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Commonwealth v. Yandamuri

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

April 26, 2017


          SUBMITTED: October 20, 2016

         Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered on 11/20/2014 in the Court of Common Pleas, Montgomery County, Criminal Division at No. CP-46-CR-0008911-2012.



          BAER JUSTICE

         Appellant Raghunandan Yandamuri, acting pro se, appeals from two sentences of death imposed by the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court after a jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder and related offenses for the kidnapping of a ten-month-old baby and the murders of the baby and her grandmother. For the reasons that follow, we affirm Appellant's sentences of death.[1]

         I. Background

         Appellant is of Indian decent, is not a citizen of the United States, and holds an advanced degree in electrical and computer science engineering.[2] On October 20, 2012, Appellant attended a party with his wife in the Marquis Apartments located in King of Prussia, Montgomery County. Also present at the party were Chenchu and Venkata Venna, who had a ten-month-old daughter, Saanvi (hereinafter, "Baby"). Germane to this appeal, Baby's mother, Chenchu, was called "Latha" (hereinafter, "Latha" or "Mother") by close friends and family members, while Baby's father, Venkata, was called "Shiva" (hereinafter, "Shiva" or "Father"). During the evening, Mother told party goers that she had recently returned to work, and discussed the topic of grandparents babysitting the children of working parents. Mother also spoke about the gold jewelry that Baby was wearing. At one point during the party, Appellant held Baby.

         Two days later, on October 22, 2012, Appellant returned to the Marquis Apartments wearing aviator glasses and a black hooded sweatshirt and knocked on the door of the Vennas' apartment. Baby's paternal grandmother, Satyavathi Venna (hereinafter, "Grandmother"), opened the door. Upon entering the apartment, Appellant brandished a four-inch knife in an attempt to kidnap Baby and hold her for ransom. When Appellant picked up Baby, a struggle ensued between Appellant and Grandmother. During the scuffle, Appellant fatally stabbed Grandmother in the throat so severely that the knife struck the bone three times.[3] To silence Baby's cries during the altercation, Appellant removed a handkerchief from his pocket and stuffed it in her mouth. When the handkerchief would not stay in place, Appellant removed a hand towel from the bathroom and tied it around Baby's head to prevent the handkerchief from falling out.

         Appellant then went to the bedroom, removed a blue suitcase from the closet, and collected all of the gold jewelry, including the gold bangles from Grandmother's wrists. Appellant also placed Baby into the suitcase and exited the apartment, ultimately leaving Baby in the men's sauna inside the gymnasium in the Marquis Apartments. After showering at his apartment, Appellant discarded the suitcase in a dumpster at the Lafayette Valley Forge Apartments in King of Prussia. He then discarded some of the stolen jewelry by throwing it in the river and placed the rest of the jewelry in a bag, which he concealed behind a vending machine in his office building.

         Meanwhile, during her lunch break, Mother attempted to call Grandmother, but got no response. Father returned home to investigate and found Grandmother's dead body and that Baby was missing. Father called the police who discovered ten copies of a ransom note, strewn across the floor of the apartment. The ransom note addressed "Latha" and "Shiva" (Mother and Father, respectively) as opposed to the Vennas' formal names, and stated, "Shiva, your daughter has been kidnapped. If you report this to cops your daughter will be cut into pieces and found dead. . . . By 8 p.m. today, Lata [sic] alone should get $50, 000.00 cash and come to Baja Fresh at Acme store complex." Commonwealth Exhibit C-26; N.T., Sep. 30, 2014, at 44. Under police supervision and wearing a body wire, Mother proceeded to the Baja Fresh store as instructed, but the kidnapper never made contact. Law enforcement searched the apartment complex multiple times, but did not find Baby.

         To determine the identity of the kidnapper, detectives asked the Vennas for a list of individuals who used their informal names of "Latha" and "Shiva." The Vennas provided such list, which included Appellant's name. Detectives Paul Bradbury and Andrew Rathfon attempted to interview Appellant on October 25, 2012, three days after the kidnapping, when Baby's whereabouts were still unknown. They discovered that Appellant was at the Valley Forge Casino and made contact with him by asking casino security to escort him from the casino floor to a hallway where the detectives were waiting. The detectives, dressed in plain clothing, asked Appellant if he would accompany them to the Upper Merion Police Station to help with their investigation to find Baby. Without hesitation, Appellant voluntarily agreed and travelled to the station in Detective Bradbury's unmarked vehicle. The detectives informed Appellant that, after the questioning, they would return him to the casino to retrieve his car.

