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[U] Commonwealth v. Williams

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 21, 2014



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered June 25, 2012, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Division, at No(s): CP-51-CR-0005297-2011 & CP-51-CR-0005299-2011.




Timothy Williams ("Appellant") appeals from the judgment of sentence imposed after a jury convicted him of burglary, aggravated assault, and possessing of an instrument of crime.[1] We affirm.

The trial court detailed the trial testimony as follows:

At trial, complainant Rodrigus Williams ("Williams") testified that on the afternoon of August 7, 2011, he was at his house with [Appellant] and Williams's friends, Brandon, Unique, Quron, and Marquis, playing video games. [Although they are not related by blood, Williams treated Appellant as his nephew.] At around 3:30 p.m., everyone except [Appellant] left Williams's house to drive Brandon to work. [Appellant] told the group he was taking his skateboard to the park.
While driving away, Williams noticed that instead of heading toward the park, [Appellant] was heading back toward Williams's house. Williams drove back to the house, went inside, secured the door and back window, and left a second time. When Williams returned to the house with Unique, Quron, and Marquis a short while later, he noticed that the top part of the house's back door was jammed, and the hinge was broken. When he went upstairs to see if anything else was out of place, Williams discovered that his PlayStation 3 ("the PlayStation") was missing, along with some controllers, wires, and games. [Some of the games that had been taken belonged to one or more of Williams's friends.] He also later noticed that three of his PSPs and an MP3 player were missing.
Williams testified that he telephoned [Appellant's] aunt, Ruby Tilghman ("Tilghman"), with whom [Appellant] lived, told her [Appellant] had stolen his things, and said he would be coming to Tilghman's house to take them back. Williams, Unique, Quron, and Marquis, drove to Tilghman's house at 538 South 56th Street. When they arrived, Williams approached the house while the others remained by his car. Williams demanded his things from [Appellant]. At Tilghman's prompting, [Appellant] removed an MP3 player and a wallet from his pocket. Recognizing the MP3 player as his own, Williams grabbed the items and passed them to Unique, Quron, and Marquis. After exchanging "confrontational words" about who owned those items, [Appellant] ran off the front porch, past Williams's car. Unique, Quron, and Marquis chased him across the street and the four men engaged in a physical altercation. Williams testified that he stopped the fight after about twenty seconds.
Williams testified that when the fight ended, Tilghman invited him to go to [Appellant's] bedroom to look for the items. [Appellant] led the way upstairs, and Tilghman and [Williams] followed. [Appellant] walked into his bedroom while Tilghman and Williams stood at the doorway. Although [Appellant] did not produce the PlayStation or the games, Williams noticed [Appellant's] gaze kept shifting to a storage tote on the bedroom floor. Williams stepped into the bedroom, removed some clothes from the top of the tote, and saw the PlayStation.
According to Williams's testimony, [Appellant] stabbed him almost immediately after Williams had uncovered the PlayStation. When [Appellant] came at him a second time, Williams was able to grab [Appellant] by the arms. Williams hit [Appellant's] arm against the door frame, causing the knife to drop from [Appellant's] hand. Williams and [Appellant] struggled on the hallway floor, but when Williams's left hand went numb, he fell to the side and ran outside, screaming for someone to call an ambulance. He noticed blood coming from his chest and both of his arms and began to feel light-headed.
Williams was taken by ambulance to the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania where he was admitted and treated for multiple stab wounds, a left brachial transaction, a laceration to both his liver and diaphragm, and a pericardial fistula. He was discharged twenty days later. At the time of trial, Williams was continuing to go to the hospital every three months to treat pain associated with the injuries.
Defense witness Ruby Tilghman recounted a different version of the events leading up to the altercation. Specifically, Tilghman testified that when Williams called her to report that [Appellant] had stolen his PlayStation, he [Williams] threatened to shoot [Appellant]. Shortly after the call, Williams showed up at 538 with three other males (presumably Unique, Quron, and Marquis). When [Appellant] stepped onto the porch, Williams and the three other males started chasing him. Williams's companions caught [Appellant], jumped him, and kicked and punched him at Williams's direction, while Williams held [Appellant's] hands back. Tilghman testified that it was she, not Williams, who stopped the fight. Tilghman also testified that while she was intervening, Williams again threatened to shoot [Appellant], even if it meant having to "go through" Tilghman to do it.
