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Commonwealth v. Slocum

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 21, 2014

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellee
v.
SAMUEL BARTON SLOCUM, Appellant

Submitted: February 11, 2013.

Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas, McKean County, Criminal Division, No.: CP-42-CR-0000275-2011. Before MORGAN, J.

David Ridge, Erie, for appellant.

Raymond R. Learn, II, District Attorney, Smethport, for Commonwealth, appellee.

BEFORE: DONOHUE, J., MUNDY, J., and PLATT, J.[*] CONCURRING OPINION BY DONOHUE, J.

OPINION

Page 273

PLATT, J.

Appellant, Samuel Barton Slocum, appeals from the judgment of sentence entered on February 28, 2012, following his jury conviction of concealment of the whereabouts of a child [1] and corruption of minors - misdemeanor of the first degree.[2] Appellant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence. We affirm.

The charges against Appellant, a Catholic priest living in Lewis Run, Pennsylvania, arose from his relationship with the victim, J.H., a minor who for years had lived adjacent to the church and rectory with his mother and younger brother.[3] In 2010, J.H., then thirteen, began spending increasing amounts of his time in the rectory, almost daily, including some overnight visits. Mother, who had to work until eight every evening, was happy at first that J.H. had a place to go to after school. But this soon changed.

At that time Appellant, with the help of neighborhood boys, had designed and decorated a teenager-oriented pool room on an upper floor of the rectory, which he made available to the boys, including J.H. and his brother.[4] The net effect was to make his home more inviting to J.H. and other minors. In an audio tape statement recorded by Pennsylvania State Police, and played to the jury at trial, Appellant conceded, with some hesitation, that he used the pool room to buy the friendship of the neighborhood boys, even though he agreed that their parents would not approve if they had known. ( See Slocum Interview, 3/29/11, at 133) (" I think you're right; yeah. That's pretty much right; I bought them with little gifts and things like that and freedom. I think that's pretty much what it was, I think." ). Appellant also conceded to the state police that the room was designed as a lounge for teenagers, not adults. ( See id. at 176) (" Yeah, probably, because they're the ones that helped me make it." ).

Appellant also gave many expensive electronic presents to J.H. in particular, including two iPhones, an iPod, a laptop

Page 274

computer, and a video game player, as well as designer clothing and cologne. He paid J.H. $20.00 an hour for doing relatively routine chores around the rectory, even though he paid others $10.00 an hour. The two communicated regularly through text messages and Facebook.

Mother became concerned about the amount of time J.H. was spending at the rectory, especially after she caught him in several lies about his activities. She spoke with him about this, but he continued to spend most of his free time there. On one occasion, Mother caught the victim sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to go to the rectory.

At trial, Mother testified that J.H. had been caught skipping school in late December. ( See N.T. Trial, 1/16/12, at 104). On January 10, 2010, the victim claimed he was ill and did not want to go to school. Because of the December incident, Mother told him to go to school. Instead, J.H. sneaked over to the rectory and spent the entire day with Appellant. Appellant knew the victim was supposed to be at school but did not contact either the school or Mother.

Mother punished the victim for skipping school by grounding him, taking away his cell phones and the other electronic gifts Appellant had given him, and forbidding him from going to the rectory. She also informed Appellant, by letter of January 13, 2011, that the victim was not allowed in the rectory, telling him to contact her for confirmation if the victim claimed he had her permission.

Instead, without Mother's knowledge, the victim used a second computer that Appellant gave him to maintain contact with him over Facebook. Because of the proximity of their homes, he was able to use Appellant's wireless network. In their Facebook communications, Appellant told the victim he missed him and expressed his disapproval of Mother's punishment.

In February 2011, in response to the victim's increasingly disobedient behavior and in an attempt to separate him from Appellant, Mother sent him to stay with his grandparents. One day, instead of returning to his grandparents' home after school as required, the victim went to visit Appellant. When J.H. did not return to his grandparents as expected, a flurry of phone calls ensued. Grandfather called Mother to see if she knew where J.H. was. Mother called Appellant, who first lied, saying he had not been home all day. However, by this time J.H. had returned and admitted to his grandparents that he spent the afternoon with Appellant, who gave him a ride back. When Mother called again, Appellant refused to say whether he had seen the victim that day. ( See id. at 108). Mother told Appellant she did not want him to have any further contact with J.H. ( See id. ).

