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Commonwealth v. Hairston

December 28, 2009


Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Criminal Division, at No. 200109056, dated July 11, 2002.

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


ARGUED: September 16, 2009


Appellant Kenneth Hairston appeals from a death sentence imposed by the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. Appellant was convicted of killing his wife, Katherine, and teenage son, Sean. At the penalty phase, the jury found two aggravating circumstances that outweighed the two mitigating circumstances it also found. The trial court sentenced Appellant to death. Appellant failed to file either post-sentence motions or an appeal until after the window for each had closed, and Appellant never requested that the trial court reinstate his appeal rights nunc pro tunc. Consequently, as discussed infra, Appellant has waived the individual claims he brings before this Court, and the case is now before us under the limited scope of our automatic review.*fn1 We affirm Appellant's first-degree murder convictions and the sentence of death.


On May 20, 2000, Appellant's stepdaughter, Chetia Hurtt, and her boyfriend, Jeffrey Johnson, returned to Hurtt's apartment from a movie to discover several voicemail messages left by Appellant, questioning where Hurtt was and when she would be home. Hurtt, 21, had known Appellant since he married her mother when Hurtt was five years old, and had lived under the same roof as Appellant, her mother (Katherine Hairston), Appellant's autistic son (Sean Hairston), and her grandmother (Goldie Hurtt), until Hurtt moved out approximately one month earlier. During Hurtt's adolescence, her relationship with Appellant deteriorated. Appellant prohibited Hurtt from socializing with males and frequently threatened that he would kill her and the rest of her family.

Bothered by the phone messages that May evening, Hurtt asked Johnson to spend the night. The following morning, May 21, 2000, Appellant arrived at Hurtt's apartment with a handgun, which he was not licensed to carry. After being let into the apartment, Appellant instructed Hurtt to tell Johnson to leave. When Hurtt did not comply, Appellant threatened to kill Hurtt, Johnson, and himself, and stated that he would not go to jail. Despite Hurtt's protests that Johnson should stay--for fear of what might happen should he leave--Johnson left the apartment. Appellant pointed the gun at Hurtt's face and said, "If you're going to be F'ing anybody, it's going to be me." N.T., 04/15/2002, at 52. Hurtt pleaded with Appellant not to hurt her, but he took her into the bedroom. Appellant removed his clothes and tried to remove Hurtt's clothes, but she resisted.

Meanwhile, Johnson stopped Sergeant William Gorman of the Pittsburgh Police Department and explained what was occurring. The police went to the apartment and announced their presence. Appellant pulled the ammunition clip out of the gun, threw it behind the door, and slid the gun underneath the bed. Hurtt escaped through the front door of the apartment. The police found a half-naked Appellant in the apartment. He claimed that he lived in the apartment with his daughter and came home to find her with Johnson. A Bryco-Arms 0.380 semi-automatic pistol was recovered from the bedroom. Appellant, yelling, "I can't go to jail," broke away from police as they were bringing him out of the apartment building. Appellant then jumped headfirst off a small roof to the ground fifteen-to-twenty feet below. Appellant got back on his feet and again began yelling, "I can't go to jail. I'm not going to jail." Id. at 91. As a result of these events, criminal charges were filed against Appellant.

One year later, in the morning hours of June 11, 2001, Appellant called the dispatcher at the school bus company that transported Sean Hairston, who was autistic, to school and requested that the bus not pick up Sean. Appellant spoke separately with two neighbors outside of his home that morning, each of whom noticed that Appellant smelled of alcohol and was very agitated. Appellant told both neighbors that he was upset about his stepdaughter's accusations, telling one neighbor that he would not go back to jail and that if he had to go to jail he "would probably do [him]self in." Id. at 102.

Shortly thereafter, thick black smoke was seen coming out of Appellant's home. Firefighters who reported to the scene found both the front and back doors locked and barricaded. Finally, the firefighters gained entry. They discovered that the house was covered in garbage bags and debris. They retrieved Sean, who was lying underneath bags and debris, on the living room couch. His face and head were covered with a blanket. He was brought outside alive to paramedics. However, he died while being treated at the hospital after suffering two cardiac arrests. The injuries leading to his death were two or three incidents of blunt force trauma to his head.

Firefighters re-entered the house and found Appellant inside the kitchen, at the top of the basement stairwell. Appellant had several puncture wounds to his chest and a laceration on the right side of his neck. He was extremely combative with paramedics, and had to be restrained with handcuffs and stretcher straps, then ultimately paralytic drugs, before being transported to the hospital.

Firefighters also found Katherine in the kitchen. She was found with a hole in the side of her head, and was dead weight upon being brought out of the house. Toxicology screening showed no evidence of carbon monoxide or cyanide in her blood stream. Goldie Hurtt, who had previously suffered three strokes and a heart attack, was found incapacitated in an upstairs bedroom and was removed safely from the house.

In the kitchen, police found a large amount of blood in front of the refrigerator. Two knives were found in the kitchen. Sheets and bedding materials were found on the floors and counters. Four days after the fire, the Hairston family dog ...

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