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Saranchak v. Beard

August 3, 2010


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania District Court No. 05-cv-00317 District Judge: The Honorable Sylvia H. Rambo.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Circuit Judge


Argued October 14, 2009

Before: SLOVITER, SCIRICA, and SMITH, Circuit Judges.


After fatally shooting his grandmother and uncle, Daniel Saranchak ("Saranchak") was quickly arrested and later convicted of first degree murder in the Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. He was then sentenced to death. Saranchak took a direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which affirmed the conviction and sentence. After being denied collateral relief in the Pennsylvania state court system, he sought a writ of habeas corpus in the federal system. The District Court granted his petition in part, reaching issues related only to the guilt phase of his trial. The Commonwealth appeals.*fn1 For the reasons expressed below, we will reverse.


The facts of the underlying crimes have been extensively set forth by several courts during the course of a lengthy collateral review process. We recount them below because they are critical to an understanding of our resolution of the petitioner's attack on the guilt phase of his trial. Daniel Saranchak lived in an apartment above Mickey Courtney's Sportsmen Bar ("Courtney's Bar") in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. At about 3:00 p.m. on October 15, 1993, Saranchak and his neighbor Julian Spirko ("Spirko") illegally dumped garbage on a mountain near Courtney's Bar, performing the task as a favor to the bar's owner. On their way home, Saranchak and Spirko stopped by the home shared by Saranchak's grandmother Stella Saranchok ("Stella")*fn2 and uncle Edmund Saranchak ("Edmund"), where Saranchak consumed several bottles of beer. Saranchak and Spirko returned to their respective apartments at about 5:00 p.m. At about 7:00 p.m., Saranchak met James Steiner ("Steiner"), another neighbor, to collect discarded furniture from a nearby apartment and haul it to a dumping area. After unloading the furniture, the two went to a bar and consumed three to four drinks each. When they left the bar, they drove to a cemetery so that Saranchak could visit his father's grave. Standing at the grave, Saranchak could be seen speaking in the direction of the headstone for five to ten minutes.

Saranchak and Steiner proceeded to a friend's house, where Saranchak consumed another drink, eventually ending up at Courtney's Bar sometime after 8:00 p.m. Around this time, Spirko entered the bar and again saw Saranchak. Both Steiner and Spirko noticed that Saranchak was visibly intoxicated. Steiner later described Saranchak as "more aggressive" and also "[g]iggling and talking strange stuff."

At Courtney's Bar, Saranchak spent time conversing with his friend Roy Miles ("Miles"). Saranchak asked Miles if he knew where they could get some money, but Miles answered that he did not. Saranchak then replied that he knew of a source, but that it might be necessary to shoot someone. After consuming several more drinks, the pair left the bar at 11:30 p.m. With Saranchak driving, they stopped at a store and purchased beer. Having consumed several more drinks, Saranchak and Miles stopped at the house of Saranchak's stepfather and brother to obtain a rifle. Leaving the house with a .22 caliber rifle in hand, Saranchak encountered his wife and his brother outside. The two tried to persuade Saranchak not to leave with the rifle, but were unsuccessful. Saranchak said he was going hunting and asked his brother to come along. When his brother declined the invitation, Saranchak drove with Miles to another bar and purchased two quarts of beer.

Having consumed more beer, Saranchak next drove the pair to his grandmother's house. Saranchak told Miles that he was going inside to get some money from his grandmother.

Miles accompanied Saranchak, who was carrying the rifle, through an unlocked basement door. There, they saw Saranchak's uncle Edmund asleep on a couch in the basement. Saranchak walked directly to the sofa and shot his uncle in the center of his forehead, killing him instantly. Saranchak rolled the body over while Miles went through the victim's pockets. They took his wallet, which contained a sum of cash, and then went upstairs to Stella Saranchok's second floor bedroom where they found her sleeping. Saranchak asked Miles to shoot his grandmother, but Miles refused. Awakened, Stella called out: "Danny, is that you? It's getting late. You can go downstairs if you want." At this point, Saranchak shot his grandmother once in the center of her forehead. The two men then lowered the blinds and searched the room for money. Saranchak located a safe, but was unable to open it. He and Miles then found Stella Saranchok's purse, and stole money from it. Saranchak next went downstairs, ate some candy, and petted his dog, which lived at the house. After saying that he was hungry, Saranchak looked for food in the refrigerator. Finally, before leaving the residence, Saranchak and Miles searched for the shell casing in the basement but were unable to find it.

With Saranchak driving, the pair returned to Courtney's Bar at about 1:00 a.m. on October 16 and remained there until it closed. They consumed several drinks at the bar, and then more at the owner's apartment upstairs. At about 4:00 a.m., Saranchak and Miles left Courtney's Bar. Saranchak drove them to a nearby diner where they ate breakfast and eventually parted ways.

Edmund Saranchak had scheduled a breakfast meeting with his employer for that morning. When Edmund failed to show up, the employer went to his home and spoke to a neighbor. The employer and neighbor entered the house through the basement, where they discovered Edmund's body. They called a neighbor who was a nurse, and she confirmed that Edmund was dead. Shortly thereafter, they found Stella's body upstairs. Following a call to 911, an ambulance and paramedic responded, as did Pennsylvania State Police officers, who began photographing the crime scene and collecting physical evidence. Responders located a shell casing underneath Edmund's body. Police also canvassed the neighborhood and learned that Saranchak had stated the night before that he was going shooting. The officers obtained a warrant and seized a .22 caliber rifle from Saranchak's apartment. The Pennsylvania State Police Laboratory later matched the shell casing found under Edmund's body to the rifle seized from Saranchak's apartment. In the evening hours of October 16, state troopers located Saranchak at Courtney's Bar and arrested him. Although his eyes were glassy and he had obviously been drinking heavily, Saranchak was coherent when arrested.

