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[U] Commonwealth v. Gray

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 9, 2013

JEREMY C. HODEN, Appellant


Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence September 7, 2012 In the Court of Common Pleas of Warren County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-62-CR-0000264-2012, CP-62-CR-0000267-2012.



Eddie R. Gray ("Gray") and Jeremy C. Hoden ("Hoden") appeal from the judgments of sentence of thirty-five and one-half to seventy-one years imprisonment that were imposed after a jury convicted them at a joint trial of four counts of retaliation against a prosecutor or judicial official, three counts of retaliation against a victim or witness, seven counts of terroristic threats, and one count of conspiracy. Since Gray and Hoden were tried together and they raise identical issues, we have consolidated their appeals for purposes of disposition. After careful review, we affirm.

In order to comprehend the charges at issue in this appeal, it is necessary to set forth the following background information. Hoden was involved in two criminal matters in 2007. In April 2007, Hoden broke into the home of Merle Rice in Warren County, and stole Mr. Rice's cellular telephone, which Hoden used for about one week. In connection with this incident, Hoden was charged with theft and burglary, and, in October 2008, he pled guilty to those charges. At the same time, he pled guilty to charges wherein Irene Rice, Merle's mother, was the victim. Specifically, in August 2007, Hoden broke into Irene's home at approximately 4:30 a.m., beat her with her telephone, took money from her purse, and stole her car. Irene, who was seventy-seven years old at that time, was hospitalized as a result of the incident, and her injuries included a severe cut on her head requiring twenty-seven staples, black eyes, a swollen and cut face, and a broken finger. In Irene's case, Hoden pled guilty to aggravated assault, robbery, and theft of a motor vehicle, and the Commonwealth dismissed charges of burglary, unlawful restraint, and theft. After entry of the guilty pleas, Hoden received a total term of imprisonment of twelve to twenty-four years. Merle and Irene would have been witnesses against Hoden had those matters proceeded to trial.

The charges arising from the August 2007 assault of Irene were investigated by Pennsylvania State Trooper Jeff Walters, who was assigned to the criminal investigation unit barracks in Warren. He and Warren County Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Feronti instituted the charges with Irene as a victim. ADA Feronti first filed a petition in juvenile court since Hoden was seventeen years old when he assaulted and robbed Irene. ADA Feronti then withdrew the juvenile matter and filed charges against Hoden in adult court. Thereafter, the elected Warren County District Attorney Ross McKeirnan assumed responsibility for prosecuting the matter. Senior Judge William F. Morgan presided over Hoden's guilty pleas, and Judge Maureen Skerda resolved the PCRA petition that Hoden filed regarding the Irene Rice matter, and she denied Hoden PCRA relief.

Starting in January 2012 and ending in February 2012, Hoden and Gray mailed extremely threatening and highly disturbing letters to Judge Skerda, Judge Morgan, DA McKeirnan, ADA Feronti, Irene Rice, and Merle Rice. Those letters gave rise to the present charges, and Hoden and Gray were co-defendants at a jury trial commencing on August 28, 2012. Irene and DA McKeirnan received two letters from each defendant while the remaining victims received one letter from Gray and one letter from Hoden. Trooper Walters did not receive a letter, but he was threatened in those documents. Hence, there are six intimidation convictions but seven terroristic threats offenses. Trooper Walters indicated at trial in the present action that he had uncovered no evidence that Gray, Hoden's cousin, was involved in Hoden's crimes against Irene Rice, but Gray's communications repeatedly indicated that he was involved in that criminal episode and that he was responsible for the brutal attack on the elderly victim. Additionally, Hoden stated in some of his letters that Gray was an accomplice to the crimes and Gray actually was the perpetrator who assaulted Irene.

To summarize, the letters in question threatened the "lives of not only the people [who] were receiving the letters, but also [their] families. And, [went into] great detail on how [Gray and Hoden] were going to do the things that they were going to do to each of the victims." N.T. Trial, 8/28/12, at 45-46. While both Gray and Hoden were in jail when they mailed the letters, those documents indicated that the victims would be killed either when Gray was released from prison or that the co-defendants had the ability to obtain help from outside sources in carrying out their threats. Each piece of correspondence was signed by the sender, and had the sender's name and prison address on the return address portion of the envelope used to mail it.

Commonwealth Exhibit 2 consisted of a February 1, 2012 letter from Hoden to DA McKeirnan. It read:

Just like Irene Rice, (the victim, of my case), you've only subjected yourself and your entire family to a very painful death.
Along with my victim, assistant DA, Sentencing Judge, and arresting Officer[1]. All of you will be massacred. Incriminating, huh?
Even if so, I know a few people to get in touch with that will be creeping around you [all's] places. None of you are safe. As God is my witness. I, myself, cannot wait to see you all again.

