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Commonwealth v. Johnson

December 29, 2009

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE
v.
KAREEM JOHNSON, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County entered at No. CP-51-CR-1300424-2006 on July 3, 2007

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice McCAFFERY

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, GREENSPAN, JJ.

ARGUED: April 15, 2009

OPINION

On December 15, 2002, Appellant and at least one other person shot Walter Smith to death on the street in front of a bar in North Philadelphia. Some three months before his violent death, Mr. Smith had told police that an acquaintance of Appellant's, Clinton Robinson, was responsible for the August 2002 murder of another person, Margaret Thomas. Appellant was arrested in May 2006, for the murder of Mr. Smith. The Commonwealth's theory of the case was that Appellant had killed Mr. Smith in order to prevent him from testifying against Mr. Robinson. The Commonwealth relied upon physical evidence that included the following: 1) two different types of ammunition recovered from the murder scene as well as from Mr. Smith's body, showing that Appellant had acted in concert with at least one other individual in the murder; and 2) a red baseball-type cap found at the scene that contained Appellant's DNA on the sweatband and Mr. Smith's DNA in blood stains on the brim. In addition, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of Bryant Younger, who had heard Appellant make two statements with which he implicated himself in Mr. Smith's murder. The defense sought to cast doubt upon the Commonwealth's evidence largely by challenging the significance of the DNA evidence and by characterizing Mr. Younger as a "rat" who would do anything to avoid an impending life sentence for a federal drug conviction.

Appellant was convicted by a jury in June 2007, of first-degree murder, criminal conspiracy, and possession of an instrument of crime. Appellant was sentenced to death after the jury found that any mitigating circumstances were outweighed by the aggravating circumstance that Appellant had a significant history of felony convictions involving the use of violence to the person.*fn1 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(9). Appellant was also sentenced to a concurrent term of 20 to 40 years' imprisonment on the conspiracy conviction. Appellant now appeals his judgment of sentence to this Court and raises six guilt phase issues and one penalty phase issue. We affirm both the convictions and the penalty imposed.

The specific guilt phase issues raised by Appellant are as follows:

1. Did the Commonwealth, as a matter of law, fail to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Appellant engaged in a conspiracy to commit first-degree murder?

2. Did the Commonwealth, as a matter of law, fail to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Appellant committed first-degree murder?

3. Did the trial judge commit reversible error and thereby deny Appellant a fair trial by allowing unduly prejudicial testimony?

4. Did the trial judge a second time commit reversible error and thereby deny Appellant a fair trial by allowing unduly prejudicial testimony?

5. Did the jury give undue weight to the insufficient DNA evidence presented by the Commonwealth?

6. Did the jury give undue weight to the incredible testimony of a Commonwealth witness who had a crimen falsi record?

The penalty phase issue raised by Appellant is the following:

Did the jury unreasonably fail to find any mitigating factors, including Appellant's age, which was merely a few months past his 18th birthday?

In Appellant's first two issues, he contends that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his convictions for conspiracy to commit homicide or for first-degree murder. Specifically, he asserts that there was insufficient evidence of an agreement to sustain his conspiracy conviction and insufficient evidence of an intentional, willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing to sustain his first-degree murder conviction. See Appellant's Brief at 7-8. In all death penalty direct appeals, whether or not the appellant specifically raises the issue, this Court reviews the evidence to ensure that it is sufficient to support the conviction of first-degree murder. Commonwealth v. Blakeney, 946 A.2d 645, 651 n.3 (Pa. 2008). In this case, we will consider concurrently the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain both Appellant's first-degree murder conviction and his conspiracy conviction. See Commonwealth v. Montalvo, 956 A.2d 926, 931-32 (Pa. 2008), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1989 (2009) (in a capital case, concurrently addressing sufficiency challenges to the appellant's first-degree murder conviction and his conspiracy conviction).

Evidence presented at trial is sufficient when, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, the evidence and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom are sufficient to establish all elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. In the case of first-degree murder, a person is guilty when the Commonwealth proves that: (1) a human being was unlawfully killed; (2) the person accused is responsible for the killing; and (3) the accused acted with specific intent to kill. An intentional killing is a killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing. The Commonwealth may prove that a killing was intentional solely through circumstantial ...


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