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Commonwealth v. Bryant

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

May 28, 2013


ARGUED: March 7, 2012

Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered on 5/5/10 in the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, of Philadelphia County, CP-51-CR-0006272-2008.




This is a direct appeal from the judgment of sentence of death on two counts of first-degree murder. We affirm.

On April 21, 2010, Laquaille Bryant ("Appellant") pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in the January 19, 2008 shooting deaths of Chante Wright[1] and Octavia Green, as well as to one count each of intimidation of a witness, possession of a firearm, and possession of an instrument of crime.[2] The Commonwealth's theory of the case was that Appellant killed Ms. Wright at the behest of one Hakeem Bey to prevent her from testifying at Bey's trial for the murder of one Moses Williams. Following a penalty-phase hearing, the jury found three aggravating circumstances with respect to the murder of Ms. Wright, to wit, convicted of another murder, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(11); killing in retaliation against a witness, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(15); and paid by another person for the killing of the victim, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(2). The jury found only the first aggravating circumstance, i.e. convicted of another murder, with respect to the murder of Ms. Green. In both cases, the jury found a single mitigating circumstance, the "catchall" provision set forth in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(e)(8).[3] The jury returned with a verdict of death for each murder, and the trial court formally imposed sentence on May 5, 2010, immediately after the verdict.

Appellant now appeals to this Court, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(1), [4]seeking a new penalty-phase hearing based on the following three issues, which we reproduce verbatim:

I. Should the defendant be awarded a new penalty phase hearing as a result of the Suppression Court's ruling which denied a Motion to Suppress the defendant's statement, and where the statement was used against the defendant at the penalty phase which considered whether the defendant had committed a contract murder or murder for hire?
II. Is the defendant entitled to a new penalty phase hearing as the result of Court error where the Court permitted extremely inflammatory and prejudicial photographs of the victim, living at that time, to be introduced into the penalty phase hearing?
III. Is the defendant entitled to a new penalty phase hearing as the result of prosecutorial misconduct during that hearing where the Prosecutor pandered to the jury; inappropriately commented on the defendant's lack of remorse; misstated the evidence; and engaged in rhetoric concerning another and unrelated case?

Appellant's Brief at 3 ("Questions Presented").


This Court has a self-imposed duty in all capital cases to conduct an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain a conviction for first-degree murder, a duty that is not abrogated when a defendant has pled guilty to first-degree murder. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Fears, 836 A.2d 52, 59 (Pa. 2003) (conducting a sufficiency review on direct appeal in a capital case by considering the evidence that was presented at the appellant's suppression hearing and summarized by the Commonwealth at his guilty plea colloquy); Commonwealth v. Singley, 868 A.2d 403, 407-09 (Pa. 2005) (in a double murder case where the appellant pled guilty to first-degree murder in the death of the first victim and to murder generally in the death of the second victim, conducting a sufficiency review by considering the evidence that was presented at the appellant's guilty plea, degree of guilt hearing, and penalty phase hearing); Commonwealth v. Ockenhouse, 756 A.2d 1130, 1133-35 (Pa. 2000) (in a case where the appellant entered a guilty plea to first-degree murder on the first day of trial, conducting a sufficiency review by considering the appellant's confession, presented at trial); Commonwealth v. Michael, 674 A.2d 1044, 1045-47 (Pa. 1996) (in a case where the appellant pled guilty to first-degree murder during the voir dire phase of trial, conducting a sufficiency review by considering testimony presented at the appellant's preliminary hearing as well as the appellant's testimony at his guilty plea hearing).

To sustain Appellant's plea to first-degree murder, we must conclude that the Commonwealth's evidence, and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, proved beyond a reasonable doubt the three elements of first-degree murder, which are as follows: (1) a human being was unlawfully killed; (2) the defendant was responsible for the killing; and (3) the defendant acted with malice and a specific intent to kill. 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(a); Commonwealth v. Houser, 18 A.3d 1128, 1133 (Pa. 2011). First-degree murder is an intentional killing, i.e., a "willful, deliberate and premeditated killing." 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(a) and (d); Fears, supra at 59. Specific intent to kill as well as malice can be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon upon a vital part of the victim's body. Houser, supra at 1133-34; Commonwealth v. Briggs, 12 A.3d 291, 306-07 (Pa. 2011); Commonwealth v. Wright, 961 A.2d 119, 130-31 (Pa. 2008). Recently, in Briggs, supra at 307, we concluded that the appellant's specific intent to kill was established by his deliberate and repeated shots to the chest and/or abdomen of the victims.

Here, after the jury had been selected for trial, Appellant indicated his intention to plead guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and other charges. Notes of Testimony ("N.T."), 4/21/10, at 6. After an extensive colloquy, conducted by the defense and the court, see id. at 6-17, the Commonwealth summarized before the court the evidence that would be presented were the matter to proceed to trial, as follows. Id. at 17-30.

