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Commonwealth v. Roche

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

January 4, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
JAMES EDWARD ROCHE Appellant

         Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence January 8, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-40-CR-0002430-2014

          BEFORE: FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., RANSOM, J., and STEVENS, [*] P.J.E.

          OPINION

          STEVENS, P.J.E.

         Appellant James Edward Roche appeals from the judgment of sentence entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County on January 8, 2016, at which time he received consecutive terms of life imprisonment following his convictions of two counts of first-degree murder. Appellant also received two consecutive terms of two hundred forty (240) months to four hundred eighty (480) months in prison for his convictions of conspiracy to commit criminal homicide.[1] After careful review, we affirm.

         On April 21, 2014, Appellant and his girlfriend, Holly Ann Crawford, shot and killed seventy-three year old Ronald "Barney" Evans and his forty- three year old son Jeffrey Evans in their home located in Hunlock Creek, Pennsylvania. At the jury trial which commenced on November 2, 2015, numerous witnesses testified regarding Appellant's anger toward Ronald Evans, with whom Ms. Crawford had been involved romantically, and his history of violence.[2]

         Prior to trial, on February 24, 2015, Appellant filed his Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion wherein he attempted, inter alia, to suppress oral and written statements he had made to police on April 23, 2014. Following a suppression hearing held on February 26, 2015, the suppression court denied Appellant's motion on March 20, 2015.

         At trial, Ms. Crawford's mother, Moya Linde, explained that on the evening of April 21, 2014, Appellant was at her home with Ms. Crawford and Ms. Crawford's daughter, Alexa Balma. Appellant and Ms. Crawford were consuming alcohol and watching a violent movie, The Boondock Saints, at which time Appellant became extremely angry and began exclaiming he was going to kill Ronald Evans.[3] N.T. Trial, 11/2/15, at 108-110. Ms. Linde testified that Appellant had repeatedly expressed his animosity toward and desire to kill Ronald Evans prior to this time. Id. at 107. Ms. Linde stated that Appellant proceeded to leave the home with his gun slung over his shoulder, and Ms. Crawford went with him. Id. at 116-17. Ms. Linde observed that although Appellant had been drinking, he spoke clearly and left of his own volition. Id. at 135-36. She also related that he "[h]olds his liquor." Id. at 110.

         Ms. Balma corroborated Ms. Linde's testimony regarding Appellant's behavior on April 21, 2014, and his past expressions of wanting to kill Ronald Evans. Id. at 143-47, 153. She also stated she had heard Appellant utter his intent "to rush over there right now and put a bullet in [Ronald Evans'] head." Id. at 146. To this, Ms. Crawford replied, "We should get Jeff, too. He deserves to die. No one would miss him." Id. The pair then drove away together from Ms. Linde's home. Id. at 147.

         On April 23, 2014, Appellant and Ms. Crawford told Ms. Balma they were going to Philadelphia, at which time they left with Ms. Linde's car and bankcard. Id. at 149. Ms. Linde immediately cancelled her bankcard and reported to police that her car had been stolen. Shortly thereafter, Appellant and Ms. Crawford returned when they discovered they could not get any money and then fled into the woods near Ms. Linde's home when they learned Ms. Linde had called the police. Id. at 150-51.

         Officers ultimately discovered Ronald and Jeffrey Evans in their home shot to death. Upon his examination of the scene and the victims' wounds, Pennsylvania State Police Trooper James Shubzda opined that they had been attempting to escape when they were shot. Id. at 200-12, 226-28, 238-40. Trooper Shubzda also remarked that after killing Ronald and Jeffrey Evans, Appellant and Ms. Crawford took a wooden display case containing a knife collection from the Evans' house. Id. at 205-06.

         Forensic Pathologist Dr. Gary Ross testified a total of ten shots had been fired at the scene, nine of which penetrated the victims' bodies. Specifically, Ronald Evans suffered four gunshot wounds that had been fired from a distance. One shot entered from the front, one entered from the side, and two entered his back. Id. at 556-63. Jeffrey Evans suffered a gunshot wound behind his right ear, three bullets entered his back, and one penetrated his midline. Dr. Ross opined that each of the wounds the victims sustained was to a vital part of his body which independently could have caused death. Id. at 565-73.

         Eventually, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter spotted Appellant and Ms. Crawford lying on the ground in a heavily wooded area behind Ms. Linde's home. Id. at 77-80. Officers discovered a cloth rifle bag partially concealed under some leaves, a rifle with a scope, and a red towel within which a revolver had been wrapped. Id. at 269-70. Three bottles of alcohol also were found in the area. One bottle was empty, one was almost full and the other was filled with orange fluid. Id. at 278-79.

         As will be discussed in more detail infra, Corporal Christopher King testified that following his arrest, Appellant waived his Miranda[4] rights, and admitted to shooting Ronald and Jeffrey Evans following a confrontation at their home. Appellant indicated he shot the men because they were armed, although he admitted he shot Jeffrey Evans in the back, emptying all but one round from the clip. Id. at 418-495.

