnott was going to kill him.

¶ 3 When Rojas and her mother went to a house across the street to sit on the front steps and smoke, Sinnott followed them and as they sat, approached with an electric drill that he revved as he got nearer, prompting Rojas and her mother to rise and prepare to run to safety. Although Sinnott then diverted his course, Rojas called 911. When the police responded and warned Sinnott to stop his belligerent behavior, he complied only momentarily and resumed after they left, continuing to berate the Rojas women as they sat on the steps, calling them "animals" and "Mexicans" and asserting that "this country belongs to him and his white people." N.T., 6/27/07, at 8. Ultimately, after Sinnott had walked around the block for some forty-five minutes, he charged at Rojas, wielding a hammer as if to strike her. As Rojas grabbed Sinnott's arm to restrain him and shield herself from the impending blow, her long fingernails snagged in his shirt. Id. at 10. As Sinnott pushed against her and the two struggled, four of Rojas's nails were ripped from the nail beds, causing her hands to bleed. N.T., 11/26/07, at 25-31. Rojas's nails took several months to grow back. Id.

¶ 4 In response to an additional 911 call, the Philadelphia police reported to the scene to find Rojas shaking and injured, and Sinnott barricaded in his house. Id. Sinnott would not come out and spoke to the police through the open windows of the house, telling them to "get the fuck out of here" and to check Rojas's "green card." Id. Although Rojas's father, having since returned, used his keys to allow the police to enter Sinnott's house, the police found the doors obstructed by furniture piled against them and ultimately entered through a side door that Sinnott had not thought to block. Id. Once inside, the police found an electric drill on the floor next to Sinnott and arrested him for the crimes later charged in the information. Id.

¶ 5 Following a preliminary hearing, Sinnott waived his right to a jury and the case proceeded to trial before a judge sitting as finder of fact. The court found Sinnott guilty of Simple Assault, Terroristic Threats, Possessing an Instrument of Crime (PIC), and Ethnic Intimidation, and imposed a sentence of four years' probation for Terroristic Threats consecutive to four months' to twenty-three months' imprisonment for Simple Assault. The court imposed no further penalty for PIC or Ethnic Intimidation. Sinnott then filed this appeal, raising the following questions for our consideration:

1. Was not the evidence insufficient for conviction on the charge of Terroristic Threats, insofar as there was no evidence of a settled intent to terrorize, and appellant's words were the product of transitory anger?

2. Was not the evidence insufficient for conviction on the charge of ethnic intimidation, insofar as there was no evidence that appellant was motivated by the hatred of the victim's race, color, religion, or national origin, or that such hatred was the underlying cause of appellant's behavior?

Brief for Appellant at 3.

¶ 6 Both of Sinnott's questions challenge the legal sufficiency of the evidence. Brief for Appellant at 8. As a general matter, our standard of review of sufficiency claims requires that we evaluate the record "in the light most favorable to the verdict winner giving the prosecution the benefit of all reasonable inferences to be drawn from the evidence." Commonwealth v. Widmer, 744 A.2d 745, 751 (Pa. 2000).

"Evidence will be deemed sufficient to support the verdict when it establishes each material element of the crime charged and the commission thereof by the accused, beyond a reasonable doubt." Nevertheless, "the Commonwealth need not establish guilt to a mathematical certainty," and may sustain its burden by means of wholly circumstantial evidence. Significantly, "[we] may not substitute [our] judgment ...

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