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Commonwealth v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

December 30, 2014


Argued March 11, 2014

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Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered on 10/04/2012* (post-sentence motions denied 02/13/2013) in the Court of Common Pleas Criminal Division of Adams County at No. CP-01-CR-0001180-2010. *The Trial Court entered an order granting motion to reinstate appeal rights nunc pro tunc on 04/16/2013. Trial Court Judge: Michael A. George, President Judge.

For Christopher Lynn Johnson, APPELLANT: Sean Alexander Mott, Esq., Public Defender's Office; Kristin Luene Rice, Esq., Adams County Public Defender's Office.

For Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, APPELLEE: Robert Martin Falin, Esq., Montgomery County District Attorney's Office; Shawn C. Wagner, Esq., Adams County District Attorney's Office; Amy Zapp, Esq.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, STEVENS, JJ. MR. JUSTICE STEVENS. Former Justice McCaffery did not participate in the decision of this case. Mr. Chief Justice Castille and Mr. Justice Eakin join the opinion. Mr. Justice Saylor files a concurring opinion. Mr. Justice Baer files a concurring and dissenting opinion in which Madame Justice Todd joins. MR. JUSTICE SAYLOR. MR. JUSTICE BAER.

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This is a direct appeal from the judgment of sentence of death following the conviction of Appellant Christopher Lynn Johnson (" Appellant" ) on one count of

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first-degree murder[1] and related charges[2] entered in the Adams County Court of Common Pleas. For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment of sentence.

The record reveals that on the night of November 11, 2010, Officer David Grove, a Deputy Wildlife Conservation Officer of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, was patrolling the area near Gettysburg National Military Park in Freedom Township, Adams County when he informed Adams County 911 center at 10:32 p.m. that he had encountered a vehicle " spotlighting" [3] just across from the Battlefield. N.T. 9/24/12 at 56. According to the 911 operator who testified at trial, Officer Grove reported seconds before 10:34 p.m. that he was prepared to stop the vehicle. At just after 10:35 p.m., he transmitted the license plate number of the stopped pick-up truck, which was registered to Appellant. At just before 10:37 p.m., Officer Grove stated that the driver and passenger were out of the pickup truck and he was awaiting assistance before proceeding further.

The next transmission the 911 center would receive came from responding Officer Daniel Barbagello, who, at seconds before 10:39 p.m., called " officer down, officer down." N.T. at 59. Officer Barbagello detected no pulse when he examined Officer Grove, who had been shot three times, including a fatal shot to the back of the neck.

For the six hours leading up to that tragic shooting, 27 year-old Appellant and his 19 year-old friend Ryan Laumann had been drinking beer and driving Appellant's pick-up truck in the area looking for deer to shoot. N.T. 479-515. Earlier that afternoon, Laumann had returned home from work at about 4:00 p.m. to find Appellant waiting there with the odor of an alcohol called " 99 Bananas" on his breath. N.T. at 476. Laumann perceived Appellant to be " walking fine, talking fine," though he " seemed to be maybe a little tipsy like buzzed a little bit. He was kind of giggly, more or less just kind of giggled at the smallest little things a little bit." N.T. at 477, 478. Laumann, a licensed hunter, brought his compound bow with him and rode passenger as Appellant drove capably, in Laumann's opinion, for the approximately five minute drive to the Johnson's hunting cabin off Orrtanna Road. N.T. at 479-480.

After drinking a beer or two, the two men shot Laumann's compound bow, and Appellant's crossbow and .22 long rifle with a scope to make sure they were still " sighted in." N.T. at 480. They walked along the tree line and climbed up into their tree stand, a three to four foot wide landing accessible by an 18-step, leaning metal ladder, N.T. at 488. Lauman carried his compound bow up the ladder while Appellant made his way up the ladder carrying his crossbow without any problem. N.T. at 489. The two sat on the tree stand until dark without any safety restraints, drank beer, and watched for deer. N.T. at 480. Over the course of their time there, Lauman saw Appellant drink six or seven cans from a 12-pack of Bud Light while he had two or three. N.T. at 484, 490. Another source of beer available that night was a small stock of cans kept in the creek, though Laumann did not state definitively whether Appellant drank any

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from that stock. N.T. at 492-93. Laumann was " pretty sure," but not certain, that all empties were thrown into the bed of the pick-up truck. N.T. at 493. At dark, the men climbed down from the tree stand and walked back to the cabin, and again, Laumann saw nothing about Appellant to indicate he was having difficulty with his balance. N.T. at 491. Other than the moment Appellant quickly went back into the cabin before boarding the pick-up and leaving, the two men were together the entire time. N.T. at 484.

Appellant drove the two to Ross Orchard, where they began spotlighting for deer. N.T. at 494-95. Appellant had no problem negotiating the orchard's roads, which Laumann described as " just little dirt lanes wide enough for a vehicle" and " a little bumpy from time to time[,]" with one hand on the wheel while simultaneously holding a spotlight out the driver's side window with the other, Laumann testified. N.T. at 498. The two spotted a number of deer without any attempt to hunt, and then left the orchard. They drove along local roads, turning frequently, went across a bridge, down a stone lane, and across a creek until they arrived at Red Rock Road. N.T. at 500. Laumann witnessed Appellant drink " a few" more beers from the Bud Light 12-pack during this time, but noted that Appellant negotiated a stretch of road where the two had gotten stuck only ten days earlier. N.T. at 503.

Appellant stopped the pick-up when his spotlight shone upon a doe. He leaned out the window and over the roof and continued to aim the light directly on a doe positioned 20 to 25 yards away in a field along the passenger side as Laumann registered a strike just behind the deer's left shoulder with his compound bow. N.T. at 503, 505. The two did not retrieve the deer, opting instead to give it time to die. N.T. at 507. Appellant drove further along Red Rock Road about a few hundred yards when he spotted a deer in a field on the driver's side. N.T. at 507. Saying he wanted the deer, he backed up into a driveway to change directions on Red Rock Road. He regained sight of the deer and shone a light on it while Laumann pointed the .22 long rifle outside the passenger side window and fired, but he missed. Appellant grabbed the rifle from his position in the driver's seat and leaned across the console to poke his body out the passenger window while still holding the spotlight with his left hand. He then braced the rifle between his right arm and torso and fired twice at the deer, causing it to stumble and fall. N.T. at 507-512. On cross examination, Laumann confirmed that Appellant, whom he described as an " average shot," would have used his right hand to pull the trigger, swing the oval lever beneath the trigger down to discharge the shell and back up to load the next shell into place, and then pull the trigger to take the second shot. N.T. at 566-67.

Appellant drove off, leaving the deer for later retrieval, and turned down nearby Schriver Road when he and Laumann noticed headlights appear from behind. N.T. at 516. Laumann said he believed it was " DNR" [4] and Appellant replied " Do you think?" as they saw blue and red overhead lights activated. N.T. at 516. Appellant continued to drive around a bend and pulled over alongside the road near pine trees and roadside brush. N.T. at 517. On cross-examination, Laumann insisted ...

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