Shortly after 2:00 a.m. on January 19, 2008, in South Philadelphia, police discovered the bodies of Chante Wright and Octavia Green, respectively on the sidewalk and in the passenger seat of a nearby vehicle. Both women had been shot multiple times from the back seat of the vehicle, and their deaths resulted from the gunshot wounds. Id. at 17-19. Appellant's fingerprint was found on the rear passenger side of the vehicle, just above the door handle. Id. at 22.

Ms. Wright was a witness for the Commonwealth against an individual named Hakeem Bey, whose homicide trial was scheduled for March 2008. On the night of January 18, 2008, only hours before she was murdered, Ms. Wright had returned to Philadelphia from Florida, where she had been relocated as part of the federal witness relocation program. Id. at 19-20.

Cell phone records established that in January 2008, there were a series of calls among phones belonging to Appellant; both victims; and one Malik Bennett, who, at the time, was in a federal halfway house in Philadelphia. Id. at 20-23. On January 18, 2008, the day before the murders, there were numerous calls between Appellant and Bennett and between Appellant and Ms. Wright. Shortly before midnight on January 18, 2008, there was a call from Bennett's phone to Hakeem Bey's phone, and immediately thereafter a call from Bennett's phone to Appellant's phone. Id. at 23-24. FBI Agent Shute, an expert in the field of cell phone and cell site analysis, would have testified that during the time leading up to the murders, cell phones belonging to Appellant and both of the victims were traveling around the city together. Id. at 28-29. At 2:06 a.m. on January 19, 2008, which was approximately two minutes after the murders, there was a call from Appellant's phone to Bennett's phone, and Agent Schute would have further testified that this call was placed from an area near the location of the murders. Id. at 24, 29. Around 10:00 a.m. on the day of the murders, there were multiple calls between Bennett's phone and Hakeem Bey's phone, as well as between Bennett's phone and Appellant's phone. Id. at 24. Shortly thereafter, there was a call from Hakeem Bey's phone to Appellant's girlfriend's phone, followed by several return calls from the latter to the former. Id. at 24.

The Commonwealth would have also called several witnesses who knew Appellant and had seen him at various times before or after the murders. Jahmeia Harrell would have testified that on the weekend following the murders, she overheard a phone conversation between Appellant and Bennett in which Appellant stated that he had to get his money and Bennett had to "get with his man." Id. at 25. Denise Wilson would have testified that a few hours before the murders, she was with Appellant at a bar in South Philadelphia when he received a phone call from Ms. Wright, and he said that she "was going to put him on some money." Id. Ms. Wilson would have further testified that at approximately 2:00 a.m. on the morning of the murders, Appellant came to her house with what appeared to be blood on his sneaker. At that time, Appellant called Bennett and told him "It's cool. We're going to be eating now." Id. at 26. Finally Ms. Wilson would have testified that she had previously seen Appellant with a revolver in his possession. Id. A firearms expert would have testified, from ballistics evidence recovered from the scene of the murders, that the murder weapon was a revolver. Id.

Aisha Kinney, Appellant's girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, would have testified to the following. Appellant told her a few days after the murder that he had done a job and was going to get paid. He also told her that he knew police were asking questions, and he asked her to burn the coat she had seen him wearing shortly after the murders. She soaked the coat in lighter fluid in the backyard, but did not burn it; police recovered the coat and a can of lighter fluid during their investigation. She also remembered seeing Appellant in her house the evening prior to the murders and remembered him returning to her home about 8:00 or 9:00 the next morning. Id. at 27-28.

Immediately after this recitation of the evidence that the Commonwealth would have presented at the guilt phase of trial, Appellant pled guilty to two counts of first- degree murder.[5] Id. at 30-34. Appellant specifically agreed that the Commonwealth's evidence established each element of first-degree murder. Id. at 31. We conclude that the Commonwealth's evidence, and all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, was indeed sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt each element of the first-degree murders of Ms. Wright and Ms. Green.[6] We turn now to the issues raised by Appellant.


In Appellant's first issue, he claims that an inculpatory statement he gave to police on February 8, 2008, was involuntary and not the product of his free will; therefore, Appellant further asserts, the trial court erred by admitting it into evidence. Appellant's Brief at 12. In this statement to police, Appellant confessed to the killing of Ms. Wright and Ms. Green, but he denied acting at the behest of Hakeem Bey or for monetary reward. Prior to trial, Appellant filed a motion to suppress his inculpatory statement, which the trial court denied after holding a two-day evidentiary hearing. See

N.T. Suppression Hearing, 3/24/10 and 3/30/10. During the penalty phase of trial, the Commonwealth introduced the statement into evidence, and the detective who took the statement read his questions and Appellant's responses into the record. See N.T., 4/28/10, at 21-38; Commonwealth Exhibit 73 (C-73).[7] Before this Court, Appellant argues that his inculpatory statement was involuntary and thus should not have been admitted into evidence because, prior to giving the statement, he had been in custody for approximately thirty hours; kept in isolation, with little to eat or drink and no place to sleep; and subjected to repeated interrogation to convince him that he would not leave the police station until he confessed. Appellant's Brief at 12-17.