Tilghman testified that after the fight ended, [Appellant] returned to 538 and sat on the front steps. Williams approached the front porch and took [Appellant's] wallet from him. He told [Appellant] he would keep the wallet, and would return every day to beat [Appellant] up, until [Appellant] returned the PlayStation. Tilghman invited Williams to come into 538 to see for himself that the PlayStation was not there. [Appellant] led the way to his room and sat on his bed. Suddenly, Tilghman observed [Appellant] run past her and into the bathroom. [Appellant] and Williams began fighting on the bathroom floor until Williams shouted that he had been stabbed. [Appellant] ran into Tilghman's bedroom, pulled the air conditioning unit out of the window, and climbed out onto the roof.
Police Officer Rasheen Dickerson was the first law enforcement official to arrive at 538. Upon arriving, he observed Williams unconscious on the sidewalk, in a pool of blood. Officer Dickerson also observed blood on the steps and door at 538. A female who came outside 538 (presumably Tilghman) told him that she was in the house while Williams and [Appellant] were fighting, that [Appellant] stabbed Williams, and that [Appellant] had jumped out a second floor window at 538.
Police Officer Scott McLane also responded to the scene. Officer McLane's brother [sic] officers told him that [Appellant] had jumped through the second floor window at 538 to access the adjacent, abandoned property at 540 South 56th Street ("540"). Officer McLane asked the female at the property (again, presumably Tilghman) if 540 could be accessed via the second floor window through which [Appellant] had reportedly escaped. Acting on this information, Officer McLane entered 538 to clear the area. He testified that his objective in entering 538 was to search for [Appellant], not to search for physical evidence.
Officer McLane followed a track of blood up the stairwell in the house at 538. Upon reaching the second floor, he noticed an open window. Followed by Officers Tellen and Roher, Officer McLane climbed through an already broken window at 540. The officers cleared the rooms in the house one by one for safety. As Officers McLane and Roher were clearing the front living room, they saw [Appellant] crouching in the corner, covered in blood. Officer Roher noticed [Appellant] had a large contusion on his forehead and cuts to his face. Officer McLane drew his weapon and demanded that [Appellant] show him his hands, which he did. After Officer Tellen handcuffed [Appellant], Officer McLane transported him to Mercy Hospital for evaluation. Subsequent to the officers' entry at 538 for purposes of apprehending [Appellant], a search warrant was procured for the property. A PlayStation and knife were recovered from the scene.
[Appellant] was taken from the hospital and transported to the Southwest Detectives division at 55th and Pine Streets. He was held in a cell for approximately five hours prior to questioning. Detective Chestang administered [Appellant's] Miranda warnings to him. She read and explained the questions to [Appellant] which he indicated he understood. [Appellant] represented to Detective Chestang that he had been educated through the tenth grade, could read and write the English language, and was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the statement. Detective Chestang testified that [Appellant] never asked her to stop the interview, never asked for an attorney, and never invoked any of his Miranda rights. [Appellant's] statement was typed while [Appellant] was present. He was given the opportunity to review his answers once it [sic] was complete. Detective Chestang testified that the tone of her interaction with [Appellant] was "conversational," and while he seemed upset about the fight, he did not appear disoriented or unable to understand what was happening. She also could not recall observing any "substantial" physical injury to [Appellant]. The statement concluded at 4:19 p.m.
In his statement, [Appellant] admitted that he had broken into Williams's home to take and sell the PlayStation. [Appellant] claimed that when Williams showed up at Tilghman's house, he threatened [Appellant] and then instructed Unique, Quron, and Marquis to beat up [Appellant]. While [Appellant] admitted to having stabbed Williams, he claimed to have done so only after Williams began punching and choking [Appellant] upstairs; [Appellant] alleged that his actions were in self defense.

