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Commonwealth v. Staton

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

July 20, 2015


Submitted July 18, 2014

Page 278

Appeal from the Order entered on September 25, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division of Blair County at No. CP-07-CR-0001850-2005. Trial Court Judge: Elizabeth A. Doyle, Judge.

For Andre Staton, APPELLANT: Ten B. Himebaugh, Esq.

For Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, APPELLEE: Richard A. Consiglio, Esq. Blair County District Attorney's Office; Amy Zapp, Esq. PA Office of Attorney General.

BEFORE: MR. JUSTICE BAER[1]. SAYLOR, C.J., EAKIN, BAER, TODD, STEVENS, JJ. Mr. Justice Eakin, Madame Justice Todd and Mr. Justice Stevens join the opinion. Mr. Chief Justice Saylor and Madame Justice Todd file concurring opinions.


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In 2006, Andre Staton (" Appellant" ) was convicted of the first degree murder of his girlfriend and was sentenced to death. His judgment of sentence was affirmed on direct appeal, and Appellant subsequently filed a petition for collateral relief pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (" PCRA" ), 42 Pa.C.S. § § 9541-9546. After affording Appellant proper notice, the Court of Common Pleas of Blair County (" PCRA court" ) denied the petition without a hearing, and Appellant filed the instant direct appeal to this Court.[2] Because

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we conclude that the PCRA court's findings are supported by the record and that the court's legal conclusions are free of error, we affirm the denial of post-conviction relief.

I. Background

The facts underlying Appellant's conviction and death sentence were set forth at length in this Court's opinion deciding his direct capital appeal. Commonwealth v. Staton, 614 Pa. 487, 38 A.3d 785 (Pa. 2012). A brief recitation of the facts is necessary, however, to provide context for the issues raised herein.

The record establishes that Appellant and Beverly Yohn were in an intimate relationship during which Appellant was physically and verbally abusive. As a result of the abuse, Yohn and her two sons moved to the residence of Yohn's mother, Penny Lantz. In January of 2004, Yohn reported to police that Appellant had struck her. She subsequently filed a Protection From Abuse (" PFA" ) petition, and a temporary PFA order was entered against Appellant on January 27, 2004. Following a subsequent hearing, the trial court entered a final PFA order on February 19, 2004.

While at a bar several days later on February 24, 2004, Appellant told the bartender about his frustrations with his girlfriend, and about how he had peeked in the window at her the night before. He also indicated that he gave her a substantial amount of money for a house that he could no longer live in, but stated that he would soon take care of the matter. The next morning, Appellant was seen inside a parked car approximately one and one-half blocks away from the residence of Yohn's mother. Yohn's son, Justin, was outside the home when he saw Appellant run up to the rear porch of the residence with his finger to his lips, directing Justin to be quiet. Appellant then kicked in the door and entered the kitchen. With Yohn's son, Jeremy, in the room, Appellant opened his jacket, pulled out a knife, and began stabbing Yohn until she fell to the floor with the large knife still in her back. Appellant then fled through the back door, and encountered Justin outside waiting in the car to go to school. Appellant threw Justin from the car and drove away in it. Yohn died later that day from her injuries. Appellant was thereafter charged with first degree murder, aggravated assault, burglary, criminal trespass, receiving stolen property, and theft by unlawful taking.

At trial, Appellant was represented by Donald Speice, Esquire, and J. Kirk Kling, Esquire. The Commonwealth presented the eyewitness testimony of Jeremy Yohn, indicating that he saw Appellant pull a knife from his coat and stab his mother repeatedly. Dr. Vimal Mittal, a forensic pathologist, testified that in his opinion, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, the cause of Yohn's death was multiple stab wounds, including one to the heart and left jugular vein, and that the manner of death was homicide. Further, Forensic Scientist Pam McCall of the Pennsylvania State Police Crime Laboratory testified that DNA found on the knife in Yohn's back contained a mixture of DNA from both Yohn and Appellant.