N.T. Trial, 8/28/12, at 47.

Irene Rice testified that she received two sets of letters. She read the first pair and handed them over to her son, Merle. When the second two letters arrived, she did not open them, but immediately gave them to Merle. Commonwealth Exhibit 3 is a letter dated January 27, 2012 from Hoden to Irene. It stated the following:

I am pretty sure you remember me, Jeremy Hoden. . . . I tried helping your old fucking ass from bleeding to death after that beating I never had the pleasure to witness. . . .
My cousin snapped, lost his mind. Never ready to off your old ass before I pulled him off because it was never in my intention to have anyone victimized or harassed.
[I] don't feel the remorse I once did for you in 2007. And my cousin has . . . 24 months before he will be creeping up on you in your sleep again to finish what I should have let him finish almost five years ago.
These last five years have been nothing but pain for me and my family. So, today I feel my writing to you today that you should live in fear for the day I get out, because if you are still alive, I am going to be with . . . somebody, to lay you the fuck down in the ground . . . .
Your days are numbered . . . . I will be the one that pulls the trigger that takes the [lives] of your family, yourself, and anyone else close to you. No one is safe.

Id. at 59-61. The first letter that Gray sent to Irene, Commonwealth Exhibit 4, said:

Irene. Listen, you stupid little c---, what the fucking tire iron wasn't an eye opener, when you wrongfully testified on my cousin.
I just want you to know that next time I am beating you, you will fucking die. There won't be no hospital trips. I got two years left. I remember everything about you and the day.
Let me fucking refresh your memory. I may have hit you kind of hard. All I wanted was your fucking car. The stupid blue Fusion is all. So my cousin could leave the damn state.
I do apologize for waking you out of your sleep. You did look peaceful. Ha. Ha. But, I couldn't find your fucking keys. . . .
I would have let this whole thing alone if you would have been honest with the police about what happened. You know damn well it wasn't no phone I beat you with.
My cousin pulled me off you and was going to call the police to help you. No, fuck that. I am going to murder you. There is nothing you can do to prevent that with my own bare hands. I will finish the task.
You know I watched you come in and out of consciousness. I really hoped you were going to croak. Ha. So, I wouldn't have to be going through this again. I want you to know how deep this shit is.
You will not be living too much longer. That I will promise. . . . [J]ust thinking about you and your stupid lies, oh, drives me fucking to saying, God will forgive me, but will he forgive you? Ha.
Do not even think he will. Your lies are only punishable by death. Nothing else. 2 years. The clock is running. Everything has been planned out. Tick! Tock! Bitch!
Sincerely, your death wish.

Id. at 64-66. After reading Gray's letter, Irene became concerned but was confident that Merle would handle the situation for her with the authorities.

In February, Irene received two more letters, one from Hoden and one from Gray. She immediately gave them to Merle without reading them. The letter, Commonwealth Exhibit 5, from Hoden read as follows:

What up old head. Just to follow up to my last letter. My cousin and I think about you so much. More or less in anticipation of the day we get to play God with your life.
But, then, how was Merle doing? Don't . . . think he can save you. No one could fully prove it was either me or Eddie Gray that wrote something that could be so incriminating.
But, yeah, we have considered on premeditating a plot to kill the entire families of you, the prosecution team of Warren judicial system and everyone else in question, as well.
But, hopefully, so much sooner than later. We will be creeping up along you. . . . Your death will be very painful as for anyone else stupid enough to get in the way.
We will see you soon. Happy Valentine's Day.

Id. at 68-69. Gray wrote:

Hey, bitch this is a follow up just to make sure your old ass is still alive, just to let you know me and my cousin still hasn't forgot about you.
Tell Merle I said hi. He probably can be reached on his Verizon cell phone. Tell him I am going to murder his dearest mother.
. . . [D]on't forget to lock the windows just in case I decide to send somebody a little early. Don't be surprised.
I got a tire iron with your name on it. . . . . Tic. . . Toc. . . Tic. . . Toc. . . Your time is running.

Commonwealth Exhibit 6; N.T. Trial, 8/28/12, at 72.

One week after Irene received her first two letters, Merle was sent a letter from both Hoden and Gray. Hoden wrote to Merle:

What up pussy. Damn, I have been waiting on the opportunity to capitalize on writing this letter. My cousin Eddie Gray and myself anticipate the day we get to roll up on your house again.
It will be a matter of time before your mother Irene and yourself are tragically found dead in a smoking pile of ashes. After an unfortunate string of house fires.
At least I hope to see both of you all pictured in the Warren Times Observer obituaries. Bitch ass. Police. You are. You are really going to regret your ...

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