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Commonwealth v. Bullock

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 31, 2017


         Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence August 19, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No.: CP-51-CR-0004571-2014

          BEFORE: OTT, J., DUBOW, J., and STEVENS, P.J.E. [*]


          DUBOW, J.

         Appellant, Lionel B. Bullock, appeals from the Judgment of Sentence entered in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, following his convictions after a bench trial for Aggravated Assault, Simple Assault, Recklessly Endangering Another Person ("REAP"), and Terroristic Threats.[1]He challenges, inter alia, the sufficiency of the evidence and the discretionary aspects of his sentence. After careful review, we affirm.

         The relevant facts, as gleaned from the certified record and the trial court's Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) Opinion, are as follows. Appellant's 92-year-old mother, Jessie Carter, lived on the second floor of her two-story home at 7020 Woolston Avenue in Philadelphia. Appellant and his two minor children also lived in Carter's home. Carter required physical assistance with many daily tasks, and due to her lack of mobility was confined mainly to her bed, using a walker to get to the bathroom. Carter depended on an oxygen machine at all times, which required electricity to operate and was visible in her bedroom. A hospice service provided Carter with equipment.

         Michelle Reid, a Certified Nursing Assistant, began working three days each week in August or September of 2013 to assist Carter with personal hygiene, as well as cleaning her room, obtaining food, and other tasks.

         When Reid began the job, Carter was living in very unsanitary and unsafe conditions.[2] Reid attempted to wash Carter's laundry, but Appellant would not permit her to do anything for Carter that required leaving the second floor, including using the washing machine or getting ice for Carter.[3]In addition, Appellant was verbally and emotionally abusive to Reid and Carter. Appellant constantly pestered Reid during her work hours about when she would be leaving the house, telling her frequently that she "didn't have to be here." N.T. Trial, 12/12/14, at 13. Appellant would also tell Carter that she did not need a nurse and that "she was just using" Reid. Id. Appellant also spoke to Carter in an angry and negative tone, would yell Bible verses at Carter, and would yell at Carter from throughout the house about the strong odor.

         Appellant instructed his minor daughter that she was not allowed to help Carter, her grandmother, and would not allow Carter's niece into the house to care for Carter. In addition, although Meals on Wheels delivered food for Carter to the house, Appellant would not give Carter all of the food from the deliveries, and instead would eat or give away some of the food.

         On October 28, 2013, Carter frantically called Reid and told her that "her son, [Appellant], . . . said that the electric would be cut off today and she doesn't know what she's going to do." Id. at 25.

         When Reid arrived at the house, she expressed her concerns to both Appellant and the PECO employee that shutting off the electricity meant Carter's oxygen machine would not work and she would not be able to breathe. Appellant ignored Reid and insisted on shutting off the electricity without expressing any legitimate reason.[4] Despite Reid's best efforts, the PECO employee eventually shut off the electricity to Carter's home, and Appellant left the property.

         Reid immediately attempted to set up a backup manual oxygen tank for Carter. After receiving assistance over the phone from the hospice company, Reid managed to make the manual oxygen tank operable for Carter after a 45-minute struggle. Although the hospice company sent over a few additional tanks, the oxygen would last a total of only eight hours. Reid eventually called police for assistance.

         Sergeant Vincent Butler responded to Carter's home and observed the deplorable conditions in Carter's bedroom. He spoke with Carter, who was upset and scared that she would suffocate and die. He also observed the oxygen machine, to which the electricity "was clearly turned off." Id. at 95. Sergeant Butler asked Appellant's minor children to call Appellant. Appellant hung up on Sergeant Butler at least once, and repeatedly stated that he did not want to speak with Sergeant Butler. Appellant refused to inform Sergeant Butler of what arrangements he had made for his mother's care, and told Sergeant Butler "[i]t's your problem." N.T. Trial, 2/9/15, at 11-12. Sergeant Butler clarified that Appellant referred to his mother as "it" during this phone conversation. Id.

         Sergeant Butler called an ambulance, and the emergency responders transported Carter to the hospital. The hospital later transferred Carter to a hospice care facility, where Carter passed away a few weeks later. Sergeant Butler reported the case to Special Victims Unit. Police eventually arrested Appellant and charged him with Attempted Murder, Aggravated Assault, Simple Assault, REAP, Terroristic Threats, and Neglect of Care of a Dependent Person.

         Following a bifurcated bench trial on December 12, 2014, and February 9, 2015, at which Michelle Reid and Sergeant Butler testified, the trial court convicted Appellant of Aggravated Assault, Simple Assault, REAP, and Terroristic Threats.[5] The trial court originally sentenced Appellant to six to twelve years' incarceration for Aggravated Assault, followed by a consecutive term of five years' probation for Terroristic Threats.[6] Both Appellant and the Commonwealth filed Motions for Reconsideration. Following a hearing on August 19, 2015, the trial court imposed a new sentence of ten to twenty years' incarceration for Aggravated Assault, followed by a consecutive term of five years' probation for Terroristic Threats. Appellant filed another Motion for Reconsideration, which the trial court denied on November 13, 2015.