The legal principles relevant to Appellant's claim are as follows. The test for determining the voluntariness, and thus the admissibility, of an accused's statement is the totality of the circumstances surrounding the statement. Commonwealth v. Perez, 845 A.2d 779, 787 (Pa. 2004). The mere fact that there is some passage of time between when an accused is arrested and when he or she gives an inculpatory statement does not constitute grounds for suppression of the statement. Id. This Court has set forth the following numerous factors that should be considered under a totality of the circumstances test to determine whether a statement was freely and voluntarily made: the duration and means of interrogation, including whether questioning was repeated, prolonged, or accompanied by physical abuse or threats thereof; the length of the accused's detention prior to the confession; whether the accused was advised of his or her constitutional rights; the attitude exhibited by the police during the interrogation; the accused's physical and psychological state, including whether he or she was injured, ill, drugged, or intoxicated; the conditions attendant to the detention, including whether the accused was deprived of food, drink, sleep, or medical attention; the age, education, and intelligence of the accused; the experience of the accused with law enforcement and the criminal justice system; and any other factors which might serve to drain one's powers of resistance to suggestion and coercion. Id. at 785, 787.

When we review the denial of a suppression motion, we are guided by the following principles:

[O]ur initial task is to determine whether the [trial court's] factual findings are supported by the record. In making this determination, we must consider only the evidence of the prosecution's witnesses, and so much evidence of the defense that remains uncontradicted when fairly read in the context of the record as a whole. When the evidence supports the factual findings, we are bound by such findings; we may reverse only if the legal conclusions drawn therefrom are erroneous.

Id. at 788 (citation omitted).

Here, during the evidentiary hearing on Appellant's motion to suppress his inculpatory statement, the Commonwealth proffered the following witnesses: Detective Joseph Bamberski, who took an initial statement from Appellant in which he denied any involvement in the murders; Detective John Harkins, who subsequently took Appellant's second, inculpatory statement; and Detective Verrecchio, the assigned detective in the investigation of the murders of Ms. Wright and Ms. Green. See N.T. Suppression Hearing, 3/24/10, at 4-92, and 3/30/10, at 5-55. The defense presented no witnesses, but simply argued that Appellant's inculpatory statement was coerced and involuntary because he had been in custody for approximately 34 hours prior to making the statement.[8] N.T. Suppression Hearing, 3/30/10, at 56-57.

The trial court issued its decision denying Appellant's suppression motion at the close of the second day of the hearing, expressly holding that the detectives were credible witnesses, that Appellant had not been deprived during his time in custody, and that his statement was voluntary. Id. at 70. Specifically, the trial court made the following factual findings. On February 7, 2008, Appellant was taken into custody when police officers unexpectedly found him at Aisha Kinney's residence, where they had gone to look for a cell phone linked to the murders. Although Appellant was held for a lengthy period of time prior to giving his inculpatory statement, part of the reason for this was the enormous amount of evidence potentially relevant to the murders that the detectives were continuing to analyze. While Appellant was in custody, he was given food and drink, he was allowed to use a bathroom, he was given the opportunity to sleep and did in fact sleep. No psychological pressure was placed on Appellant during his time in custody. Prior to giving each of his statements, Appellant had been read his Miranda rights and had signed off on them. Prior to giving his inculpatory statement, Appellant had been permitted to speak to Ms. Kinney, whom he referred to as his "wife." At the end of their private meeting, a detective overheard her tell Appellant to tell the truth when he asked her what he should do. Very shortly thereafter, Appellant gave the statement in which he admitted killing Ms. Wright and Ms. Green. Id. at 66-69; see also Trial Court Opinion at 3-4 (citing Perez's totality of the circumstances test and holding that Appellant had not been coerced into confessing and that his will had not been overborne).

The trial court's findings are supported by the record and there was no legal error. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court's denial of Appellant's suppression motion and decline to grant Appellant relief.


In Appellant's second issue, he claims that the trial court erred by permitting two photographs of Ms. Green's two children to be admitted into evidence and shown to the jury during the victim impact portion of the Commonwealth's case.[9] Appellant asserts that the two photographs were irrelevant and inflammatory and merely engendered sympathy in the hearts of the jurors. Appellant's Brief at 18-20. The trial court concluded that the photographs were relevant to show the jury those persons who were directly impacted by the murders and to illustrate their young ages. N.T., 4/28/10, at 48; Trial Court Opinion at 4.

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that "[v]ictim impact evidence is simply another form or method of informing the sentencing authority about the specific harm caused by the crime in question." Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 825 (1991). In this Commonwealth, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. ยง 9711(a)(2), "evidence concerning the victim and the impact that the death of the victim has had on the family of the victim is admissible" during the penalty phase of a capital trial. Regarding subsection 9711(a)(2), this Court has concluded that "[t]estimony that is a personal account describing the devastating impact the murders had on the surviving families is ...

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