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Commonwealth v. Christine

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 30, 2013


Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence November 24, 2010 In the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-48-CR-0003344-2009



The Court, being evenly divided, the Order of the Court of Common Pleas is affirmed.



Appellant, Jacob Matthew Christine, appeals from the November 24, 2010 aggregate judgment of sentence of nine to 20 years' imprisonment imposed after a jury found him guilty of aggravated assault and recklessly endangering another person (REAP).[1] After careful review, we would affirm.

The trial court summarized the underlying facts of this case as follows.

The convictions resulted from an incident that occurred in Northhampton County Prison (NCP) on June 8, 2009. On that date, [Appellant] and the victim, Thomas Missero, were inmates in NCP when a confrontation between the two men occurred in [Appellant]'s cell in Unit B-2. The cell housed 8 inmates in four rows of bunk beds. While in [Appellant]'s cell, [Appellant] was alleged to have slashed Mr. Missero's neck and ear with a razor blade. Immediately after the attack, corrections officers searched [Appellant]'s cell. Only one weapon, a shank, was found in the cell. It was hidden within [Appellant]'s bed.
Interestingly, [Appellant] testified at trial that the victim came into his cell armed with a razor blade and attacked [Appellant]. [Appellant] claimed that he successfully disarmed the victim, picked up the razor from the floor and then unintentionally sliced the victim when the victim continued to threaten [Appellant]. Even though [Appellant] was the last person to have control of the weapon, it has never been located. [The trial court] also note[d] that there were no injuries suffered by [Appellant].

Trial Court Opinion, 4/26/11, at 1-2.

On July 14, 2009, the Commonwealth charged Appellant with attempted criminal homicide[2], aggravated assault and REAP. Appellant proceeded to a three-day jury trial. On October 7, 2010, the jury found Appellant guilty of aggravated assault and REAP, but found him not guilty of attempted criminal homicide. On November 24, 2010, the trial court imposed an aggregate sentence of nine to 20 years' imprisonment.[3] On December 6, 2010, Appellant filed a timely post-sentence motion.[4] Appellant's post-sentence motion was denied on April 26, 2011. On May 5, 2011, Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal.[5]

On April 24, 2012, a divided panel of this Court vacated Appellant's judgment of sentence and remanded the case for a new trial, concluding that the trial court abused its discretion in not permitting Appellant to introduce evidence of Missero's subsequent criminal convictions. On May 21, 2012, the Commonwealth filed a petition for reargument en banc. This Court granted the Commonwealth's petition on July 10, 2012, and the previous panel memorandum was withdrawn.

In his substituted brief on reargument, Appellant raises three issues for our review.

1. Did the trial court abuse its discretion when it refused to allow Appellant to present testimony at trial regarding a criminal assault in the alleged victim's criminal record?
2. Did the trial court abuse its discretion when it permitted the Commonwealth to introduce a "shank" as physical evidence as well as testimony regarding said shank in the course of the jury trial in the instant matter?
3. Was the sentence imposed contrary to the norms which underlie the sentencing process and does this case involve circumstances where the application of the sentencing guidelines was clearly unreasonable?

Appellant's Brief at 4.

In Appellant's first two issues on appeal, he challenges the trial court's rulings regarding the admission of evidence at trial. We begin by noting our well-settled standard of review over such matters.

Admission of evidence … rests within the sound discretion of the trial court, which must balance evidentiary value against the potential dangers of unfairly prejudicing the accused, inflaming the passions of the jury, or confusing the jury. We reaffirm our confidence in our trial judges to oversee the presentation of evidence so that overtly passionate, intentionally biased and inflammatory material is kept out of the courtroom. We will reverse a trial court's decision as to admissibility of evidence only if [Appellant] sustains the heavy burden to show that the trial court has abused its discretion.

Commonwealth v. Bryant, 67 A.3d 716, 726, (Pa. 2013) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

First, Appellant avers that the trial court erred in precluding him from "questioning Missero regarding [a] simple assault charge" which "Missero had plead [sic] guilty to, and was sentenced for." Appellant's Brief at 9. Appellant further argues that "[t]his cross examination would have substantially proven the 'alleged violent propensities of the victim to show that the victim was in fact the aggressor." Id. at 10-11, quoting Commonwealth v. Carbone, 707 A.2d 1145, 1154 (Pa. Super. 1998), appeal discontinued, 727 A.2d 1116 (Pa. 1998). The Commonwealth counters, and the trial court concluded, that "[a] subsequent act of violence cannot be considered an indicator of someone's propensity for violence in the past." Commonwealth's Brief at 16; see also Trial Court Opinion, 4/26/11, at 13 (stating, "[a] subsequent conviction arising from events that transpired after the incident involving [Appellant] simply has no bearing on whether Misero [sic] possessed violent propensities on June 8, 2009[]") (footnote omitted).