Appellant testified on his own behalf, and admitted that he stabbed Yohn. His defense was that he did not enter the residence to harm her, but rather that Yohn had the knife and began " swinging at him." Notes of Testimony (" N.T." ), May 1, 2006, at 26-29. Appellant explained that the next thing he remembered was seeing Yohn with blood coming out of her mouth. Id.

On May 2, 2006, the jury convicted Appellant of all charges. Following a penalty hearing, the jury returned a sentence of

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death, concluding that the two aggravating circumstances, that Appellant committed a killing while in the perpetration of a felony, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6), and that at the time of the killing Appellant was subject to a court order restricting his behavior towards the victim, id. § 9711(d)(18), outweighed evidence establishing the " catchall" mitigating circumstance of " any other evidence of mitigation concerning the character and record of the defendant and the circumstances of his offense." Id. § 9711(e)(8).

On June 1, 2006, the trial court formally imposed the sentence of death, and later denied post-trial motions. During the appellate process, the trial court appointed five separate attorneys to represent Appellant. Each attorney subsequently withdrew either because Appellant terminated representation or because, after being appointed, counsel discovered that he or she lacked the qualifications to represent a capital defendant as set forth in Pa.R.Crim.P. 801.[3] Attorney Thomas Farrell was thereafter appointed as counsel and represented Appellant on appeal, notwithstanding Appellant's request that he file a motion to withdraw. See Commonwealth v. Staton, 608 Pa. 404, 12 A.3d 277 (Pa. 2010) (denying Attorney Farrell's motion to withdraw as Appellant's seventh attorney in his capital case even though Appellant sought to terminate his representation, and directing Attorney Farrell to file a brief in support of Appellant's direct appeal).

As noted, this Court affirmed Appellant's judgment of sentence on direct appeal. Commonwealth v. Staton, 614 Pa. 487, 38 A.3d 785 (Pa. 2012), and rejected the single issue presented, i.e., whether the Commonwealth proved beyond a reasonable doubt the aggravating circumstance that Appellant was subject to a court order restricting his behavior towards the victim pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(18). Appellant contended that insufficient evidence existed to support the Section 9711(d)(18) aggravator because he was never served formally with the PFA order, and was under the reasonable belief that Yohn had withdrawn her petition at the final PFA hearing.

We rejected Appellant's contention, relying on our previous decision in Commonwealth v. Stallworth, 566 Pa. 349, 781 A.2d 110 (Pa. 2001), which held that Section 9711(d)(18) requires a defendant " either be given actual notice or have the equivalent knowledge of a PFA order" in order to be " subject to" the aggravator. Staton, 38 A.3d at 794 (citing Stallworth, 781 A.2d at 124). We held that although Appellant acted deliberately to evade service of the PFA order, and, thus, did not receive actual notice, he possessed equivalent knowledge of the PFA order, which raised a jury question regarding proof of the aggravator. Staton, 38 A.3d at 794.

After we affirmed Appellant's sentence of death on direct appeal, Appellant filed a pro se PCRA petition on May 9, 2012, and later an amended pro se PCRA petition on August 20, 2012.[4] Therein, Appellant raised, inter alia, a challenge to trial counsel's capital case qualifications, and claims of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. Timothy Burns, Esquire, was appointed to represent Appellant.

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Prior to the filing of a counseled amended PCRA petition or brief, Appellant sought to terminate Attorney Burns' representation and filed a motion to proceed pro se.

The parties appeared before the PCRA court on May 13, 2013, the date scheduled for the PCRA evidentiary hearing, and Appellant's counsel first presented a motion for recusal of the PCRA court judge, which the court denied. The parties then proceeded to discuss Appellant's motion to proceed pro se. Both Appellant's counsel and the Commonwealth opposed the request, citing Appellant's inability to present cogent legal argument on his own behalf, his attempts to terminate several prior counsel, and the confusion and delay that would result from self-representation. Appellant disagreed, expressing his continued dissatisfaction with counsel and asserting that he understood the ramifications of self-representation, had been deemed legally competent, was confident that he could represent himself with the help of standby counsel, and was currently prepared to do so. N.T., May 13, 2013, at 27-28, 31. The PCRA court denied Appellant's motion to proceed pro se, holding that it was not in his best interests or in the interest of justice to terminate counsel's representation. Id., at 32.