         Upon arrival at the police station at 3:15 p.m., Appellant and the detectives proceeded downstairs to an office in the Detective Division. There was no security in the room and the door was closed for privacy reasons, but was not locked. The detectives told Appellant that they were seeking help in their investigation into Baby's kidnapping and informed him that he was free to leave and was not under arrest. The detectives also offered Appellant food and water and told him that he could go to the restroom unaccompanied when necessary. He accepted water, but not food.

         Prior to the questioning, Detective Bradbury asked Appellant if he would consent to a search of the contents on his cell phone. Appellant agreed, executed the standard Montgomery County consent form, and gave his phone to the detectives. Appellant gave his first written statement between 3:27 p.m. and 6:03 p.m. pursuant to a question/answer format. He stated that on October 22, 2012, he had gone to work, went home for his lunch break around 11:30 a.m., and again returned home for the day around 1:30 p.m. after his wife had informed him of the incident. See Commonwealth Exhibit C-32; N.T. Sep. 30, 2014 at 103. He denied knowing who was responsible for the kidnapping and murder. During this questioning period, Appellant also consented to the search of his vehicle, which had been left at the casino. When the first written statement was completed, as occurred in connection with all subsequent written statements, Appellant was given an opportunity to review the statement, make corrections and/or additions, initial each page, and sign the document.

         At approximately 6:30 p.m., upon the detectives' request, Appellant gave a second statement in a free flow format, which he later amended, describing his whereabouts and activities on the day of the murder with more detail than in his first statement. Commonwealth Exhibit C-34; N.T., Sep. 30, 2014, at 119. At about 7:30 p.m., Appellant executed a consent form, permitting a swab of the inside of his mouth to obtain a DNA sample. Appellant gave a third non-incriminating statement during the period from 7:37 p.m. to 8:07 p.m., which was conducted in a question/answer format, where the detectives asked Appellant follow-up questions regarding what he did at home during his lunch break on October 22, 2012. Appellant was reminded that he was free to leave and was not under arrest. Appellant took numerous breaks during the questioning, at which time he spoke about subjects unrelated to the offenses, including his Indian culture and his father. After each break, the detectives reminded Appellant that he was free to leave. Appellant never stated that he wanted the questioning to stop or that he desired counsel.

         Appellant's fourth written statement was given from 8:50 p.m. through 9:25 p.m. Once again, Appellant was advised that he was free to leave and was not under arrest. Detectives asked him how he had cut his finger. Appellant responded that he scratched it while cleaning the trunk of his car the night before the incident and that his wife asked about his cut when he came home for lunch the next day. It was at this point that detectives asked Appellant to consent to a search of his apartment and to have his body photographed. Appellant agreed and executed the requisite consent forms at approximately 9:36 p.m.

         Subsequently, during the period from 10:21 p.m. to 10:47 p.m., Appellant gave a fifth non-incriminating statement, expanding upon his previous comments regarding what occurred during his lunchbreak on October 22, 2012. At some point during the questioning, Detective Bradbury learned that Appellant's wife, who was pregnant at the time, contradicted his explanations of his whereabouts during the time the crimes were committed. Specifically, Appellant's wife told investigators that he did not come home for lunch on October 22, 2012, and that she was unaware of any cut on Appellant's finger. His suspicion raised and out of an abundance of caution, Detective Bradbury read Appellant Miranda[4] warnings at 11:03 p.m. Appellant waived his Miranda rights, both orally and by executing a written waiver form.

         Shortly thereafter, Detective Bradbury told Appellant that either he or his wife had lied about his whereabouts on the afternoon of the murder and kidnapping. Appellant then asked for a pen and pad of paper to write down his thoughts and sat in silence on the other side of the office for approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. He drafted a sixth written statement between 2:04 a.m. and 2:17 a.m., wherein he wrote numerous times that he loved his wife, that he was completely helpless, and that people should believe him in the future if something happens to him. See Commonwealth Exhibit C-39; N.T., Sep. 30, 2014, at 162-63. At this point, Detective Bradbury asked for consent to search Appellant's computer, ipad, and flash drive. After executing the requisite consent forms, Appellant returned to the other side of the room and sat there by himself for several minutes.