Our Supreme Court has held that "as far back as 1884, [Pennsylvania courts have] permitted the introduction of character evidence to prove the decedent's violent propensities, where self-defense is asserted and where there is an issue as to who was the aggressor." Commonwealth v. Dillon, 598 A.2d 963, 965 (Pa. 1991), citing Alexander v. Commonwealth, 105 Pa. 1, 9 (1884). Further, our Supreme Court has specifically held that the victim's criminal record can be admissible on two distinct grounds.

(1) to corroborate [the defendant's] alleged knowledge of the victim's quarrelsome and violent character to show that the defendant reasonably believed that his life was in danger; or (2) to prove the allegedly violent propensities of the victim to show that the victim was in fact the aggressor.
Nor do we mean to suggest that our decision here abandons the rule ennunciated [sic] in [Abernethy v. Commonwealth, 101 Pa. 322 (1882)] that the defendant must first establish a foundation of his knowledge of the victim's convictions before he can introduce the corroboratory record when the defendant is seeking to prove his belief that he was in imminent danger of bodily harm. Here again, the determination whether or not the defendant demonstrates a sufficiently particular knowledge of the victim's record rests within the sound discretion of the trial court.

Commonwealth v. Amos, 284 A.2d 748, 303, 305 (Pa. 1971). We highlight that our Supreme Court held that a defendant must lay a foundation for his knowledge of the victim's convictions only when he "is seeking to prove his belief that he was in imminent danger of bodily harm." Id. at 305. It therefore logically follows that a defendant need not establish knowledge of the victim's record in order "to prove the allegedly violent propensities of the victim to show that the victim was in fact the aggressor." Id. at 303. In every case, the defendant is also required to show that the convictions sought to be introduced "are similar in nature and not too distant in time" from the underlying incident. Commonwealth v. Mouzon, 53 A.3d 738, 741 (Pa. 2012). Because Appellant wished to use Missero's subsequent conviction to establish the second Amos ground as opposed to the first, Appellant was not required to show specific knowledge of the conviction. See Amos, supra at 303, 305.

Applying Amos to the case sub judice, we conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion. The facts stemming from Missero's subsequent conviction were as follows.

[Defense Counsel]: May 1st of 2010, Nazareth Police were called to the American Hotel in Nazareth for a report of an assault. Thomas Missero was outside and his girlfriend was there, Melissa Miller. She claimed that [Missero] had grabbed her and pushed her. She had minor damage to her ear as a result of falling, I guess, from the push, and that he had threatened her.

N.T., 10/5/10, at 27. As a result, Missero pled guilty to simple assault and REAP. Id. at 27-28. The trial court concluded that Missero's subsequent convictions "[do not] really demonstrate violent propensities." Id. at 29. We agree. In our view, this offense is not "similar in nature" to the events that Appellant alleged transpired on June 8, 2009. Mouzon, supra; see also N.T., 10/6/10, at 45-47 (stating that Missero threw a hot cup of coffee on Appellant and punched him multiple times). As a result, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence regarding Missero's subsequent convictions. See Bryant, supra. As a result, Appellant's first claim fails.

In his second issue, Appellant avers that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion in limine to preclude the Commonwealth from introducing the shank found in Appellant's bed and testimony regarding it. Appellant's Brief at 13. Appellant argues that the shank should have been excluded given the Commonwealth's concession that the shank was not the weapon used in the underlying incident. Id. The Commonwealth counters that the shank was relevant to show "that [Appellant] had a weapon similar to the one used in the perpetration of the crime." Commonwealth's Reply Brief at 9.

Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 401 addresses relevancy and provides as follows.

Rule 401. Test for Relevant Evidence

Evidence is relevant if:
(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and
(b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.

Pa.R.E. 401; see also Pa.R.E. 402 (stating, "[a]ll relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by law … [but e]vidence that is not relevant is not admissible[]"). In Pennsylvania, a weapon that "cannot be specifically linked to a crime" is generally inadmissible at trial. Commonwealth v. Robinson, 721 A.2d 344, 351 (Pa. 1998), cert. denied, Robinson v. Pennsylvania, 528 U.S. 1082 (2000). However, this Court has consistently noted an exception to this rule.