Trial Court Opinion, 4/12/13, at 2-7 (citations and footnotes omitted).

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted Appellant of burglary, aggravated assault, and possession of an instrument of crime. On June 25, 2012, the trial court sentenced Appellant to three and one-half to seven years of incarceration for his aggravated assault conviction, and concurrent probationary terms for the remaining convictions. This timely appeal followed. Both Appellant and the trial court have complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

Appellant raises the following issue:

Whether the Commonwealth attorney engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by vouching for the truthfulness of Commonwealth witnesses by implicitly asserting that the District Attorney's Office had "determined" the truth as to "what happened", and by denigrating the role of defense counsel and asserting a superior role for himself as a prosecutor?

Appellant's Brief at 2.[2]

Our standard of review for a claim of prosecutorial misconduct is limited to "whether the trial court abused its discretion." Commonwealth v. Harris, 884 A.2d 920, 927 (Pa. Super. 2005) (citation omitted), appeal denied, 928 A.2d 1289 (Pa. 2007). In considering such a claim, our attention is focused on whether the defendant was deprived of a fair trial, not a perfect one. Id. This Court has observed:

Not every unwise remark on a prosecutor's part constitutes reversible error. Indeed, the test is a relatively stringent one. Generally speaking, a prosecutor's comments do not constitute reversible error unless the unavoidable effect of such comments would be to prejudice the jury, forming in their minds fixed bias and hostility toward Appellant so that they could not [weigh] the evidence objectively and render a true verdict. Prosecutorial misconduct, however, will not be found where the comments were based on evidence or proper inferences therefrom or were only oratorical flair. In order to evaluate whether comments were improper, we must look to the context in which they were made.

Id. Moreover, "the prosecutor is permitted to respond to defense arguments and is free to present his or her case with logical force and vigor." Commonwealth v. Koehler, 737 A.2d 225, 240 (Pa. 1999) (citation omitted).

In support of his claim, Appellant asserts that the prosecutor "improperly convey[ed] to the jury the prosecutor's personal belief that he and the District Attorney's office as a whole had predetermined the truthfulness of the Commonwealth witnesses and [Appellant's] guilt." Appellant's Brief at 9. Appellant focuses on the following commentary by the prosecutor:

The District Attorney's Office, myself, the prosecutor, all we do is seek the truth. That's what justice is. To make a determination about what happened out on that street, to try to do the right thing, not for [Appellant]. I'm not paid to argue solely on the behalf of [Appellant] - -
[ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY]: I am paid by the City of Philadelphia and my client is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia. My job is to protect the citizens of Philadelphia. My job is to seek the truth.

N.T., 4/13/12, at 95.

According to Appellant, "[b]y so describing his role and that of defense counsel[,] the prosecutor undercut the principle that juries must perceive fairness in the operation of the criminal justice system and that it is the sole province of the jury to decide [the] issue of credibility and the facts of a case, and induced the jury to deliberate with a presumption that the prosecutor is, by definition, morally superior to defense counsel, and that the latter's role, by definition, is that of a mere hireling, and that the role of the jury is to endorse the morally superior prosecution's predetermined verdict of guilt." Appellant's Brief at 9. Additionally, Appellant claims that he was prejudiced in "view of testimony from an Assistant District Attorney, Michael Stackhow, as to his decision to withdraw charges against [Williams] and to allow the latter's three friends to plead to greatly reduced charges." Id. at 13.

The trial court found no merit to Appellant's claim, explaining as follows:

Here, when viewed in context, the prosecutor's statement was made in response to defense counsel's argument that the Commonwealth had failed to seek justice for [Appellant], and instead "took sides" without doing a full investigation. N.T., Apr. 13, 2012, at 66, 74, and 77. The prosecutor's statement was not crafted or delivered such that its effect was to "prejudice the jury" and foster a sense of "hostility toward the defendant." See [Commonwealth v.] Thomas, 54 A.3d 332, 337 (Pa. 2012). Moreover, the court specifically instructed the jury that "[t]he speeches of counsel are not part of the evidence and [the jury] should not consider them as such." N.T., Apr. 13, 2012 at 112 and 113.

Trial Court Opinion, 4/13/12, at 14.

Our review of the record comports with the trial court's analysis. The disputed comments occurred during the concluding remarks by the prosecutor, and was made in response to defense counsel's closing. In fact, Appellant neglected to reference the statements made by the prosecutor immediately prior to the disputed comments:

The defense used the one line on that paper thing he was writing, at the top of it, "The prosecution can't handle the truth." I get that. It's cute and from a movie. [Defense counsel] wants you to believe the prosecution can't handle the truth.

N.T., 4/13/12, at 94-95. Additionally, as noted by the trial court, defense counsel repeatedly implied that the Commonwealth already determined which version of events was more worthy of belief because the Commonwealth had already taken "sides," and had withdrawn charges against Williams and/or negotiated pleas with the other men involved in the incident. Because the prosecutor's challenged comments were responsive to defense counsel's closing, the trial court properly rejected Appellant's claim of prosecutorial misconduct. See, e.g., Koehler, 737 A.2d at 241 (explaining that a prosecutor's remark that he did not believe the defendant and calling him a liar was proper when the comments were made in response to defense counsel's closing regarding the credibility of witnesses, and was supported by the evidence); Commonwealth v. Ervin, 766 A.2d 859, 865 (Pa. Super. 2000) (explaining that the Commonwealth's comments were proper as they responded to arguments made by defense counsel).

In sum, our review of the record reveals no prosecutorial misconduct. We therefore affirm the judgment of sentence.

Judgment of sentence affirmed.

Judgment Entered.

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