Shortly after, Mother saw the victim sneaking over to the church to retrieve a DS hand-held video game system that Appellant had purchased for him. Because of this, Mother told Appellant he was to have no contact with J.H. and that she was calling the bishop. ( See id. at 11). The next morning Mother found a series of messages between Appellant and J.H. on various phones. She called the police.

After interviewing both Mother and the victim, Pennsylvania State Police obtained a search warrant for Appellant's computers and similar items. While they were at Appellant's home, he arrived. As already noted, he gave a lengthy statement to the state police. He admitted allowing the victim in his residence and concealing his whereabouts from his Mother, engaging in an inappropriate relationship with J.H., taking him and other boys out of town

Page 275

without informing their parents, and aiding J.H. in deceiving his Mother.

Following a trial, the jury convicted Appellant of the two offenses previously noted.[5] The trial court also found Appellant guilty of corruption of minors as a summary offense. ( See Appellant's Brief, at 2); see also 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6301(a)(2) (aiding or abetting truancy). On February 28, 2012, the trial court sentenced Appellant to an aggregate term of two years' probation.[6] The instant, timely appeal followed.[7]

On appeal, Appellant presents the following two questions for our review:

I. The verdict of guilty of concealment of the whereabouts of a child must be vacated where the child was never concealed by [Appellant], and where there was never any evidence that [Appellant] removed the child from his residence or failed to return him home? [sic]
II. Should the verdict of guilty of corruption of minors be vacated since the Commonwealth did not prove that [Appellant] encouraged or enticed the juvenile to disobey his parents and where acts of disobedience did not rise to the level of conduct prohibited by the corruption of minors statute?

(Appellant's Brief, at vii).

Both of Appellant's questions challenge the sufficiency of the evidence. Our standard of review for a challenge to sufficiency is well-settled.

The standard we apply when reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence is whether viewing all the evidence admitted at trial in the light most favorable to the verdict winner, there is sufficient evidence to enable the fact-finder to find every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In applying the above test, we may not weigh the evidence and substitute our judgment for the fact-finder. In addition, we note that the facts and circumstances established by the Commonwealth need not preclude every possibility of innocence. Any doubts regarding a defendant's guilt may be resolved by the fact-finder unless the evidence is so weak and inconclusive that as a matter of law no probability of fact may be drawn from the combined circumstances. The Commonwealth may sustain its burden of proving every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt by means of wholly circumstantial evidence. Moreover, in applying the above test, the entire record must be evaluated and all evidence actually received must be considered. Finally, the trier of fact while passing upon the credibility of witnesses and the weight of the evidence produced is free to believe all, part or none of the evidence. Furthermore, when reviewing a sufficiency claim, our Court is required to give the prosecution the benefit of all reasonable inferences to be drawn from the evidence.
However, the inferences must flow from facts and circumstances proven in the record, and must be of such volume and quality as to overcome the presumption

Page 276

of innocence and satisfy the jury of an accused's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The trier of fact cannot base a conviction on conjecture and speculation and a verdict which is premised on suspicion will fail even under the limited scrutiny of appellate review.

Commonwealth v. Bostick , 2008 PA Super 233, 958 A.2d 543, 560 (Pa. Super. 2008), appeal denied, 604 Pa. 702, 987 A.2d 158 (Pa. 2009) (quoting Commonwealth v. Smith , 2008 PA Super 206, 956 A.2d 1029, 1035-36 (Pa. Super. 2008) ( en banc )).

In his first claim, Appellant argues " [t]here was no evidence that [he] ever removed the juvenile from his residence" within the meaning of the statute and no evidence that he ever " acted with the intent to conceal [the victim's] whereabouts from his parent, specifically his mother." (Appellant's Brief at 19) (internal quotation marks omitted). We disagree.

A person commits concealment of the whereabouts of a child when he or she:

. . . removes a child from the child's known place of residence with the intent to conceal the child's whereabouts from the child's parent or guardian, unless concealment is authorized by court order or is a reasonable response to domestic violence or child abuse, commits a felony of the third degree. For purposes of this subsection, the term " removes" includes personally removing the child from the child's known place of residence, causing the child to be removed from the child's known place of residence, preventing the child from returning or being returned to the child's known place of residence and, when the child's ...

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