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Commonwealth v. Hutchison

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

May 22, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellee
v.
FRANKLYN PALMER HUTCHISON IV Appellant

         Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence July 27, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-48-CR-0004035-2015

          BEFORE: OLSON, SOLANO and MUSMANNO, JJ.

          OPINION

          OLSON, J.

         Appellant, Franklyn Palmer Hutchison IV, appeals from the judgment of sentence entered on July 27, 2016. We hold that the evidence in this case was sufficient to convict Appellant of abuse of a corpse. As we also conclude that Appellant is not entitled to relief on his remaining claims of error, we affirm.

         The factual background and procedural history of this case are as follows. Appellant and Brianne Miles ("Miles") rented an apartment together. On July 7 or 8, 2015, Miles died of a drug overdose in the apartment. Appellant discovered Miles' body on July 8, 2015. Two days later, Appellant finally called police and notified them that there was a dead body in the apartment. When police arrived, Appellant originally told them that he discovered Miles' body that morning. Police found drug paraphernalia in the apartment.

         On February 11, 2016, the Commonwealth charged Appellant via criminal information with abuse of a corpse, [1] filing a false police report, [2] and possession of drug paraphernalia.[3] On May 24, 2016, Appellant filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude photographs of the corpse from being introduced into evidence. On May 31, 2016, jury selection commenced. On June 1, 2016, the trial court denied Appellant's motion in limine. On June 2, 2016, the jury found Appellant guilty of all three offenses. On July 27, 2016, the trial court sentenced Appellant to two to four years' imprisonment. This timely appeal followed.[4]

Appellant presents four issues for our review:
1. Did the trial court commit reversible error by refusing to dismiss the charge of abuse of corpse where the evidence established that [] Appellant failed to promptly report [Miles'] death to authorities but otherwise did not cause her demise or manipulate her remains?
2. Did the trial court commit reversible error by permitting the Commonwealth to appeal to the sympathy of the jury by means of the prosecutor's argument to the jury that it should "imagine" what it felt like to be [Miles'] family members upon discovering the death of [Miles] and the decomposed state of her remains?
3. Did the trial court commit reversible error by permitting the Commonwealth to introduce graphic, color photographs of [Miles'] decomposed remains to the jury that were so disproportionally inflammatory in comparison to their evidentiary value so as to prejudice the Appellant and deprive him of a fair trial?
4. Did the trial court commit reversible error by failing to set forth sufficient reasons upon the record for imposing consecutive, statutory maximum sentences upon [Appellant?]

Appellant's Brief at 7 (certain capitalization omitted).

         In his first issue, Appellant argues that the evidence was insufficient to convict him of abuse of a corpse. "Whether sufficient evidence exists to support the verdict is a question of law; our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary." Commonwealth v. Giron, 155 A.3d 635, 638 (Pa. Super. 2017) (citation omitted). In assessing Appellant's sufficiency challenge, we must determine "whether viewing all the evidence admitted at trial in the light most favorable to the [Commonwealth], there is sufficient evidence to enable the fact-finder to find every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Commonwealth v. Williams, 153 A.3d 372, 375 (Pa. Super. 2016) (citation omitted). "The evidence need not preclude every possibility of innocence and the fact-finder is free to believe all, part, or none of the evidence presented." Commonwealth v. Kennedy, 151 A.3d 1117, 1121 (Pa. Super. 2016) (citation omitted).

         The Crimes Code makes it an offense to "treat[] a corpse in a way that [one] knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities[.]" 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5510 (defining the crime of abuse of a corpse). Appellant contends that his inaction, i.e., failing to notify the authorities when he discovered Miles' body, is not criminalized by the statute. He argues that, in order for his inaction to be criminal under the statute, he needed to have a fiduciary relationship with Miles.

         We conclude that, under this Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Smith, 567 A.2d 1070 (Pa. Super. 1989), appeal denied, 585 A.2d 468 (Pa. 1990), the evidence was sufficient to convict Appellant of abuse of a corpse. In Smith, the defendant starved her three-year-old child to death. After the defendant discovered the child's body, she moved out of the apartment and did not report the child's death to authorities. Three months later, maintenance workers entered the apartment to shut off the utilities and discovered the child's decomposing and mummified remains. The defendant was convicted of abuse of a corpse. On appeal, she argued that her inaction in failing to notify authorities of the child's death was not covered by the abuse of a corpse statute.

         This Court framed the issue as "whether a person who knowingly leaves a corpse to rot, without making arrangements for a proper burial has treated a corpse in a way that she knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities." Id. at 1073 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). Relying upon the commentaries to the Model Penal Code, which section 5510 is based on, this Court held that "the purpose of drafting the abuse of corpse statute in very broad and general language was to ensure that offenses such as concealing a corpse came under the purview of the statute." Smith, 567 A.2d at 1073. That is what occurred in the case at bar. Appellant concealed Miles' corpse from authorities so that she could not receive a proper burial. Under Smith, this inaction violates section 5510.

         Appellant attempts to distinguish Smith in two ways. First, he argues that the special mother-child relationship in Smith provided the mother with a fiduciary duty that he, as a roommate, did not possess. Furthermore, he argues that because the mother in Smith tied a rope around the door handle of the child's bedroom, where the child was found dead, she took some affirmative action in concealing the child's body while he took no affirmative action to conceal Miles' body.

         Appellant argues that Smith was based upon the fiduciary relationship the defendant had to care for her child. Although this Court did focus on that relationship, it was in the context of discussing the sufficiency of the evidence for the third-degree murder conviction. See id. at 1072. This Court did not reference the parent-child relationship when discussing the defendant's abuse of a corpse conviction. Instead, this Court only focused on the fact that the defendant failed to notify authorities of the child's death and chose ...


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