Submitted June 23, 2014
Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas, Monroe County, Criminal Division, No(s): CP-45-CR-0000298-2009. Before WORTHINGTON, J.
Brian S. Gaglione, Stroudsburg, for appellant.
Elmer D. Christine, Jr., Assistant District Attorney, Stroudsburg, for Commonwealth, appellee.
BEFORE: GANTMAN, P.J, ALLEN and FITZGERALD,[*] JJ. President Judge Gantman joins the opinion. Justice Fitzgerald files a dissenting opinion.
In this appeal, we address a challenge to the discretionary aspects of a sentence imposed following a re-sentencing hearing in accordance with Miller v. Alabama, __ U.S. __, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed. 407 (2012), and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Batts,
620 Pa. 115, 66 A.3d 286 (Pa. 2013). We affirm.
Ian Thomas Seagraves (" Appellant" ), then seventeen, and his adult co-defendant, Shawn Nicholas Freemore (" Freemore" ), then nineteen, planned to lure the victim to an obscure location under a bridge. Although the victim believed he was meeting Freemore for a sexual encounter, according to Freemore, " The plan was to meet him. Scare him. Kill him." See N.T., 9/16/11, at 79. As planned, once the victim was present, Appellant jumped the victim, stabbing him in his throat. While the victim ran and pled for mercy, Appellant and Freemore caught up to him and forced him into the woods. Appellant and Freemore then stabbed the victim approximately forty-five times, and slashed him with a meat cleaver. They then attempted to hide the victim's body under the snow. After leaving the scene, Freemore returned and rifled through the victim's pockets, taking the victim's car keys, as well as a digital recorder on which the victim had recorded choir music he performed for a local church.
After the victim was reported missing, the local authorities found his car, and their investigation led them to Freemore. At first Freemore denied recently meeting with the victim. He then informed them he killed the victim and acted alone. In his final version of events, Freemore told the authorities that he planned and committed the murder with Appellant, and that Appellant still possessed a DVD that he and Freemore had taken from the victim's car. Following a search of Appellant's home, the police recovered the stolen DVD. Authorities ultimately charged Appellant and Freemore with criminal homicide and related crimes.
A joint jury trial began on September 13, 2011. As part of the evidence, the Commonwealth introduced notebooks and digital recordings made by each defendant. The Commonwealth first introduced notebooks found in Freemore's car in which each defendant " set his crime to verse." N.T., 9/13/11, at 38. The two later used the victim's digital recorder to set their words to music, and sing them as a rap song. The Commonwealth played these
recordings for the jury. Finally, the Commonwealth introduced evidence to demonstrate that, following the murder, Appellant changed his name on a social media site to " Throwt Stabba."
On September 21, 2011, the jury convicted Appellant and Freemore of first-degree murder, conspiracy, and tampering with evidence. On December 12, 2011, the trial court sentenced Appellant to the mandatory term of life without the possibility of parole for his murder conviction, and a consecutive term of eight and one-half to twenty years of incarceration for the remaining convictions.
Following the denial of his post-sentence motions, Appellant filed a timely appeal to this Court. In an unpublished memorandum filed on July 16, 2013, this Court, although rejecting Appellant's substantive claims, vacated Appellant's mandatory life imprisonment sentence and remanded for resentencing in accordance with the Miller and Batts decisions.
On remand, the trial court appointed new counsel for Appellant, and conducted a re-sentencing hearing on September 20, 2013. At the conclusion of this hearing, the trial court re-imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the murder conviction, and the same consecutive term for the remaining convictions. This appeal followed. Both Appellant and the trial court have complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.
Appellant raises the following issue on appeal:
I. Whether the [trial] court abused its discretion when it sentenced Appellant, who was a juvenile at the time of the crime, to life without parole without properly taking into consideration mitigating factors listed in Miller v. Alabama.
Appellant's Brief at 6.
