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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. andre Staton

February 21, 2012


Appeal from the judgment of sentence entered June 1, 2006, in the Court of Common Pleas of Blair County, Criminal Division, at No. CP-07-0001850-2005

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


ARGUED: October 18, 2011


This Court reviews the direct appeal of appellant Andre Staton from the sentence of death imposed on June 1, 2006, following a jury trial before the Honorable Elizabeth Doyle of the Blair County Court of Common Pleas. Appellant raises a single claim of error related to the penalty phase of his trial. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the conviction and judgment of sentence.

Appellant was charged with a single count of criminal homicide, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count each of burglary, criminal trespass, receiving stolen property, and theft by unlawful taking, in connection with the stabbing death of Beverly Yohn. The Commonwealth issued a notice to appellant that it would be seeking the death penalty based on the aggravating factors that the killing occurred while in the perpetration of a felony (criminal trespass), 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6), and at the time of the killing, appellant was subject to a court order restricting his behavior towards the victim, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(18).*fn1

At trial, the Commonwealth established that appellant began dating Beverly Yohn in the Spring or Summer of 2003. In the Fall of 2003, one of Ms. Yohn's friends observed injuries to Ms. Yohn. In late January of 2004, Ms. Yohn called the police alleging that appellant had struck her. After the incident, Ms. Yohn filed a Protection From Abuse ("PFA") petition against appellant and on January 27, 2004 a temporary PFA order was entered against him. Subsequently, a PFA hearing was held on February 19, 2004 (before Judge Doyle). At the conclusion of the hearing, a final PFA order was entered against appellant.

On February 24, 2004, appellant was at the 10th Street Cafe, a bar in Altoona at 6 p.m. He left and returned there at 9 p.m. where he drank for two hours and talked to Lynn McDonough, the bartender, about "his girlfriend." He said he had peeked in her windows the night before. Appellant also told the bartender that he gave Ms. Yohn "forty thousand dollars ($40,000) for a house and now he can't live in the house," but stated it "will be taken care of." N.T., 4/27/2006, at 134-136.

On the morning of February 25, 2004, at 6:40 a.m., appellant was observed in a parked car in front of 212 Third Street, Altoona, approximately a block and a half from Ms. Yohn's mother's residence, located at 228 Third Avenue. At that time Ms. Yohn was staying at her mother's residence with her three sons. Ms. Yohn's son, Justin, was outside the residence starting a car in order for his mother to drive him to school. Penny Lantz, Justin's grandmother, had earlier left the house for work. Justin saw appellant run up to the residence. Appellant put his finger to his lips, indicating that Justin was to be quiet. Appellant then entered a rear porch and kicked in the back door. Justin saw appellant come out a short time later, whereupon appellant threw Justin from the car and drove away in it. N.T., 4/28/2006, at 108-118.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Yohn, another son of the victim, was in the kitchen. Jeremy saw his mother lock the back door and, shortly thereafter, saw appellant kick in the back door and enter the kitchen. Jeremy testified that appellant opened his jacket and pulled out a knife with his left hand. Immediately after pulling out the knife, appellant began stabbing Ms. Yohn until she fell to the floor. Appellant then left the residence through the back door. N.T., 4/28/2006, at 146-159.

Ms. Yohn was taken to the Altoona Hospital Trauma Center with a large knife still protruding from her back. She was later pronounced dead that day. Dr. Vimal Mittal testified at trial as an expert witness in forensic pathology and that, in his opinion within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, the cause of Ms. Yohn's death was multiple stab wounds to the heart and left jugular vein, with cardiac tamponade,*fn2 and that the manner of her death was homicide. N.T., 4/27/2006, at 122-127.

Appellant testified at trial. He admitted that he stabbed Ms. Yohn, and caused her death, but denied that he had gone to the residence with the intent to harm her. Instead, he claimed that it was Ms. Yohn who had the knife in her hand and began "swinging at him"; the next thing he remembered was seeing Ms. Yohn with blood coming out of her mouth. N.T., 5/1/2006, at 26-29.

On May 2, 2006, a jury convicted appellant of all charges, including first-degree murder. Following the penalty phase of trial, the jury found both aggravating circumstances and found four mitigating circumstances under the "catchall" mitigator at 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(e)(8) -- appellant's childhood circumstances, his polysubstance abuse, his medical history, and his potential for good. The jury further found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances and returned a sentence of death. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(c)(1)(iv). The sentence of death was formally imposed by Judge Doyle on June 1, 2006. The trial court sentenced appellant further to forty-eight to ninety-six months of imprisonment for burglary and a consecutive term of twelve to twenty-four months for theft by unlawful taking.*fn3

Appellant filed post-sentence motions which were denied by opinion and order dated June 25, 2007. Appellant filed this direct appeal to this Court on July 24, 2007.*fn4

See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h). On appeal, appellant raises a single issue:

Whether the Commonwealth proved beyond a reasonable doubt that at the time of the killing [appellant] was subject to a court order restricting his behavior towards the Victim pursuant to 42 ...

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