Appeal from the PCRA Order June 28, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County, Criminal Division at No(s): CP-48-CR-0001684-2006, CP-48-CR-0003501-2006, CP-48-CR-0001683-2006
BEFORE: ALLEN, STABILE, and STRASSBURGER [*] , JJ.
Alfredo Reyes-Rodriguez (Appellant) appeals from the June 28, 2013 order dismissing his petition filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546. After review, we reverse the order of the PCRA court.
Appellant was charged at three separate docket numbers for sexually assaulting three minor victims, M.A. (born in 1990), SC (born in 1991), and Y.R. (born in 1995), who are half-sisters to each other. Appellant was married to the victims' mother while this abuse occurred. M.A., the oldest of the sisters, testified that Appellant began sexually abusing her when she was eight years old, shortly after she first met Appellant while her family resided in the Philadelphia area. She testified to several instances of abuse that occurred while in Philadelphia. When M.A. was ten years old, the family moved to New York, and M.A. testified that Appellant was assaulting her two to three times per week during that time period. When M.A. was twelve years old, the family moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in Northampton County, and the abuse continued. She testified that Appellant continued to abuse her until March 2006, when she and her sisters went into foster care.
S.C. testified that she met Appellant when she was eight or nine years old and he began sexually abusing her when she was ten years old and living in Philadelphia. She testified that this abuse also occurred when the family moved to Bethlehem.
Y.R., the youngest of the sisters, who was nine years old when she went into foster care, testified that Appellant sexually abused her while they lived in Bethlehem. On March 17, 2006, S.C.'s then-boyfriend made an anonymous report to child protective services that S.C. was being sexually abused by Appellant. This phone call led to the removal of the sisters into foster care and Appellant's arrest.
After initially pleading guilty to various charges, Appellant withdrew his plea and proceeded to a consolidated jury trial. "The testimony established that [Appellant] 'groomed' each child and that his victimization of each child started prior to her thirteenth birthday. Additionally, the evidence established that, although there was a common scheme evident with regard to the three victims, the nature of the assaults varied regarding the individual victims." PCRA Court Opinion, 6/28/2013, at 1-2. With respect to M.A., Appellant was found guilty of criminal attempt to commit rape, aggravated indecent assault, endangering the welfare of children (EWOC), indecent assault, and corruption of minors. With respect to S.C., Appellant was found guilty of EWOC, indecent assault, and corruption of minors. With respect to Y.R., Appellant was found not guilty on all charges.
On May 14, 2007, the trial court imposed consecutive standard range sentences on all counts creating an aggregate term of incarceration of 14½ to 29 years. On July 25, 2011, this Court issued a memorandum affirming Appellant's judgment of sentence. Commonwealth v. Reyes-Rodriguez, 32 A.3d 280 (Pa.Super. 2011) (unpublished memorandum).
Appellant timely filed a pro se PCRA petition. Counsel was appointed, a hearing was held, and counsel filed a supplemental brief. On June 28, 2013, the PCRA court issued an order denying Appellant PCRA relief. Appellant timely filed a notice of appeal and court-ordered statement pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925. The PCRA court filed a statement in lieu of opinion relying on its rationale set forth in its order denying PCRA relief.
On appeal, Appellant presents the following issues for our review, which we have reordered for ease of disposition.
[1.] Whether trial counsel was ineffective in failing to raise contemporaneous objections to the testimony of [M.A.] occurring on April 10, 2007 at pages 27-29, 30-32, 37, 72, and 128-129?
[2.] Whether trial counsel was ineffective in failing to present evidence of the character of [Appellant] concerning his general reputation in the community with regard to traits as to non-violence, peaceableness, quietness, good moral character, chastity, and disposition to observe good order? [See Commonwealth v. Johnson, 27 A.3d 244 (Pa.Super. 2011).]
[3.] Whether trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object or request a character evidence instruction that included the charge that "character evidence alone may be sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt and thus justify an acquittal of the charges"? [See Johnson, supra].
