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Commonwealth v. Rayner

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

December 29, 2016


          Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence April 17, 2015 in the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County Criminal Division at No.: CP-15-CR-0001737-2013

          BEFORE: PANELLA, J., SHOGAN, J., and PLATT, J. [*]


          PLATT, J.

         Appellant, Marquis Lee Rayner, appeals from the judgment of sentence imposed following his jury conviction of murder of the second degree, robbery, burglary, and conspiracy to commit robbery.[1] We affirm.

         The trial court aptly set forth the facts and procedural history of this case, as follows:

Shortly after midnight on June 29, 2012, three armed men burst into the living room of the apartment shared by Dominick Williams and Aaron Crawford. Mr. Crawford was asleep in his bedroom. Mr. Williams was awake and playing video games in the living room. All three intruders wore t-shirts wrapped around their faces to disguise their identity. One of the intruders immediately shot Mr. Williams in the groin. Another of the intruders went to Mr. Crawford's bedroom and grabbed a clear, plastic jar that contained marijuana, money and a pack of cigarettes. All three intruders then ran from the apartment. Dominick Williams remained on his living room floor bleeding to death. Later, at the hospital, he died.
Shortly after the robbery[, ] the police located the plastic jar about two blocks away from the victim's apartment. Located nearby was a black t-shirt. Subsequent testing revealed the presence of co-defendant Dominique Lee's[2] thumbprint on the jar, and [Appellant's] DNA on the t-shirt. [Appellant] and Dominique Lee, who are half-brothers, were subsequently arrested for the murder of Dominick Williams.
On November 20, 2014, after a four-day trial, a jury found Appellant guilty of second degree murder, robbery, burglary, and criminal conspiracy. He was sentenced to life in prison on April 17, 2015. [The trial court] denied his optional post-sentence motion by order dated April 23, 2015.
This [timely] appeal followed.[3]

(Trial Court Opinion, 5/03/16, at 1-2).

Appellant raises five issues for the Court's review.
1. Were the convictions for murder of the second degree, robbery, burglary and conspiracy to commit robbery and burglary against the weight of the evidence? Were the verdicts against the weight of the evidence when the only evidence was [Appellant's] DNA on a black tee shirt found [one and one-half] blocks from the crime and [fifteen] feet from a jar taken from the house, which jar had his half-brother's fingerprints?
2. Were the convictions for murder of the second degree, robbery, burglary and conspiracy to commit robbery and burglary not supported by sufficient evidence?
3. Did the Assistant District Attorney err in his opening statement and err when presenting Detective Dutter by stating his office received an anonymous tip linking Dominique Lee (half-brother of [Appellant]) as a participant in the crime? Did [the trial court] err in denying the defense request for a mistrial? Did this intentional error violate [Appellant's] right to confront a critical witness in violation of the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and further, was this improper hearsay, particularly since [Appellant] was charged with conspiracy?
4. Did [the Commonwealth] err in [its] closing speech by incorrectly suggesting [Appellant] kept the alibi defense a secret until the last day of trial when, in fact, the alibi notice had been filed long before the trial, and did the [Commonwealth] err in giving [a] personal opinion that [Appellant] was guilty? Did [the trial court] err in not granting a timely mistrial?
5. Did [the trial court] err by interfering improperly with [defense counsel's] cross-examination of a key prosecution witness on his critical testimony on the tee shirt, and did [the trial court] err in criticizing [defense counsel] before the jury? Did [the trial court] further err in repeatedly and incorrectly criticizing [defense counsel] during his closing argument on the issue of burden of proof? Did [the trial court] wrongly criticize [defense counsel] in front of the jury? Did [the trial court] err in not granting a mistrial? Did [the trial court's] improper inference and criticism of [defense counsel] prejudice [Appellant], deny him a fair trial, and impact on [Appellant's] [Sixth] Amendment right to effective counsel?

(Appellant's Brief, at 6-8).

          Appellant's first two issues challenge the sufficiency and weight of the evidence to support his convictions. (See id. at 41-55).[4] For ease of disposition, we will address Appellant's sufficiency challenge first, and then his weight of the evidence claim.

         In his second issue, Appellant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict because it required pure speculation. (See Appellant's Brief, at 49-55). Appellant's issue lacks merit.

