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[U] Commonwealth v. Stokes

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 6, 2014



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of April 20, 2012 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No.: CP-51-CR-0006083-2009




Tyon Stokes appeals his April 20, 2012 judgment of sentence. We affirm.

On March 15, 2003, at approximately 8:46 p.m., police officers from the City of Philadelphia received a call that an unknown person with a gun had shot a male in the middle of the 5500 block of Chester Avenue in Philadelphia. When the police arrived, Phillip Sheridan, who was known on the streets as "Diesel, " was lying in the middle of the street dying from multiple gunshot wounds, one of which was to the left side of his head. Police rushed him to the local hospital, but to no avail. Sheridan died at the hospital.

Police officers located three spent Winchester .45 caliber casings and one suspected bullet on Chester Avenue, as well as another suspected bullet from a nearby door. Each of the found casings had been fired from the same weapon. The found bullets also were determined to be .45 caliber, though it could not be determined whether they had been fired from the same gun.

The ensuing investigation led the police first to Marc McDonald, who is more commonly known by his nickname "Tap." Shortly after the murder, McDonald met with Detective Grady Patterson and Detective Crystal Williams to provide a statement. McDonald, who was represented by an attorney during the interview, informed the detectives that he knew Sheridan, and that he was present when Sheridan was shot. On that day, McDonald was with Stokes on Chester Avenue when they encountered Sheridan. According to McDonald, Sheridan was selling drugs on that block, which angered Stokes, who believed that he was in control of that block. Stokes instructed Sheridan to cease selling drugs on that block, and warned Sheridan that, if he made another sale, Stokes would kill him. Sheridan ignored the warning, and conducted another sale very shortly thereafter. McDonald told the detectives what happened next: "Tyon and Diesel had words again and Tyon said, I told you if you made another sale, I was going to kill you. And Diesel said, 'I ain't scared. I want to see what's after this anyway.'" Notes of Testimony ("N.T."), 4/17/2012, at 222. McDonald continued to the detectives:

Then Diesel said to Tyon, If you don't kill me, I'm going to kill you. Then Diesel was walking across the street saying to Tyon, We can rumble. And Tyon said, You know we don't do no rumbling out here, showing Diesel his firearm. And Diesel kept walking up on Tyon and Tyon shot him. The first shot looked like it hit the wall and the second shot hit Diesel in his shoulder making Diesel turn a little to his left. And Diesel kept walking up on Tyon and Tyon shot Diesel again hitting him somewhere in the face. And I saw the brain matter jump out the back of Diesel's head. And Diesel fell backwards on the ground and Tyon ran towards 54th and Chester.

Id. at 222-23. McDonald noted to the detectives that Sheridan did not have a weapon that evening. McDonald then identified both Stokes and Sheridan from photographs shown to him by the detectives.

At trial, McDonald claimed that the signatures affixed to the photographs from the interview were not made by him. He admitted signing the bottom of every page of the report made by Detective Patterson that reflected, verbatim, McDonald's answers to the detectives' questions, but insisted that the answers in the reports were not his. McDonald repudiated the answers in the reports, and claimed that he was asked different questions and provided different answers than what is reflected in the report. However, Detective Patterson explained at trial that the report accurately reflected what occurred during the interview, and that McDonald read, approved, and adopted the report from the interview at the time that the report was generated. The report of the interview was admitted as substantive evidence at trial.

Akil Sabur, who was serving a life sentence for an unrelated murder, claimed at trial that he actually was the person who shot and killed Sheridan. However, in 2003, shortly after the murder was committed, Sabur gave a very different statement to the police. Sabur told detectives that, three or four days after the murder, he met Stokes at a local gas station. There, Stokes confessed to him that "some boy had gotten out of line" and that he "had to take care of business." N.T., 4/18/2012, at 80. Sabur had not heard about the murder until Stokes asked him if he had seen a story about it on the news. Sabur told Stokes that he had not heard about it, to which Stokes confessed that he was the one who had shot Sheridan. Sabur characterized Stokes' statements as bragging. Id. Stokes told Sabur that he shot Sheridan twice, once in the body and once in the head. Id. at 81.