A weapon shown to have been in a defendant's possession may properly be admitted into evidence, even though it cannot positively be identified as the weapon used in the commission of a particular crime, if it tends to prove that the defendant had a weapon similar to the one used in the perpetration of the crime.

Commonwealth v. Williams, 58 A.3d 796, 801 (Pa. Super. 2012), quoting Commonwealth v. Owens, 929 A.2d 1187, 1191 (Pa. Super. 2007), appeal denied, 940 A.2d 364 (Pa. 2007).

In Williams, the appellant was charged and convicted of second-degree murder stemming from a shooting that began outside a bar in Philadelphia. Id. at 797. As part of its case, the Commonwealth introduced into evidence a "photograph they discovered on [the a]ppellant's phone, which showed [the a]ppellant posing with a Walther P–38 9–mm pistol." Id. at 801. The photograph was admitted despite the fact that the Commonwealth's ballistics expert testified "upon examining the bullets and casings found at the crime scene, [the Commonwealth's expert] determined that the victim was not killed with a Walther P–38, but more likely, a .380 semi-automatic weapon." Id. On appeal, this Court upheld the admission of the photograph, even though the Commonwealth did not believe the gun in the photograph was the murder weapon.

In this case, the photograph of Appellant proudly displaying a P–38 Walther nearly five days before the murder was relevant to show that Appellant had possession and control of a weapon similar to the one used to commit his crimes. Appellant claims that [a friend] gave the P–38 Walther firearm to him "to hold" immediately before the shooting. Admission of the photograph challenges Appellant's claim that this firearm did not belong to him and shows Appellant had access to a firearm similar to the one witnesses claimed he was holding when threatening the victim on the night of the murder.

Id. As a result, we concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the photograph. Id.

In this case, Thomas Missero, the victim, testified about the weapon used to attack him, and claimed that it was not his weapon.

Q: Did you see anything in [Appellant]'s hand?
A: I didn't see nothing in his hand until afterward, I realized I was cut, and it was a modified razorblade lying on the ground covered in blood.
Q: You saw the razorblade on the ground in blood?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: Can you describe that for the jury, please?
A: It was a razor made out of like a regular normal Bic Razor that you get from the dollar store, they issue them in the prison. The blade was taken out, and at the end it had paper or tape wrapped around it with the blade sticking out maybe an inch.
Q: How long was the taped part you saw?
A: Just the taped part was about 2 inches.
Q: And that was attached to the razorblade itself?
A: Yes.
Q: And you only saw this on the ground?
A: Yes.
Q: Did you have a razorblade on you?
A: No, I did not.

N.T., 10/5/10, at 63-64 (emphasis added).

However, Appellant presented a different version of events. At the outset, in her opening statement, defense counsel argued to the jury that Appellant acted in self-defense and claimed that it was actually Missero that had the razorblade and brought it into the cell. See id. at 51 (stating to the jury that Appellant "was minding his own business when Thomas Missero came into his cell, there's a hot cup of coffee thrown on him, punches go, and then he sees a razorblade coming at him, and Tom Missero takes a slice at him, doesn't hit him[]"). Appellant later testified in his own defense as to his version of events.

Q: What happened [when you tried to exit the cell]?
A: I never actually made it outside of the cell. When I saw [Missero], he made eye contact with me, I noticed he had a hot cup of coffee in his hand, a steaming hot cup of coffee. I don't know what was in his other hand, I don't know if he had a razor in his hand or concealed some other place in his body.
Q: Was [Missero] saying anything to you?
A: He didn't say anything to me. As soon as he saw me, he ran towards me, I took some steps back into the cell, retreating, wondering if he was actually going to enter the cell and attack me. He did. He ran into the cell, he threw the whole cup of coffee at me, luckily he missed me with that, because that probably might have blinded me and I would have really got hurt then. We kind of engaged in a scuffle. I'm scared. I know he means business. I know he's trying to hurt me. I'm afraid for my life. We exchanged some punches, we exchanged some blows. I kind of covered my face … to protect myself. When I brought my hands down, I noticed he had a razorblade in his hand and took a swipe at me. We were probably like in the middle area of the cell by now. I kicked him. Luckily, he fell and dropped the razorblade. I saw the razorblade, like at his side, I got him to the ground and pulled him away from the blade. I ran out and I picked it up. But he had brought the razorblade -- he had brought a hot cup of coffee and it was his intention to throw the hot cup of coffee at me, blind me and cut me.

N.T., 10/6/10, at 45-47 (emphases added).