         Appellant filed a timely Notice of Appeal on December 11, 2015. Both Appellant and the trial court complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

Appellant presents five issues on appeal:
1. Did not the lower court err and violate the corpus delicti rule in admitting, over objection, [A]ppellant's statements where the Commonwealth failed to establish that a crime occurred by a preponderance of the evidence, and the court further erred in considering the statements during deliberation of the verdict as the Commonwealth failed to prove that a crime had occurred beyond a reasonable doubt?
2. Was not the evidence insufficient to sustain [A]ppellant's convictions for [A]ggravated [A]ssault, [S]imple [A]ssault, [REAP], and [T]erroristic [T]hreats?
3. Did not the lower court abuse its discretion in finding that [A]ppellant's [P]rior [R]ecord [S]core at sentencing was a "5" when the evidence offered at sentencing by the Commonwealth was insufficient to support this conclusion?
4. Did not the lower court err as a matter of law, abuse its discretion, and violate [A]ppellant's constitutional rights to due process of law, where at sentencing, [A]ppellant received a sentence of 6 to 12 years and subsequently the lower court reconsidered the sentence and imposed a greater and vindictive sentence of 10 to 20 years even though the Commonwealth presented no additional relevant information?
5. Did not the lower court err and abuse its discretion when the court imposed a manifestly excessive and unreasonable sentence of 10 to 20 years?

Appellant's Brief at 4-5.

         Corpus Delicti

         In his first issue, Appellant avers that the trial court erred in admitting his own extrajudicial statements made to Reid and Sergeant Butler at trial about disconnecting the electricity, which Appellant contends violated the corpus delicti rule with respect to all charges. Appellant's Brief at 23.

         The "[a]dmission of evidence is within the sound discretion of the trial court and will be reversed only upon a showing that the trial court clearly abused its discretion." Commonwealth v. Tyson, 119 A.3d 353, 357 (Pa. Super. 2015) (citation and quotation omitted). "[A]n abuse of discretion is not merely an error of judgment, but is rather the overriding or misapplication of the law, or the exercise of judgment that is manifestly unreasonable, or the result of bias, prejudice, ill-will[, ] or partiality, as shown by the evidence or the record." Commonwealth v. Cameron, 780 A.2d 688, 692 (Pa. Super. 2001) (citation and quotation omitted).

         "[I]n any criminal case, a conviction may not be based upon the extra-judicial confession [or statement] of the accused unless it is corroborated by independent evidence establishing the corpus delicti."[7] Commonwealth v. Wood, 833 A.2d 740, 748-49 (Pa. Super. 2003) (citations omitted). "This rule is rooted in the hesitancy to convict a person of a crime solely on the basis of that person's statements." Commonwealth v. Cuevas, 61 A.3d 292, 295 (Pa. Super. 2013) (citation omitted).

         In Pennsylvania, "a confession [or extrajudicial statement] is not evidence in the absence of proof of the corpus delicti. . . . When the Commonwealth [proffers] sufficient evidence of the corpus delicti to entitle the case to go to the jury, it [may introduce] a confession [or extrajudicial statement] made by the prisoner connecting him with the crime." Commonwealth v. Taylor, 831 A.2d 587, 590 (Pa. 2003) (quoting Gray v. Commonwealth, 101 Pa. 380, 386 (Pa. 1882)). The rule is not limited to formal confessions; it extends to admissions and statements of the accused. See Commonwealth v. Smallwood, 442 A.2d 222, 225 (Pa. 1982) (discussing the admissibility of an inculpatory statement made to a treating nurse).

         A trial court applies the corpus delicti rule in two phases: (1) "In the first phase, the court determines whether the Commonwealth has proven the corpus delicti of the crimes charged by a preponderance of the evidence. If so, the confession [or extrajudicial statement] of the defendant is admissible[;]" (2) "In the second phase, the rule requires that the Commonwealth prove the corpus delicti to the factfinder's satisfaction beyond a reasonable doubt before the factfinder is permitted to consider the confession [or extrajudicial statement] in assessing the defendant's innocence or guilt." Commonwealth v. Reyes, 870 A.2d 888, 894 n.4 (Pa. 2005) (citations omitted).

         Here, the trial court properly admitted Appellant's inculpatory statements to Michelle Reid and Officer Butler. The Commonwealth offered eyewitness testimony that Appellant directed a PECO employee to shut off the electricity on which his mother depended for oxygen, notwithstanding Appellant's self-serving averments in his Brief to the contrary. Reid testified that she directly observed Appellant on the property with the PECO employee. Officer Butler testified that when he responded to the home, the electricity "was clearly turned off." N.T. Trial, 12/12/14, at 95. There was substantial evidence of Appellant's motive and intent in so doing. Appellant also knew about his ...

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