         Both detectives then walked over and confronted Appellant with the inconsistencies between his statements and the account given by his wife. Appellant repeatedly told the detectives that his wife must have been mistaken about his whereabouts on the day of the murder. In response, Detective Bradbury placed his hand on the bible and swore on his parents' grave that Appellant's wife was telling the truth. He then showed Appellant a picture of Baby, after which Appellant became emotional. At 3:45 a.m., Appellant asked Detective Bradbury to call his wife and inform her that he was okay. Detective Bradbury complied with this request. After the phone call, Detective Bradbury told Appellant that it was time for him to tell the truth.

         Questioning resumed in a question/answer format, which resulted in Appellant's final written statement given during the period of 4:12 a.m. to 6:34 a.m., in which he confessed to the crimes. N.T., Sep. 30, 2014, at 171-87. Appellant stated that he did not intend to hurt anyone, but planned to kidnap Baby to get money from her parents because he knew they were both working. He explained that he had printed ten ransom notes from his office computer. Appellant stated that he entered the Vennas' apartment wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and black aviator glasses and carried a four-inch knife from his kitchen that had a black handle and a silver blade. He indicated that he threw the ransom notes in the Vennas' hallway and stabbed Grandmother in the throat with his right hand because she came at him while he was holding Baby. Appellant indicated that Baby was wearing a white dress and that he tried to get her to stop crying by placing a handkerchief in her mouth and a bath towel around her head to keep the handkerchief in place. Appellant disclosed that he then placed Baby in the blue suitcase along with the jewelry he had stolen from the apartment and left via the fire escape. He stated that he placed Baby in the steam bath portion of the men's room in the apartment complex gym and disposed of the suitcase, knife, and clothing worn during the attack in a large green dumpster at the Lafayette Valley Forge apartments. Appellant indicated that he returned to work and stayed there until his wife called when she heard about the incident, at which time he went home to her. Finally, Appellant stated that he threw some of the stolen jewelry into the river near Route 422 West, and placed the remaining jewelry in a bag behind a Coke machine in the fourth floor cafeteria of his work place.

         At the conclusion of his written statement, Appellant consented to having the statement both video and audio-recorded, which began at approximately 7:11 a.m. and concluded at approximately 7:31 a.m. During the video, Appellant reiterated the information given in his written statement and demonstrated how he stabbed Grandmother while using a plastic knife. See Commonwealth Exhibit 43. He explained that the stabbing of Grandmother happened accidentally, and he expressed remorse. Following the video, Appellant was given the opportunity to speak with his wife, who was brought to the police station.[5]

         After the video statement, Appellant was taken to a holding cell at the police station where he requested to speak to Detective Bradbury. Appellant thereafter told Detective Bradbury for the first time that two "white guys, " one of whom was named "Josh, " had followed him from the casino and forced him to participate in the kidnapping. Detective Bradbury did not ask Appellant any further questions, but merely left the cell. Later that afternoon, a criminal complaint was filed charging Appellant with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, theft by unlawful taking or disposition, and abuse of a corpse. At about 3:15 p.m. that afternoon, Appellant was arraigned.[6]

         Three days later, on October 29, 2012, Appellant called Detective Bradbury from prison to again tell him that the two white men were the actual killers. Contrary to his statement in the holding cell, Appellant stated that he did not know either of the white men's names. He reiterated that the men had guns and a key to his apartment, and that they threatened to harm his wife if he did not cooperate in the kidnapping. Appellant subsequently wrote Detective Bradbury a twenty-four page letter, repeating the same claim. Commonwealth Exhibit 44; N.T., Sep. 30, 2014, at 203-33. In the letter, Appellant indicated that the two white men needed someone familiar to the Vennas to gain entrance into the residence. Appellant identified one of the white men only as "Matt" who was purportedly tall and had a bald head and glasses. Notwithstanding that Appellant had previously identified one of men as "Josh, " Appellant did not reference "Josh" in the lengthy letter, but rather only described the second man as having had gold hair and a beard. Appellant further stated in the letter that he confessed to the crimes only out of fear that the real perpetrators would harm his wife if he told the truth.

         Appellant subsequently filed various pre-trial motions including a motion to suppress the several statements he made to the detectives as well as his consents to search. Suppression hearings were held on December 30, 2013, January 2, 2014, and January 13, 2014, during which the trial court heard testimony from Detective Bradbury and Appellant. The trial court denied Appellant's motion to suppress by order dated April 21, 2014, and incorporated those findings of fact and conclusions of law that the court articulated on the record during the proceeding conducted on April 17, 2014.