At trial, Sabur claimed that his statement incriminating Stokes to the police was false, and that he made the statement in an effort to secure a transfer to a prison closer to his home. Sabur further stated that, at the time he made the statement, he was already charged with one murder and did not want to be charged with a second count of homicide. Knowing that Stokes was a drug dealer in the area, he decided to blame him for Sheridan's murder. Sabur also executed various affidavits from prison in the years prior to Stokes' trial in which he admitted to killing Sheridan. In those affidavits, Sabur asserted that McDonald and Sheridan had robbed Sabur's brother repeatedly, and that, while McDonald was the primary target, the motive for killing Sheridan had been retribution for the robberies.

Sabur stated at trial that he was not pressured to execute the affidavits, or to admit to killing Sheridan, by Stokes or anyone associated with Stokes. However, during the same time that he executed the affidavits, Sabur also sent letters to the Philadelphia District Attorney, in which he begged for protection and for a transfer to a different prison. In one letter, Sabur asserted that he was under extreme pressure to change his story and to admit to the killing of Sheridan. Sabur stated that the pressure was being applied by people associated with Stokes. Sabur reiterated the same in a face-to-face meeting with the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case and the detectives. Sabur claimed that he was only telling them what he thought that they wanted to hear in an effort to be transferred to a prison that was closer to his family.

Detective John McDermott, a homicide detective, was one of the detectives who interviewed Sabur in 2003. Detective McDermott explained that he wrote down the questions posed to Sabur, and the answers that Sabur provided to those questions, verbatim in his report. At the conclusion of the interview, Sabur reviewed the report, including his assertions that Stokes admitted to the murder, and signed each page. The report was introduced as substantive evidence at trial.

Despite statements from McDonald and Sabur in 2003, no arrest warrant was issued for Stokes at that time. The case became a cold case until 2008, when police came into contact with Shaheen Muhammad. In 2006, Muhammad was indicted by the federal government and the state of New Jersey for an extensive string of robberies that Muhammad committed with his uncle Jamil Johnson. Based upon those robberies, Muhammad was facing twenty years in prison in the standard range of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. To avoid such a lengthy sentence, in 2008, Muhammad decided to cooperate with the government and provide information on unsolved crimes for which he had knowledge, one of which was the Sheridan murder.

Muhammad met Stokes through Johnson. From 2002 to 2003, Muhammad was employed by Stokes, selling marijuana for him on the Chester Avenue block. Eventually, Muhammad was arrested twice for selling marijuana. This caused Muhammad to elect to leave the drug business. As part of this effort, Muhammad sold the vehicle that he owned at the time. Stokes had an extra set of keys for the car. When Muhammad approached Stokes about the keys, Muhammad informed Stokes that he no longer wanted to sell marijuana and that he needed his keys back. Stokes was angered by Muhammad's decision, and threw the keys onto a roof. As the argument ensued, Stokes said to Muhammad: "You see what happened to Diesel, . . . you don't want no problems. . . ." N.T., 4/17/2012, at 75. Muhammad told the FBI that he believed that Sheridan was murdered over drug territory.

Johnson, Muhammad's accomplice in the string of robberies, also had been indicted in 2006 by the federal government for heroin trafficking. Thus, he was facing even more prison time than Muhammad, including a possible life sentence. He too elected to cooperate with the government in order to receive a lighter sentence. However, he had already done so to the satisfaction of the government, and had been sentenced on his two cases, by the time of Stokes' trial. Nonetheless, after Muhammad provided the police with the aforementioned information, the police contacted Johnson. Johnson agreed to speak to the police and to testify against Stokes regarding the Sheridan murder as well, possibly in hopes of having his sentence further reduced for doing so.

At trial, Johnson explained that he and Stokes had sold drugs together on Chester Avenue in 2003. Stokes sold marijuana, while Johnson sold heroin. Johnson stated that Sheridan had just been released from jail, and was trying to "push his weight around" on Chester Avenue. N.T., 4/18/2012, at 90. On the day after the murder, Stokes called Johnson and asked Johnson to meet him. At Stokes' apartment, Stokes confessed to shooting and killing Sheridan with a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun. Specifically, Stokes explained to Johnson that he had a talk with Sheridan about selling drugs on that particular block, and that Sheridan nonetheless continued to sell drugs. Stokes told Johnson that he first attempted to run Sheridan over with his vehicle. When that did not work, Stokes returned to his apartment and retrieved his .45 caliber handgun. Stokes returned to the scene and shot Sheridan in the stomach at first. Stokes told Johnson that, after the shot to the stomach, Sheridan looked at Stokes and said, "I eat these, pussy. You might as well kill me." Id. at 91. Stokes confessed that he then shot Sheridan in the head. A few days after the murder, Stokes and Johnson drove together to drop off heroin at a particular location. On the way there, Stokes stopped and sold his .45 caliber weapon with which he had killed Sheridan.