[4.] Whether trial counsel was ineffective in failing to challenge the consecutive nature of sentencing at the sentencing hearing and/or in post-sentence motions?
Appellant's Brief at 3-4 (capitalization, references to notes of testimony, and suggested answers omitted).
In reviewing the propriety of an order granting or denying PCRA relief, an appellate court is limited to ascertaining whether the record supports the determination of the PCRA court and whether the ruling is free of legal error. Commonwealth v. Johnson, 966 A.2d 523, 532 (Pa. 2009). This Court grants great deference to the findings of the PCRA court if the record contains any support for those findings. Commonwealth v. Boyd, 923 A.2d 513 (Pa.Super. 2007). If the record supports a post-conviction court's credibility determination, it is binding on the appellate court. Commonwealth v. Knighten, 742 A.2d 679, 682 (Pa.Super. 1999).
As all four of Appellant's claims involve the ineffective assistance of trial counsel, we set forth our well-settled principles of law in that area. In reviewing the PCRA court's denial of Appellant's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, we bear in mind that counsel is presumed to be effective. Commonwealth v. Martin, 5 A.3d 177, 183 (Pa. 2010). To overcome this presumption, Appellant bears the burden of proving the following: "(1) the underlying substantive claim has arguable merit; (2) counsel whose effectiveness is being challenged did not have a reasonable basis for his or her actions or failure to act; and (3) the petitioner suffered prejudice as a result of counsel's deficient performance." Id. Appellant's claim will be denied if he fails to meet any one of these three prongs. Id.
Appellant contends that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to certain testimony offered by victims which referred to incidents of abuse that occurred outside of Northampton County. Specifically, Appellant contends that permitting the victims to testify to these prior instances of abuse was "highly prejudicial to [Appellant] and outweighed its probative value." Appellant's Brief at 16.
We conclude that counsel was not ineffective because the testimony was admissible under these circumstances.
Generally, evidence of prior bad acts or unrelated criminal activity is inadmissible to show that a defendant acted in conformity with those past acts or to show criminal propensity. Pa.R.E. 404(b)(1). However, evidence of prior bad acts may be admissible when offered to prove some other relevant fact, such as motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, and absence of mistake or accident. Pa.R.E. 404(b)(2). In determining whether evidence of other prior bad acts is admissible, the trial court is obliged to balance the probative value of such evidence against its prejudicial impact.
Commonwealth v. Aikens, 990 A.2d 1181, 1185 (Pa. Super, 2010) (citing Commonwealth v. Sherwood, 982 A.2d 483, 497 (Pa. 2009)). "Evidence of prior bad acts is also admissible where the particular crime or act was part of a chain, sequence, or natural development of events forming the history of a case." Commonwealth v. Passmore, 857 A.2d 697, 711 (Pa.Super. 2004).
Instantly, the victims' testimony provided a context for the jury to understand the history of this family and the abuse that happened while the family resided in Northampton County. "When such evidence is admitted … the defendant is entitled upon request to a jury instruction explaining to the jury that the specific evidence is only admissible for one or more of the above-described limited purposes." Commonwealth v. Tedford, 960 A.2d 1, 37 (Pa. 2008). The trial court offered such an instruction here.
[B]efore I begin defining these charges, you have heard during this trial evidence that alleges that the defendant committed offenses in Philadelphia and New York in addition to the allegations in Northampton County. The defendant is not on trial for those actions that occurred outside of Northampton County.
The evidence with regard to the alleged sexual assaults in Philadelphia and New York is before you for a limited purpose. That is for the purposes of providing you with a complete history of the relationship between the alleged victims and the defendant. This event must not be considered by you in any way other than for that purpose I have just stated.
You must not regard this evidence as proof tending to show that the defendant is a person of bad character or that the person has criminal tendencies from which you might be inclined to infer that he is guilty of the crimes charged here in Northampton County.
You may not find the defendant guilty based on any of the alleged criminal facts that were referenced as having occurred in other jurisdictions. It is the Commonwealth's burden to prove that the defendant exhibited ...