         Specifically, the trial court found that: Detective Bradbury's testimony was "completely credible" and his questioning methods were not improper; Detective Bradbury read Appellant his Miranda rights and Appellant waived such rights validly; and Appellant did not invoke his right to silence or ask for an attorney. N.T., Apr. 17, 2014, at 77-78. The trial court also found that throughout the entire questioning, Appellant never appeared to be overcome by exhaustion, emotion, or any kind of adverse physical effects and that Detective Bradbury did not threaten, make promises, or use force to obtain Appellant's cooperation but, rather, treated him with courtesy and respect. The trial court concluded that Appellant was not placed in custody until after he completed his confessions to the murders, at which time Miranda warnings had already been administered and Appellant had validly waived them. Id. at 80. Accordingly, the trial court held that the police legally obtained the written statements taken throughout the day, the video statement, and the various consent forms Appellant executed. Id. at 81.

         Appellant thereafter filed a motion for waiver of counsel and a motion to proceed pro se, alleging that he was unsatisfied with his counsel's representation and believed that he could better represent himself. Following a hearing and colloquy on May 16, 2014, the trial court concluded that Appellant knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his right to counsel and permitted him to proceed pro se. The court appointed Attorney Stephen G. Heckman as standby counsel and Attorney Henry S. Hilles, III, remained as penalty phase counsel.[7]

         At trial, which began on September 25, 2014, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of Detective Bradbury, who explained in great detail Appellant's questioning, his voluntary cooperation, and his ultimate confession to the offenses. The Commonwealth presented evidence corroborating specific assertions made in Appellant's confession, such as testimony establishing that Baby's body was recovered in the men's sauna at the Marquis Apartments, that ten ransom notes were found at the crime scene, and that the Vennas' stolen jewelry was discovered behind a vending machine in Appellant's office building. Further, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of Dr. Paul Hoyer, a forensic pathologist who performed the autopsies of the victims and opined that the victims' deaths were consistent with the manner of death described by Appellant in his confession. Finally, relating to motive, the Commonwealth presented testimony that Appellant had borrowed money from friends shortly before the murders to obtain visiting visas for his in-laws, but later lost a large sum of money gambling at the Valley Forge Casino.

         Appellant testified on his own behalf in narrative form as he was acting pro se. Appellant denied killing the victims and, instead, suggested that two white men had robbed him and forced him to assist in the commission of the crimes.[8] He admitted that he was forced to: disclose the Vennas' informal names of "Latha" and "Shiva, " N.T., Oct. 7, 2014, at 135; write the ransom note, id. at 132; take the two white men to the Vennas' apartment through the fire escape, id. at 138; and remove the gold bangles from Grandmother's body after the stabbing. Id. at 153, 221. Appellant insisted that he did not kill either victim, but rather observed one of the two white men stab Grandmother. He further provided the jury with his account of the questioning conducted by Detectives Bradbury and Rathfon, suggesting that his statements were not made voluntarily as he only confessed because he feared the real killers, feared his wife may be arrested, and did not understand the Miranda warnings or the consent forms. Appellant explained that he tried to inform the detectives about the real killers, but the detectives would not believe him. Additionally, Appellant presented character evidence establishing that he has a good reputation for being a law-abiding, peaceful, and nonviolent individual.[9]

         Following trial, the jury convicted Appellant of two counts of first degree murder, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, and abuse of corpse. Following the penalty proceeding, during which Appellant was represented by counsel, the jury returned two verdicts of death. For the first-degree murder of Baby, the jury found four aggravating circumstances and three mitigating circumstances and concluded that the former outweighed the latter.[10] Relating to the first degree murder of Grandmother, the jury found two aggravating circumstances and concluded that they outweighed the same three mitigating circumstances found in relation to Baby's murder.[11] The trial court formally sentenced Appellant to death on November 20, 2014. By opinion dated February 20, 2016, the trial court rejected the twenty issues Appellant presented in his Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) statement of matters complained of on appeal.