In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we must determine whether the evidence admitted at trial, and all reasonable inferences drawn from that evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, was sufficient to enable the fact finder to conclude that the Commonwealth established all of the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The Commonwealth may sustain its burden by means of wholly circumstantial evidence. Further, the trier of fact is free to believe all, part, or none of the evidence.

Commonwealth v. Taylor, 137 A.3d 611, 614 (Pa. Super. 2016) (citation omitted). In this case, Appellant was convicted of murder of the second degree, robbery, burglary, and conspiracy.

         Pursuant to section 2502(b) of the Crimes Code, "[a] criminal homicide constitutes murder of the second degree when it is committed while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony." 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2502(b). The Crimes Code also provides, in pertinent part, that "[a] person is guilty of robbery if, in the course of committing a theft, he . . . inflicts serious bodily injury upon another [or] threatens another with or intentionally puts him in fear of immediate serious bodily injury[.]" 18 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 3701(a)(1)(i), (ii). It further provides, "[a] person commits the offense of burglary if, with the intent to commit a crime therein, the person . . . enters a building or occupied structure, or separately secured or occupied portion thereof that is adapted for overnight accommodations in which at the time of the offense any person is present[.]" 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 3502(a)(1). Finally:

A person is guilty of conspiracy with another person or persons to commit a crime if with the intent of promoting or facilitating its commission he . . . agrees with such other person or persons that they or one or more of them will engage in conduct which constitutes such crime . . . or . . . agrees to aid such other person or persons in the planning or commission of such crime . . . .

18 Pa.C.S.A. § 903(a).

          In this case, the evidence at trial established that three men broke into Dominick Williams' apartment with the intent of robbing him. (See N.T. Trial, 11/17/14, at 67, 69, 150). The men were armed with guns and wore t-shirts across their faces. (See id. at 66-68, 77, 118-119, 132). After shooting Mr. Williams, and pistol whipping his roommate, Aaron Crawford, one of the men stole a plastic-lidded jar that contained marijuana and other items. (See id. 155-57). The individual was not wearing gloves. (See id. at 150).

As further described by the trial court:
Approximately [ninety] minutes after Dominick Williams had been shot, police officer Stephen Galletta of the Coatesville City Police Department located the clear plastic jar tossed in a hedge row approximately a block and a half from the crime scene. (See id. at 244). The jar contained a pack of Newport cigarettes. (See id. at 163). Located several feet away was a black t-shirt. (See id. at 244, 248). Witness Aaron Crawford was brought to the discovery scene and identified the jar as the one taken from his bedroom earlier that morning, and the t-shirt as the type of shirt that one of the robbers had been wearing across his face. (See id. at 161-64).
Chester County Detective Kenneth Beam testified as an expert in the field of fingerprint analysis. Detective Beam received as evidence the plastic jar and t-shirt found close to the scene of the robbery. (See N.T. Trial, 11/18/14, at 49). Detective Bean testified that the print with the sharpest and clearest detail found on the plastic jar belonged to co-defendant Dominique Lee. (See id. at 65, 69, 73). Because Detective Bean knew that the t-shirt had possibly been tied across the face of one of the intruders as a disguise, he surmised that the intruder might have left saliva on the shirt. Accordingly, Detective Bean sent the t-shirt to the State Police Laboratory for DNA analysis. (See id. at 55).
Michael Gossard, a forensic scientist with the Pennsylvania State Police, testified as a serology expert. Mr. Gossard tested the t-shirt for evidence of saliva. (See id. at 117). His testing indicated the presence of saliva on two different areas of the t-shirt. (See id. at 121, 135).
Timothy Gavel, a forensic scientist with the Pennsylvania State Police DNA lab, performed a DNA analysis on the evidence left on the t-shirt. Mr. Gavel testified that DNA evidence left on the t-shirt belonged to Appellant []. (See id. at 149, 153). He also testified that the chance of a coincidental DNA match in the African-American population was one in 7.9 quintillion. (See id. at 154).

(Trial Ct. Op., at 4-6) (some record citation formatting provided).

         Based on the above evidence, and our review of the record in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, we conclude that it was sufficient to establish the elements of the crimes of which Appellant was convicted. See Taylor, supra at 614. Appellant's sufficiency challenge does not merit relief.

         Appellant also challenges the weight of the evidence to support his convictions. (See Appellant's Brief, at ...

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