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Commonwealth v. Towles

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

September 22, 2014


Argued September 10, 2013

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Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered on June 11, 2012 in the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division of Lancaster County at No. CP-36-CR-0002879-2010 (post-sentence motions denied on July 17, 2012 with order entered on July 18, 2012). Trial Court Judge: Howard F. Knisely, Judge.

For Jakeem Lydell Towles, Appellant: James Jude Karl, Esq.

For Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellee: Todd Patrick Kriner, Esq., Craig William Stedman, Esq., Amy Zapp, Esq., PA Office of Attorney General.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, STEVENS, JJ. MR. JUSTICE EAKIN. Mr. Chief Justice Castille, Messrs. Justice Saylor and Baer, Madame Justice Todd, and Messrs. Justice McCaffery and Stevens join the opinion.


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This is a direct appeal from a death sentence imposed after a jury convicted appellant of first degree murder. At the penalty phase, the jury found one aggravating circumstance and multiple mitigating circumstances, determined the aggravating circumstance outweighed the mitigating circumstances, and sentenced appellant to death. For the following reasons, we affirm.

Appellant and Antwain Robinson took a bus from Lancaster to Columbia to visit appellant's cousin, Tyrone Hunter, and to attend a local rap performance at a venue near Hunter's apartment. Appellant and Robinson drank alcohol and smoked marijuana throughout the night, walking between Hunter's apartment and the venue several times. At some point, appellant took Hunter's handgun from his apartment and hid it in a nearby alley. At the venue, appellant interrupted Cornell Stewart and John Wright's rap performance by grabbing Wright's microphone. As a result, appellant and Wright got into a physical altercation wherein Wright hit appellant at least once. Security separated them, and escorted appellant and Robinson out the front door and Wright and Stewart out the back door.

Appellant immediately retrieved the handgun he hid earlier, went behind the venue, and fired three shots at Wright and Stewart. One of the shots fatally struck Stewart in the head. Appellant and Robinson fled the scene and asked a friend for a ride to Lancaster. During the trip, appellant made incriminating statements to all occupants of the vehicle, including Robinson, their friend, and two other women, and instructed them not to talk.

Appellant was charged with Stewart's homicide, the attempted homicide of

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Wright, and unlawful possession of a firearm. The unlawful possession charge was severed for trial. The Commonwealth filed notice of an aggravating circumstance and intent to seek the death penalty. Appellant filed a pre-trial motion seeking suppression of any evidence relating to his use and handling of Hunter's handgun on occasions prior to the night of the murder and evidence of an unrelated altercation days earlier during which he sustained an injury to his lip. The trial court denied the motion.

During voir dire, defense counsel objected to the trial court's striking of one potential juror for cause and raised a Batson[1] challenge to each of the Commonwealth's four peremptory challenges to exclude jurors. The trial court overruled those objections.

At trial, appellant's defense theory was to negate specific intent to kill by arguing he was in the heat of passion from the altercation with Wright and also had diminished capacity due to voluntary intoxication. Appellant sought to admit a report from his expert, a toxicologist; the report contained appellant's detailed account of his alcohol and drug consumption on the night of the murder. The expert was also prepared to testify about all the facts in his report, including appellant's statements. The Commonwealth brought a motion in limine to exclude the report and preclude the expert from testifying to any of appellant's statements. Defense counsel objected, asserting the expert should be permitted to testify about all the facts on which he relied in rendering his opinion regarding the psychological and physiological effects of appellant's alcohol and drug consumption, including appellant's statements. The trial court granted the Commonwealth's motion and limited defense counsel to using hypothetical questions based on record evidence.

Appellant also requested the trial court instruct the jury on the distinct definitions of " premeditation" and " deliberation," and submitted two suggested instructions defining each term. The trial court declined to follow appellant's points for charge and instead relied on the Pennsylvania Suggested Standard Criminal Jury Instructions.