In response, Appellant stated that he desired to withdraw all appeals and requested the court to " proceed forth with lethal injection." Id. The PCRA court denied this request, noting that the motion was not made by counsel, and that it had just ruled that Appellant could not represent himself. Id. at 33. Appellant thereafter became very emotional, called the case a " disgrace," and again requested that the court proceed with lethal injection. Id. at 34. After the PCRA court reminded Appellant that it had the prerogative of dismissing his petition without a hearing, Appellant responded that it should have done so, thereby allowing the Supreme Court to review the case. Id. at 34. The PCRA court then indicated that it would not entertain any further motions unless they were filed with the court in written form. Id. at 36.

As the PCRA court declared that the hearing was concluded, Appellant stood up from his chair and swung his shackled arms suddenly and violently, striking Attorney Burns in the head, eyes, and nose with such force that it propelled Attorney Burns to the floor and momentarily knocked him unconscious. Id.; Criminal Complaint filed to No. 1453 of 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas of Blair County, Commonwealth Exhibit A. Attorney Burns suffered a severe concussion and was taken to the hospital for medical treatment. The incident was captured on the courthouse video surveillance system. As a result of the attack, Appellant was later charged with aggravated assault by prisoner and related offenses.[5]

By order dated May 24, 2013, the PCRA court made four rulings. First, in light of the criminal charges filed against Appellant in relation to his violent attack on Attorney Burns, the court vacated its previous order appointing Attorney Burns as PCRA counsel. Second, the PCRA court held that Appellant waived counsel under Pa.R.Crim.P. 904(H)(1)(a) due to his assertions during the May 13, 2013 hearing (and in prior hearings before the court) that he wished to discharge counsel and represent himself, and that he understood the nature of capital proceedings, his entitlement to

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counsel, and his rights under the PCRA.[6] The PCRA court noted that prior to the hearing conducted on May 13, 2013, a mental health expert had evaluated Appellant for purposes of the PCRA proceedings and deemed him competent.

Third, the PCRA court indicated that, pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. 909(B)(1), it had reviewed the pro se amended PCRA petition filed on August 20, 2012, and was satisfied that there were no genuine issues concerning any material fact warranting an evidentiary hearing, and that Appellant was not entitled to post-conviction collateral relief.[7] Finally, the PCRA court gave notice that it intended to dismiss Appellant's petition without an evidentiary hearing, and stated specific reasons for dismissing each of the fourteen claims raised, which rationale is set forth infra, to the extent that Appellant reiterates such claims in this appeal. Appellant did not file a timely response to the PCRA court's notice of intent to dismiss. On September 25, 2013, the trial court entered an order dismissing Appellant's PCRA petition.

Appellant filed a notice of appeal to this Court and subsequently retained private counsel, who filed an appellate brief on his behalf, raising six issues for review.[8] In reviewing the denial of PCRA relief, we examine whether the PCRA court's determination " is supported by the record and free of legal error." Commonwealth v. Robinson, 623 Pa. 345, 82 A.3d 998, 1005 (Pa. 2013). To be entitled to PCRA relief, Appellant must establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that his conviction or sentence resulted from one or more of the enumerated errors in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(2), his claims have not been previously litigated or waived, and " the failure to litigate the issue prior to or during trial . . . or on direct appeal could not have been the result of any rational, strategic or tactical decision by counsel." Id. § 9543(a)(3), (a)(4). An issue is previously litigated if " the highest appellate court in which [Appellant] could have had review as a matter of right has ruled on the merits of the issue." Id. § 9544(a)(2). An issue is waived if Appellant " could have raised it but failed to do so before trial, at trial, . . . on appeal or in a prior state post[-]conviction proceeding." Id. § 9544(b).

To obtain relief on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a PCRA petitioner must satisfy the performance and prejudice test set forth in Strickland v. Washington,466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). This Court has applied the ...

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