After meeting with Muhammad and Johnson in 2008, Detective William Kelhower, a veteran homicide detective assigned to the cold case squad, obtained an arrest warrant for Stokes, and subsequently executed the warrant.

Approximately one year before trial, Detective Kelhower began receiving multiple letters from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections that were intercepted due to the Department's belief that the letters constituted witness intimidation, or at least attempts at witness intimidation. The letters were all authored by Stokes, who also attempted to mail them. The first letter contained two pictures, one of Lakine Stephenson and one of Antione Moore. Stephenson's nickname is "Kunch, " and next to his picture was the statement "Kunch lives on Allison Street." By Moore's picture, Stokes had written, "This is the person who is dead Brother. I think this is who Ray was saying he seen in the courtroom. He might still live on 54th Street, the block before Elmwood, the block behind, the little block, Glenmore." Id. at 146-48. In the body of the letter, Stokes wrote the following:

Lil Ray was at my court date and said he recognized a nigga from his grandmom's block in there. From the description, it's the deceased's brother. I need you to check the temperature of that situation. Remember the nigga Boo from Allison Street who used to have all them poisonous snakes and alligators. Anyway, he made a statement mentioning my name. They are going to subpoena him. I need him not to come. I know he lives over West Philly somewhere. You can just tell him not to go to court. And if he does, I'm just not that person and he doesn't know me. The nigga Kunch made a statement mentioning my name. The same for him, but instead tell him not to show up at all. Kunch's picture will be enclosed in the envelope. Boo's real name is Carl Pulliam. If you can, look him up on the net.

Id. at 149-50. This letter was addressed to Jeremiah Stokes, but it also contained forwarding information for Darryl Black, who also was in prison.

In another letter, addressed to "Muff (D. Berry), " Stokes admitted his involvement with Sabur's confessions to killing Sheridan:

I got a homie who just recently came home like nine months ago who talking it but he lied about sending me phone care money to get with these witnesses and sneaker money. So we both know how that goes. I'm not going to say how my case is looking because I really don't want to mislead you. I'm going to tell you this case is eight-years-old. They have no physical evidence. They have two people in the feds who admitting to getting a less deal for their cooperation. Their eyewitnesses said in a preliminary hearing that he was never questioned about this crime and didn't know me. Nor did he make a statement. And to put the cherry on top of the cake, I have somebody who sent a notarized letter, an affidavit to the D.A. and my lawyer saying he, himself, committed this said crime and told them why he blamed it on me. So you can deduce from that how my case looks. In my words, bullshit.

Id. at 152-53 (verbatim). Stokes ended this letter with: "Fear none, respect few and kill all snakes and rats." Id.

In a fourth letter, Stokes wrote the following:
As for my situation, I got a new mouthpiece named Gary S. Server. He got at me on the 23rd of March. They will be giving me another date. I'll report it as soon as but we must work. I need you to sign up to go to the library with dude (Quil) once a week just to check up until business is handled. He already has the script to write. I need him to handle that ASAP sending one to Judge Gwendolyn Bright, one to ADA Brian Zarallo, District Attorney and one to the family of Tyon Stokes making sure all of them are notarized. For now legally I need that took care of. As for Tap, sitting duck with the face of a rat.
* * *
Sometimes I know I flips my lid but in this circumstance I can't afford. So I made sure my handshake matched my smile while my head only cried revenge and pain. And how I forced to act towards them two niggas. But nonetheless, one always has to do what he has to do to win except tell and go against principle.

Id. at 154-55.

Finally, Detective Kelhower read a verbatim statement that Sabur provided to him and the assistant district attorney before trial, explaining how Stokes had gotten him to admit to the murder in affidavits to various individuals involved in this trial:

The first time I was approached was in Forest. Darryl Black approached me and said he needed to talk. Black told me to sign up for the law library. I signed up for the regular library on a Thursday morning. I felt safer with more people around. He said he had a letter from Tyon and this is what he wants. Rewrite this letter, get it notarized, fill out the envelope and give it back to Black so that he can check it before he mailed it out. Black told me to take care of this ...

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