The Commonwealth provided the testimony of Corrections Officer Nathan Picone. Officer Picone testified that he helped search Appellant's cell immediately after the incident and discovered the shank in question.

Q: What did you do once you got to [Appellant's cell]?
A: Once we noticed all of the bloody towels and blood splattering in the cell, we then took the inmates housed in cell 3 and split them up. We split them up in different rooms around the block. The lieutenant then went and talked to each one individually.
Q: Would that be Lieutenant Lamont?
A: That would be Lieutenant Lamont. I, myself, and a few other officers then proceeded to shake down cell number 3.
Q: And did you find anything?
A: Yes, I did. … I personally found in what was later identified as [Appellant]'s bed, there was a small rip in the plastic cover of the bed. I ripped it open and I found a large metal object … with a sharp point and a handle wrapped around it, which is a piece of cloth wrapped real tight so they can have a grip on it. We identified that as a shank.
Q: … [F]or the record, could you say how long [the shank] was?
A: 18 to 20 inches.
Q: … [W]ere you able to determine how [Appellant] got th[e] metal rod [used in the shank]?
A: Yes, there was a metal bookcase in the, I forget the name of the room. They have a room where they do church services or when they want to watch movies on T.V.
Q: Is that the multipurpose room?
A: That would be the multipurpose room. In that room there is a bookcase, you know several stacks of books on it, that rod was, in particular, one of the many rods that the books go on.

Id. at 37-40.

Appellant avers that the shank and testimony surrounding it were irrelevant and inadmissible because the Commonwealth "specifically indicate[d] … to [the trial court] on the record that '[i]t was not the weapon used in this incident.'" Appellant's Brief at 15, quoting N.T., 10/5/10, at 12. While the shank was not the weapon used in this case, it does not automatically follow that the shank was not relevant. The Commonwealth avers that although the razor in the fight and the shank had different blade lengths, the two weapons were nevertheless similar. Commonwealth's Reply Brief at 9. Specifically, the Commonwealth argues that "both the razor and the shank had cloth or tape at the end of the instrument in order to have a handle on it." Id. Indeed, the testimony at trial does reveal this distinctive characteristic of both weapons. Compare N.T., 10/5/10, at 63 (Missero stating, "[the razor] blade … at the end it had paper or tape wrapped around it …"), with N.T., 10/6/10, at 37 (Officer Picone describing the shank as "a sharp point and [having] a handle wrapped around it, which is a piece of cloth wrapped real tight so they can have a grip on it[]") (emphases added).

In our view, the distinctive manner in which Appellant created handles on both weapons for easy gripping makes the shank "a weapon similar to the one used in the perpetration of the crime, " which is what our cases require. Williams, supra. We note that Missero did testify that razor blades were issued to inmates at the prison. See N.T., 10/5/10, at 65. While a generic razor blade, the main component of the weapon in this case, is not unique, it is the intentional and specific modification of the razor and the bookcase's metal rod into makeshift weapons, that makes both of them distinctive. See id. at 64; N.T., 10/6/10, at 39-40.

Additionally, as noted above, Appellant's theory of the case was that the razorblade was not his weapon, but rather was Missero's weapon. See N.T., 10/6/10, at 46. Therefore, the possession of the razorblade was also at issue in the trial.[6] The shank therefore "tend[ed] to make [the] fact more … probable" that Appellant "had the ability to fashion a homemade weapon from objects in the prison." Pa.R.E. 401; Trial Court Opinion, 4/26/11, at 7. The fact that the Commonwealth and Appellant agree that the shank was not the weapon used to attack Missero does not suddenly render the shank non-probative. See Williams, supra; Commonwealth v. Kubis, 978 A.2d 391, 395 (Pa. Super. 2009) (concluding that knives found in the appellant's car were relevant at trial for robbery to show that the appellant was more likely to have threatened to stab the victim even though "no knife was physically produced during the robbery"); Commonwealth v. Boaster, 863 A.2d 588, 591, 592 (Pa. Super. 2004) (permitting admission of a discarded handgun into evidence to show that the appellant "readily obtained handguns of the same caliber used in the murder" even though the "Commonwealth conceded at trial that the discarded gun was not the murder weapon"), appeal denied, 876 A.2d 392 (Pa. 2005).

Based on the aforementioned considerations, we conclude that the shank was relevant and admissible at trial. We further agree with the trial court that the probative value of the shank was not outweighed by its prejudicial effect. See Trial Court Opinion, 4/26/11, at 8; Pa.R.E. 403. As a result, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the Commonwealth to introduce it into evidence. See Bryant, supra. Therefore, Appellant is not entitled to relief on this issue.

