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Commonwealth v. Payne

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

September 7, 2017


         Appeal from the PCRA Order April 13, 2016 in the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County Criminal Division at No(s): No. 2562 of 1976



          STRASSBURGER, J.

         Raymond Dale Payne (Appellant) appeals from the April 13, 2016 order which denied his petition for relief filed pursuant to the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546. Appellant argues that he is entitled to a new degree-of-guilt hearing or other lower court proceedings based upon results of DNA testing that excluded him as a contributor to the semen found in the victim's body. We affirm.

         Due to the procedural posture and facts of this case, we set forth the non-jury verdict of the trial court in its entirety from the 1977 degree-of-guilt hearing.

[Appellant] was arrested on September 23, 1976 and charged with the slaying of Debra Lynn [Gama].
The sixteen[-]year[-]old victim, a student at Strong Vincent High School in Erie, had left her West 10th Street home the morning of August 7th, 1975 apparently headed for the beach. She never returned, and on August 12th her body was found floating in Cuss[e]wago Creek off Route 98 about 12 miles north of Meadville, in Crawford County.
When found the victim's hands and feet were bound by copper wire. Wire also encircled and was imbedded in her neck. Crawford County Coroner Wilbur C. Thomas ruled that the young girl had been strangled listing the cause of death as "acute asphyxiation due to ligature."
The original charge against [Appellant], a teacher at the school attended by Miss [Gama, ] was originally instituted in Crawford County, the body having been found there. However, on Friday, October 8th, 1976, [Appellant, ] with the consent of his attorney and in the attorney's presence, gave a statement to Assistant District Attorney Donald E. Lewis. In the statement in which [Appellant] categorized Miss [Gama's] death as accidental, he revealed that her death had occurred in Erie County. As the result thereof the murder charge was then filed in Erie County on December 8, 1976.
Following several continuances requested by [Appellant] and his counsel, trial was scheduled for Monday, April 11, 1977. On that date [Appellant] entered a plea of guilty to murder generally and a degree of guilt hearing was held before the [trial court en banc] on June 7th, 1977. The merits have been argued and the matter is now ripe for decision.
It is the contention of the Commonwealth that the facts require a finding of murder in the first degree. The defense argues that the crime should rise no higher than third degree murder.
Under the plea, voluntary manslaughter could be a possible determination. However, we are of the opinion that there are no facts before the court that would justify that result or require its further consideration.
Section 2501 of the Crimes Code describes criminal homicide as "where a person intentionally, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another person."
Under the amendment to section 2502 of the Crimes Code, effective March 26, 1974, murder is divided into three degrees.
"A criminal homicide constitutes murder in the first degree when it is committed by an intentional killing. Murder in the second degree is where the death of the victim occurred while the defendant was engaged as a principal or accomplice in the preparation [sic] of a felony. All other kinds of murder shall be murder in the third degree.["]
Under sub-section (d) intentional killing "is a killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.["]
The evidence before the court consists principally of the physical evidence, the condition of the victim's body, the testimony of the pathologist, the defendant's statement of October 8, 1976, and his admissions to his former cellmate, Anthony Lee Evans.
While the defense called two former inmates of the Erie County prison to attack the credibility of Evan[s's] testimony, they relied principally on [Appellant's] version of the victim's death as contained in his statement to the authorities in Crawford County in October of 1976.
In that statement [Appellant] told of meeting Miss [Gama] as she was standing on the corner of Tenth and Raspberry Streets and taking her for a ride. He stated he had been smoking marijuana and had taken two "downs" (meprobamate) prior to meeting the victim; that after voluntarily consuming a number of the pills Miss [Gama] agreed to pose for [Appellant], when he asked her if he could take some "bondage pictures" of her.
He stated that he continued to smoke marijuana as they headed for the Everett C. Hall Community Park, a secluded wooded area in Waterford Township in Erie County.
After arriving there he said that she allowed him to tie her hands and ankles together with some clothesline which he had purchased at the K-Mart. He had the victim get down on her knees. He then tied one end of the rope to a tree, then wound it around her neck and tied the other end to another tree.
