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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Gaylord Spell

October 7, 2011


Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered on 05/20/2009 in the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division of Lawrence County at No. CP-37-CR- 0000603-2007.

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


ARGUED: September 14, 2010


This is a direct appeal from a death sentence imposed after a jury convicted appellant of first degree murder and abuse of a corpse.*fn1 We affirm the first degree murder conviction, but vacate appellant's sentence of death and remand to the trial court for imposition of a life sentence.

In the early morning hours of March 1, 2007, a custodian at the Lawrence County Career and Technical Center noticed a van traveling slowly through the school's parking lot. Later that morning, a teacher at the Center found a nude body lying sideways in the parking lot, and called the police. Investigators soon identified the victim and determined she was last seen alive on the evening of February 27. Around 3:00 p.m. on March 1, a PennDOT road crew alerted State Police after discovering clothing strewn along a roadway in Butler County. State Police recovered a bra, blue jeans, a sock, a flannel long-sleeve shirt, thermal bottoms, a black slipper, a sock covered in blood, a sweatshirt covered in blood, a blood-soaked pillow, a bloodstained cover for the arm of a couch, and a bloodcovered tablecloth.

Dr. James Smith, a board certified forensic pathologist, performed an autopsy on the victim's body, which revealed ten lacerations on her head and face, including two on both her left and right temple, three on the back of her head, and three on her scalp. The victim suffered a fracture at the base of her skull, a laceration of her brain, and a fracture on the back of her skull. She also had two broken ribs and bruising on her head, face, lower back, and legs. Dr. Smith determined the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. Because the lacerations looked identical, he opined she had been repeatedly struck with the same round object.

State Police found material under the victim's fingernails and seminal fluid on her body, which allowed them to produce a DNA profile. The profile was entered into the Combined DNA Index System, a nationwide database which includes DNA profiles of convicted felons; a database in Virginia matched the DNA profile to appellant. DNA testing further revealed the blood on the thermal bottoms and black slipper was the victim's, while blood from the tablecloth matched both the victim and appellant.

Appellant was interviewed by State Police; he denied meeting the victim or ever having her in his residence. State Police executed a search warrant of appellant's residence, and discovered a couch matching the arm cover recovered on the road. A sequin was found that matched the bra discovered along the roadway. Bloodstains were found on appellant's mattress and the floor between his bed and nightstand. State Police also executed a search warrant for appellant's van, and found the victim's blood on the driver-side door window.

Investigation revealed appellant was scheduled to work February 28, but called his employer to excuse himself; he returned to work March 1, at 2:47 p.m. The clothing, found around 3 p.m. that day, was on a route appellant could have used to get to his workplace.

Appellant was charged with criminal homicide and abuse of a corpse; a jury convicted him of first degree murder and abuse of a corpse. At the penalty phase, the jury found one aggravating circumstance: the murder was committed by means of torture. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(8). The jury found no mitigating circumstances, and accordingly, appellant was sentenced to death. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(c)(1)(iv).

When a death sentence is imposed, "this Court has an obligation to review the record to ensure the evidence sufficiently supports the first degree murder conviction and the finding of aggravating circumstances, and that the sentence was not the product of passion, prejudice, or other arbitrary factors." Commonwealth v. Dick, 978 A.2d 956, 958 (Pa. 2009) (citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(3)(i)-(ii)). Appellant raises four other issues in his appeal, which we have reordered for ease of discussion: whether there is sufficient evidence to support the aggravating circumstance of torture; whether the trial court inappropriately admitted two photographs of the victim's body; whether the Commonwealth's DNA expert improperly referred to appellant's prior bad acts; and whether appellant was entitled to a voluntary manslaughter jury instruction.

Sufficiency Review of First Degree Murder Conviction

When reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence for first degree murder, we are "obliged to determine whether the evidence presented at trial and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, are sufficient to satisfy all elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt." Commonwealth v. Brown, 987 A.2d 699, 705 (Pa. 2009) (citing Commonwealth v. Baumhammers, 960 A.2d 59, 68 (Pa. 2008)). "To obtain a first-degree murder conviction, the Commonwealth must demonstrate that a human being was unlawfully killed, the defendant perpetrated the killing, and the defendant acted with malice and a specific intent to kill." Commonwealth v. Montalvo, 986 A.2d 84, 92 (Pa. 2009) (quoting Commonwealth v. Kennedy, 956 A.2d 916, 920 (Pa. 2008)). An intentional killing is a "[k]illing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing." 18 Pa.C.S. ยง 2502(d). The Commonwealth may use solely circumstantial evidence to prove a killing was ...

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