In his final issue, Appellant avers that the sentence imposed by the trial court was "manifestly excessive" and unreasonable. Appellant's Brief at 18. Our standard of review in assessing whether a trial court has erred in fashioning a sentence is well settled.

[T]he proper standard of review when considering whether to affirm the sentencing court's determination is an abuse of discretion. [A]n abuse of discretion is more than a mere error of judgment; thus, a sentencing court will not have abused its discretion unless the record discloses that the judgment exercised was manifestly unreasonable, or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will. … An abuse of discretion may not be found merely because an appellate court might have reached a different conclusion, but requires a result of manifest unreasonableness, or partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will, or such lack of support so as to be clearly erroneous.

Commonwealth v. Provenzano, 50 A.3d 148, 154 (Pa. Super. 2012) (citation omitted). We observe that Appellant does not challenge the legality of his sentence, but rather his argument goes to the discretionary aspects of his sentence. Appeals regarding the discretionary aspects of sentencing are not reviewable as a matter of right. Commonwealth v. Mastromarino, 2 A.3d 581, 585 (Pa. Super. 2010) (citation omitted), appeal denied, 14 A.3d 825 (Pa. 2011). In order for this Court to review the discretionary aspects of his sentence, Appellant must comply with the following.

[W]e must … determine: (1) whether the appeal is timely; (2) whether Appellant preserved his issue; (3) whether Appellant's brief includes a concise statement of the reasons relied upon for allowance of appeal with respect to the discretionary aspects of sentence; and (4) whether the concise statement raises a substantial question that the sentence is appropriate under the sentencing code.

Commonwealth v. Carrillo-Diaz, 64 A.3d 722, 725 (Pa. Super. 2013) (citation omitted).

Instantly, Appellant has filed a timely notice of appeal, as well as a timely post-sentence motion, and Appellant has included a Rule 2119(f) statement in his brief. Therefore, the only remaining issue before we may address the merits of Appellant's claim is whether he has raised a substantial question for our review.

"A substantial question will be found where the defendant advances a colorable argument that the sentence imposed is either inconsistent with a specific provision of the [sentencing] code or is contrary to the fundamental norms which underlie the sentencing process." Commonwealth v. Booze, 953 A.2d 1263, 1278 (Pa. Super. 2008) (citation omitted), appeal denied, 13 A.3d 474 (Pa. 2010); see also 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9781(b). "We determine whether a particular case raises a substantial question on a case-by-case basis." Commonwealth v. Corley, 31 A.3d 293, 297 (Pa. Super. 2011) (citation omitted). "Additionally, we cannot look beyond the statement of questions presented and the prefatory 2119(f) statement to determine whether a substantial question exists." Provenzano, supra.

In his Rule 2119(f) statement, Appellant raises the following issue.

Under the circumstances of the instant matter, specifically that a dispute arose in the prison between inmates, that there is significant disagreement as to the circumstances under which the alleged assault occurred, along with numerous other factors, the sentence in the instant matter is manifestly unreasonable and creates a substantial question as to the appropriateness of the sentence imposed to warrant [a]ppellate review.

Appellant's Brief at 8. We note that a generic claim that a sentence is excessive does not raise a substantial question for our review. See Commonwealth v. Harvard, 64 A.3d 690, 701 (Pa. Super. 2013) (stating, "a bald assertion that a sentence is excessive does not by itself raise a substantial question justifying this Court's review of the merits of the underlying claim[]"). Additionally, this Court has repeatedly held that an allegation that the trial court failed to consider particular circumstances or factors in an appellant's case go to the weight accorded to various sentencing factors and do not raise a substantial question. Commonwealth v. Griffin, 65 A.3d 932, 936 (Pa. Super. 2013); accord Commonwealth v. Cannon, 954 A.2d 1222, 1228-1229 (Pa. Super. 2008). Therefore, Appellant has not raised a substantial question for our review. See Carrillo-Diaz, supra.

Based on the foregoing, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the shank found in Appellant's bed, nor in refusing to permit evidence regarding Missero's subsequent conviction. We further conclude that Appellant is not entitled to appellate review of his discretionary aspects of sentence claim. Accordingly, we would affirm the November 24, 2010 judgment of sentence.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF AFFIRMANCE by Mundy, J., joined by Bowes, J. and Shogan, J. Gantman, J. concurs in the result.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL by Ott, J. joined by Ford Elliott, P.J.E., Panella, J. and Lazarus, J.


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