At that time he discovered that he had left his camera in his truck; that despite the fact that the girl appeared to be affected by the pills she had consumed, he left her in the trussed up position and returned to this truck.
While there he smoked some more marijuana and loaded his camera. When he returned he discovered that the victim had fallen forward and had expired.
He said he panicked, that he cut the bonds, placed her in his truck and drove her back to his farm; that he then attached cement blocks to her body with some copper wire and placed her in a pond located at the property. Two days later he discovered that the body had surfaced. He then transported the body to the Cussewago Creek where it was found on August 12th.
[Appellant] denied that he had had sexual relations with the victim or that he had in any way molested her.
Counsel for [Appellant] rely on this statement for their defense, contending that Miss [Gama's] death was accidental; that [Appellant] was at most negligent and that his degree of guilt should rise no higher than 3rd degree.
We, however, are not impressed with either the accuracy or credibility of [Appellant's] statement. Yet it does have an important bearing on our determination. Not only does it place [Appellant] alone with the victim when she died, admittedly under circumstances caused by him, but it does in many respects corroborate other evidence introduced by the Commonwealth.
The most damaging Commonwealth testimony was given by Anthony Lee Evans who was incarcerated along with [Appellant] in the Erie County prison in January and February of 1977. Mr. Evans testified that [Appellant] confided in him and eventually described in detail what had occurred. He said that [Appellant] told him that while he and Miss [Gama] were riding in his truck he had put some "downs" (pills) in the victim's beer; that while she was under the influence of the drug he took her to the woods where he tied her up in the manner above described and began having sexual intercourse with her; that she begged him to stop, crying and screaming; that she "made him mad" and he grasped the rope "on each side of her and pulled it tight until she was dead."
At this point Mr. Evans'[s] testimony varies from [Appellant's] statement in that he testified that rather than taking the body back to the farm and placing it in the pond, that [Appellant] said he covered the body with leaves and left it there for several days until he decided where to dispose of it.
Evans further testified that [Appellant] told him Miss Gamma's death was a culmination of a sexual fantasy that he had been living with for a long time; that "he likes to tie women up and do crazy things to 'em."
Evans'[s] testimony corroborates in many respects the statement given by [Appellant] to the Assistant District Attorney of Crawford County.
In both statements he admits that the victim was under the influence of pills ingested either voluntarily or administered by subterfuge.
The reference to a "sexual fantasy" and [Appellant's] penchant for bondage is important, for in [Appellant's] own statement he admits that it was he who suggested the taking of "bondage pictures."
The manner in which Miss [Gama] was tied is exactly the same in both statements.
The only real variation is in the manner in which death was caused. Even here there is verification for Evans'[s] testimony that she died protesting a sexual attack upon her. Paul R. Daube, a chemist employed by the Pennsylvania State Police testified that he conducted tests on Hemorrhogic fluids extracted from the victim's vaginal and anal areas. He stated that he found the presence of seminal acid phosphatase in both areas and that seminal acid phosphatase is found only in semen.
It is the opinion of the court the accidental theory advanced by the defense lacks credibility. It is our belief that the testimony of Evans is more consistent with the established facts than the self serving statement of [Appellant].
The specific intent to kill which is necessary to constitute murder in the first degree may be found from the circumstances surrounding the slaying together with all reasonable inferences therefrom.…
In this case not only do the circumstances point to the conclusion that the slaying of Debbie [Gama] was willful, deliberate and premeditated, but [Appellant's] admission to his cellmate verifies that conclusion and removes all doubt.
The testimony before the court is also consistent with a slaying in the perpetration of a forceful rape which would constitute murder in the second degree. However, having concluded that [Appellant] is guilty of an intentional killing, we need not further pursue the theory of felony murder.

Trial Court Opinion, 7/18/1977, at 1-6.

         Based on the foregoing, Appellant was convicted of first-degree murder, and on August 5, 1977, Appellant ...

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