The jury convicted appellant of first degree murder and attempted homicide. In the penalty phase, the jury found one aggravating circumstance -- in the commission of the murder, appellant created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to Stewart. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(7). Although one or more jurors found various factors relating to the circumstances of the offense and appellant's character and criminal history supported the " catch-all mitigator," see id., § 9711(e)(8), the jury unanimously sentenced appellant to death. Appellant timely filed a post-sentence motion to modify his sentence to life imprisonment, alleging the jury failed to check the blank on the verdict slip indicating the aggravating circumstance outweighed the mitigating circumstances. The trial court denied the motion, finding the jury meaningfully weighed the mitigating factors against the sole aggravating factor as indicated by the individual polling of the jury on the record. Appellant timely appealed to this Court, raising the following claims of error:

1. Did not the [trial] court err in challenging a juror for cause sua sponte when the juror, although expressing a preference for imposing a life sentence, never indicated that she was incapable of imposing a death sentence under all circumstances?
2. Did the trial court improperly permit the dismissal of four female jurors who were either African-American or

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Hispanic after a Batson challenge by defense counsel, where the Commonwealth did not provide legitimate, race-neutral and gender-neutral reasons for exercising peremptory challenges to remove them from the jury?
3. Did the trial court err in permitting the Commonwealth to introduce a string of " prior bad act" evidence detailing [appellant]'s prior, unrelated interest in the handgun used to kill the decedent and referring to an unrelated beating that [appellant] sustained three days prior to his killing the decedent?
4. Did the [trial] court violate the terms of Pa.R.E. 703 by preventing [appellant]'s expert witness, a medical doctor and toxicologist, from referring to all the facts on which he reasonably relied in forming his conclusions as to the effects of [appellant]'s drug and alcohol use on the date of the charged offense and by requiring such expert witness thereby to amend his conclusions in a manner that negatively affected their impact on the legal defenses which [appellant] proffered at trial?
5. Did not the [trial] court err in refusing to instruct the jury, as requested by [appellant], with respect to the distinct meanings of the concepts of " premeditation" and " deliberation" necessary to sustain a conviction for murder in the first degree?
6. Was not the jury's death verdict invalid under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711, Pa.R.Crim.P. 807 and 808, and various constitutional provisions, where the jury on the written verdict slip failed to set forth the specific statutory finding upon which the death sentence was based?

Appellant's Brief, at 6-7.


We begin by reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence for appellant's first degree murder conviction. " In all cases in which the death penalty is imposed, it is this Court's duty to review the record to ensure the evidence sufficiently supports the first degree murder conviction[.]" Commonwealth v. Brown, 605 Pa. 103, 987 A.2d 699, 705 (Pa. 2009) (citations omitted). In sufficiency review, " we must determine whether the evidence admitted at trial, and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as the verdict winner, supports the jury's finding of all of the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt." Commonwealth v. Champney, 574 Pa. 435, 832 A.2d 403, 408 (Pa. 2003) (citation omitted).

The elements of first degree murder exist where the Commonwealth proves: (1) a human being was unlawfully killed; (2) the person accused is responsible for the killing; and (3) the accused acted with malice and specific intent to kill. See 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(a); Commonwealth v. Arrington, 86 A.3d 831, 840 (Pa. 2014) (citation omitted). At trial, the only disputed element was whether appellant had the requisite malice and intent to kill. For first degree murder, " an intentional killing" is a " willful, deliberate and premeditated killing." 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(d). In other words, first degree murder is a killing with specific intent. See Commonwealth v. Randolph, 582 Pa. 576, 873 A.2d 1277, 1281 (Pa. 2005) (citation omitted). The fact-finder may infer malice and specific intent to kill based on the defendant's use of a deadly weapon upon a vital part of the victim's body. Arrington, at 840 (citation omitted).

We find the Commonwealth provided sufficient evidence to prove each element of first degree murder beyond a reasonable ...

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