As noted above, Appellant challenges the discretionary aspects of his sentence. This Court has summarized:
Appellant challenges the discretionary aspects of sentencing for which there is no automatic right to appeal. This appeal is, therefore, more appropriately considered a petition for allowance of appeal. Two requirements must be met before a challenge to the judgment of sentence will be heard on the merits. First, the appellant must set forth in his [or her] brief a concise statement of matters relied upon for allowance of appeal with respect to the discretionary aspects of his [or her] sentence. Pa.R.A.P. 2119(f). Second, he or she must show that there is a substantial question that the sentence imposed is not appropriate under the Sentencing Code. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9781(b)[.]
The determination of whether a particular case raises a substantial question is to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Generally, however, in order to establish that there is a substantial question, the appellant must show actions by the sentencing court inconsistent with the Sentencing Code or contrary to the fundamental norms underlying the sentencing process.
Commonwealth v. Marts, 2005 PA Super 418, 889 A.2d 608, 611-12 (Pa. Super. 2005) (footnote and citations omitted).
Appellant's Pa.R.A.P. 2119(f) statement reads, in pertinent part, as follows:
In the instant case, the [trial] court abused its discretion by re-sentencing
Appellant without properly considering mitigating factors due to Appellant's status as a juvenile at the time of the commission of the offense. The U.S. Supreme Court outlined a number of factors that a sentencing court must consider prior to imposing a life sentence without the possibility of parole on a juvenile. The [trial] court improperly relied solely on factors derived from a decertification hearing, rather than conducting a searching inquiry into the factors it had to consider. As a result, the sentence imposed constituted a manifest abuse of discretion.
Appellant's Brief at 11.
As recognized by this Court in Commonwealth v. Dodge, 2013 PA Super 253, 77 A.3d 1263 (Pa. Super. 2013), prior decisions from this Court involving whether a substantial question has been raised by claims that the sentencing court " failed to consider" or " failed to adequately consider" sentencing factors " has been less than a model of clarity and consistency." Dodge, 77 A.3d at 1272 n.8. Nevertheless, we hold that Appellant's claim that the trial court improperly relied on factors derived from a prior decertification hearing, when resentencing in accordance with the Miller and Batts decisions, raises a substantial question. We will therefore proceed to address the merits of Appellant's claim.
" In reviewing a challenge to the discretionary aspects of sentencing, we evaluate the court's decision under an abuse of discretion standard." Dodge, 77 A.3d at 1274. When, as here, the trial court has the benefit of a pre-sentence report, we presume that the court was aware of relevant information regarding the defendant's character and weighed those considerations along with any mitigating factors. Commonwealth v. Griffin, 2013 PA Super 70, 65 A.3d 932, 937 (Pa. Super. 2013).
In support of his claim on appeal, Appellant asserts that, while the trial court " indicated that it had considered mitigating factors prior to re-imposing [a life sentence without possibility of parole] on Appellant, . . . the factors the court said it considered all came from the decertification hearing held earlier in this matter." Appellant's Brief at 10. According to Appellant, the trial court's " relying solely on the factors derived from the decertification hearing falls short of the mandate outlined in Miller v. Alabama, [supra], and thus violates Appellant's constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment." Id. Our review of the resentencing transcript refutes Appellant's claim.
At the beginning of the re-sentencing hearing, the trial court recognized that it had to consider more than just evidence from the decertification hearing. The following exchange occurred between the trial court and defense counsel:
THE COURT: Well, we have two things. One of them was a decertification - -
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Right.
THE COURT: - - hearing that was held before Judge Vican together with his findings that he made at that time, and that touches upon a lot of the same areas that you would look at under the new standard and under what [our Supreme Court] told us to look at essentially in Batts.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Yes.
THE COURT: And so I've reviewed that. But I would like from your point of view rather than - - since this is a resentencing, I would like to hear from your point of view whether you have any testimony, any additional information for me that touches upon those very specific areas.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: No, your Honor. All I have is the ...