The State Police advised Saranchak of his Miranda rights when they placed him in the police car and again when they arrived at the State Police Barracks at 9:00 p.m. During the interrogation that ensued, Saranchak gave a statement admitting to illegally dumping trash for the owner of Courtney's Bar. The statement contained no reference to the murders. Corporal Reynold O. Wagner of the Pennsylvania State Police testified that, upon further questioning, Saranchak's posture became rigid and militaristic. Saranchak acted as if the officers questioning him were drill sergeants, responding to their questions with formal "Yes, Sir" or "No, Sir" answers. He soon admitted that he had been present at Stella's house, but then rebuffed the officers' follow-up questions by explaining that he was part of a classified military mission. After further questioning, he characterized the scene at Stella's house as "not a pretty sight." Saranchak eventually admitted to the state trooper interrogating him that he had shot Edmund. He described the shooting in detail, but refused to answer any questions about Stella's death, maintaining firmly that such information was classified.

Saranchak was incarcerated pending trial. While held at the Schuylkill County Prison, Saranchak met on occasion with caseworkers from Schuylkill County Children and Youth Services ("CYS") regarding his three minor children. Laurie Garber was one such caseworker who was assigned to oversee the welfare of Saranchak's children. Prior to a hearing in the CYS matter, Garber met with Saranchak to explain to him the purpose of the hearing and to answer Saranchak's questions.

She visited him again after the hearing had been conducted. This meeting lasted approximately 45 minutes. For the first 15 minutes, Garber and Saranchak discussed his children and matters regarding court hearings and visitation. Garber told him that letters to his children could be sent to CYS, which would review them and then forward them to the children. Saranchak stated that he would not include anything in the letters that could be harmful for his children to read, but that he would simply explain that he had done something bad and would be in jail for a very long time. Garber then stated that neither she nor a CYS worker previously assigned to Saranchak's children's case could understand how the murders happened. At this point, Saranchak explained to Garber the nature of both killings. He admitted that he killed Edmund because of Edmund's greed and because he talked down to Saranchak. Saranchak said that his uncle "had married a whore" and that their children had received a portion of an inheritance that rightfully should have gone to Saranchak and his siblings. Saranchak admitted that he had consumed a few beers by the time he shot Edmund, but said that he was not intoxicated. According to Saranchak, he just "snapped."

Saranchak also admitted to Garber that he shot Stella. When Garber inquired why he told the judge presiding over the CYS matter that he would plead not guilty to the criminal charges, Saranchak explained that he was willing to serve time for the murders but not for other offenses because he did not steal anything. Saranchak emphasized that Edmund's greed drove him to kill his uncle and he also conveyed the impression that he believed he did Stella a favor in killing her because she was very sick. Garber later testified at the degree of guilt hearing that Saranchak was very matter of fact in his description of the killing of Edmund.

Saranchak was represented in the criminal proceedings by Kent Watkins, Esq. Watkins requested the state trial court to appoint a mental health expert to examine Saranchak as to his ability to assist in his own defense, his competency to stand trial, and issues relating to his diminished capacity to form the specific intent to kill. The court granted the motion in part, appointing Dr. Stefan P. Kruszewski, a psychiatrist, to examine Saranchak and render an opinion regarding his ability to assist in his defense, his competency to stand trial, and whether statements given to the police were voluntary or involuntary as the result of any psychiatric dysfunction. The court did not, however, order Dr. Kruszewski to examine Saranchak regarding diminished capacity, nor did Watkins ever renew a request for such an examination. Dr. Kruszewski found Saranchak competent to stand trial. Watkins later testified that he never sought a second evaluation regarding diminished capacity because he concluded that Dr. Kruszewski's report contained nothing to indicate that a diminished capacity exam would be fruitful.

Saranchak eventually entered an open plea of guilty to murder generally. Under Pennsylvania criminal procedure rules, Saranchak was permitted to plead guilty generally to the murder of Edmund and Stella, and could then contest his degree of guilt during a trial limited to that issue. Pa. R. Crim. P. 803(A). The non-jury degree of guilt hearing was held before Judge Cyrus Palmer Dolbin of the Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania and consolidated with a non-jury trial on the merits of the burglary, aggravated assault, robbery, theft, and conspiracy charges filed in connection with the murders. That proceeding took place in early September of 1996.

The Commonwealth's case in chief included the evidence recounted above. Saranchak asserted a diminished capacity defense to the murder charges, but Watkins presented no expert testimony on this issue. Rather, he relied on the testimony of Saranchak's family, friends, and neighbors to establish that the defendant consumed a considerable amount of alcohol on the night of the murders and that his conduct was so outside the ordinary that it demonstrated his diminished capacity to form the specific intent to kill.

Judge Dolbin found that Saranchak had premeditated and deliberated the killings of Edmund and Stella, and entered verdicts of guilty on both counts of first degree murder. He also found Saranchak guilty of burglary, aggravated assault, robbery, theft, and conspiracy. A jury was empaneled for the ...

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