         Appellant testified in his own defense at trial. Appellant explained that on April 21, 2014, he had been drinking and watching a movie with Ms. Crawford when the two decided to go the Evans' house to retrieve Ms. Crawford's purse which contained her medication and money. Id. at 615-617, 629-30. Ms. Crawford entered the home, and Ronald Evans exited soon thereafter waving a handgun. Id. at 619. When Ronald Evans pointed the pistol at Appellant, the latter "panicked, " crouched down and crawled to his trunk where he retrieved his rifle. Id. at 620. Appellant stated he "took a couple of steps toward him and fired." Id. at 622. Jeffrey Evans then emerged. A verbal and physical altercation ensued, and believing Jeffrey Evans was reaching for a gun, Appellant stated he fired his rifle in an effort to protect himself and Ms. Crawford. Id. at 623-24. Before fleeing, Appellant inexplicably found himself taking a knife display case and Ronald Evans's handgun. Id. at 624.

         Appellant stated that after the incident, he and Ms. Crawford returned to Ms. Linde's house where they consumed more alcohol and went to sleep. The next day, April 22, 2014, he and Ms. Crawford continued drinking vodka, and he was feeling "[s]till shook up. Sad." Id. at 625-27. On April 23, 2014, the day of their arrest at the "campsite, " the pair continued drinking and each consumed a cheeseburger. Appellant indicated that at that time he felt "terrible." He also admitted that along with his statement to police, he wrote an apology wherein he expressed remorse for what had happened and indicated that he would "pray for everybody." Id. at 628-29.

         On cross-examination, Appellant admitted that in the six to seven weeks prior to the murders, from March 1, 2014, to April 21, 2014, he repeatedly threatened to kill Ronald Evans. Id. at 634. He also acknowledged that the firearm shown to him in the courtroom was his and that he used it to kill the victims in self-defense. Id. at 635, 638, 645-49. Notwithstanding, Appellant admitted that while he watched a violent movie wherein people were getting shot, he decided, "somebody should shoot Barney." Id. at 641.

         Appellant agreed his semi-automatic handgun required him to pull the trigger and shoot Ronald Evans five separate times. Id. at 650. He also stated that after he knocked Jeffrey Evans down with a punch to his face, he shot him four times in the back as he walked down the hall, because Appellant believed that when Mr. Evans put his arm up, he had a handgun. Id. at 652. In all, Appellant shot Jeffrey Evans five out of five times. Id. at 653. Appellant further admitted he never called the police after the incident. Id. at 656.

         Following trial, Appellant was convicted of the aforementioned crimes. Although Appellant filed a motion for extension of time in which to file post-sentence motions and the trial court granted the same in its order of January 27, 2016, Appellant did not file a post-sentence motion.[5] Rather, Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal on February 8, 2016. Both Appellant and the trial court complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.[6]

         In his brief, Appellant presents two issues for our review, which we have reordered to coincide with the manner in which Appellant discusses these issues in the Argument portion of his appellate brief:

A. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt abused its discretion in denying the motion seeking to suppress Appellant's April 23, 2014 statement to police.
B. Whether the evidence at trial was insufficient as a matter of law to support the jury's verdict for First Degree Murder and Conspiracy to Commit First Degree Murder?

         Brief for Appellant at 4.

         When considering Appellant's challenge to the denial of his motion to suppress his statements to police, we are guided by the following, well-settled standard of review:

In reviewing a suppression ruling, we are bound by the suppression court's factual findings, unless they are without support in the record. We may reverse the legal conclusions reached by the suppression court, however, if they are in error. Thus, our standard of review of the legal conclusions reached by the suppression court is de novo. Where, as here, the defendant is appealing the ruling of the suppression court, we consider only the evidence of the prosecution, and so much of the evidence for the defense which remains uncontradicted when fairly read in the context of the [suppression] record.

Commonwealth v. Galvin, 603 Pa. 625, 645-46, 985 A.2d 783, 795 (2009) (citations omitted). "It is within the suppression court's sole province as factfinder to pass on the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony." Commonwealth v. Gallagher, 896 A.2d 583, 585 (Pa.Super. 2006) (citation omitted). This Court's scope of review from a suppression ruling is limited to the evidentiary record that was created at the suppression hearing. In re L.J., 622 Pa. 126, 146, 79 A.3d 1073, 1085 (2013).

         Although he admits that evidence of inebriation will not necessarily invalidate one's waiver of his Miranda rights or his incriminating statements, Appellant maintains that on the day of his arrest, he was severely "physically" and "psychologically" compromised as a result of his consumption of "dangerous amounts of vodka, on an empty stomach and with little to no sleep the previous night." Appellant avers that when he was spotted by a State Police helicopter in the woods, he was lying prostrate on the ground "exhausted and exposed to the elements" and that under "such dreadful and debilitating circumstances" he was incapable of comprehending the significance of his waiver of his Miranda rights. Brief for Appellant at 11. Appellant further asserts that Corporal King, the Commonwealth's sole witness at his suppression hearing, "conveyed an astonishing level of indifference concerning the potential negative impact of Appellant's excessive drinking on his physical and cognitive state." Id. at 12 citing N.T. Suppression, 2/26/15, at 24-27.

         When considering Appellant's motion to suppress, the suppression court highlighted the following testimony ...


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