         II. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Although not challenged by Appellant, as in every case where a death sentence has been imposed, we begin by conducting an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain the convictions for first-degree murder. Commonwealth v. Woodard, 129 A.3d 480, 489 (Pa. 2015); Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n.3 (Pa. 1982). "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." Woodard, 129 A.3d at 489-90 (citing Commonwealth v. Fears, 836 A.2d 52, 58-59 (Pa. 2003)). It is well-established that the Commonwealth may sustain its burden of proof by means of wholly circumstantial evidence and the jury, while passing upon the credibility of witnesses and the weight of the evidence, is free to believe all, part, or none of the evidence. Commonwealth v. Poplawski, 130 A.3d 697, 709 (Pa. 2015).

         First-degree murder is an intentional killing, a "willful, deliberate and premeditated killing." 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(a), (d). To prove first-degree murder, the Commonwealth must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that: (1) a human being was killed; (2) the defendant was responsible for the killing; and (3) the defendant acted with malice and the specific intent to kill. Poplawski, 130 A.2d at 709. The jury may infer the intent to kill based upon the defendant's use of a deadly weapon on a vital part of the victim's body. Commonwealth v. Sanchez, 82 A.3d 943, 967 (Pa. 2013).

         Upon careful review of the record, we conclude that the Commonwealth presented sufficient evidence at Appellant's trial to support his convictions for the first-degree murder of Baby and Grandmother. When viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner, the evidence establishes that Appellant confessed to the killings in a written statement as well as a video-taped statement, wherein he confirmed that he entered the Vennas' apartment with an intent to kidnap Baby and hold her for $50, 000 ransom, stabbed Grandmother in the throat when she showed resistance, and silenced Baby's cries by stuffing a handkerchief in her mouth, tying a bath towel around her head to keep the handkerchief in place, putting Baby in a suitcase, and ultimately abandoning her in the sauna.

         The testimony of Dr. Paul Hoyer, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsies of the victims, established that the victims' causes of death were consistent with the descriptions given by Appellant in his confession. Dr. Hoyer opined that Grandmother's cause of death was multiple cut, stab, and chop wounds to the neck inflicted by a knife, and that the manner of death was homicide. N.T., Oct. 2, 2014, at 153. He explained that Grandmother sustained three different wounds to her neck, with the knife travelling three inches, resulting in three "chops" to her spinal column, id. at 159, that severed vital areas of her body including her carotid arteries, jugular arteries, trachea and esophagus. Id. at 161. Further, Dr. Hoyer stated that Grandmother also suffered at least three chest stab wounds, which had been inflicted later in time than the neck wounds. Id. at 165-66. Based on the injuries observed, he opined that the type of knife used in the attack was a single-edged, ordinary-sized knife. Id. at 167. He also identified defensive wounds on Grandmother's hands. Id. at 167-68.

         Dr. Hoyer further testified that the cause of Baby's death was asphyxia or an inability to breathe and that the manner of death was homicide. Id. at 171, 175. He found that there was a soft suffocation, meaning that there was some sort of mechanical obstruction to breathing such as something pressing on the child's chest, or mouth, or that something was in her mouth that prevented her from breathing. Id. at 172. Dr. Hoyer indicated that a soft suffocating death could arise if one put a handkerchief in the child's mouth, wrapped a towel around the child's head, and then placed the child in a suitcase. Id. 173-74. He opined that Baby had died three days prior to when her body was found, which would have been the day of the kidnapping. Id. at 174. Dr. Hoyer confirmed that all of his opinions were given to a reasonable degree of medical certainty. Id. at 175.

         As noted, the Commonwealth additionally presented evidence corroborating specific details of Appellant's confession, such as testimony establishing that Baby's body, clad in a white dress, was recovered where Appellant had confessed to leaving it, in the men's sauna at the Marquis Apartments, N.T., Oct. 1, 2014, at 198-99; N.T., Oct. 2, 2014, at 42; that ten ransom notes were found at the Vennas' apartment, id. at 12-13; and that the jewelry stolen during the incident was found behind a vending machine in Appellant's office building. N.T., Oct. 3, 2014, at 99-100. Finally, the Commonwealth presented testimony that Appellant had borrowed money from friends shortly before the murders to obtain visiting visas for his in-laws, but later lost a large sum of money gambling at the Valley Forge Casino.

         When this evidence is viewed in the proper light, it is sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Baby and Grandmother were killed, that Appellant was responsible for the killings, and that he acted with malice and the specific intent to kill both victims. While the jury was free to believe Appellant's theory that two men ...

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