United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
C. CARLSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
the court is a petition for writ of habeas corpus filed by
the petitioner, a convicted murderer who now claims that the
myriad of evidence from which a jury convicted her of
first-degree murder-mainly, the testimony of three witnesses
to whom she confessed-was insufficient to support that
petitioner, Cheryl Kunkle, is an inmate in the Pennsylvania
Department of Corrections (“DOC”) currently
incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution in Muncy,
Pennsylvania. Kunkle is serving a sentence of life
imprisonment without parole for the murder of her former
romantic partner in 2001 and other related crimes. Kunkle now
asks this court to vacate her conviction based on her claim
that the Commonwealth did not have sufficient evidence to
convict her, and that the trial court made erroneous
evidentiary rulings. After a review of the record, we
conclude that there was sufficient evidence from which a jury
could convict Kunkle of the crimes with which she was
charged, and that any evidentiary errors made by the trial
court were harmless. Accordingly, we will recommend that this
petition be denied.
Statement of Facts and of the Case
factual background of the instant petition was aptly
summarized by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in its initial
decision affirming Kunkle's conviction and sentence:
In 2001, Pennsylvania State Troopers responded to a call
concerning the whereabouts of the victim, Benjamin Amato. The
troopers entered Mr. Amato's residence and found his
corpse lying on the ground at the bottom of the basement
stairwell. Later investigation revealed that Mr. Amato had
been deceased for approximately four days, and that he died
as a result of blunt force trauma. Specifically, Dr. Samuel
D. Land, M.D., a board certified forensic pathologist, opined
that Mr. Amato was killed by three or four blows to his head.
The manner of death was ruled homicide by the coroner.
Thereafter, Kunkle was arrested and charged.
At trial, the Commonwealth introduced the testimony of five
witnesses, each of whom testified that Kunkle confessed to
murdering Mr. Amato to them, and in one instance, she bragged
about her crime. On February 14, 2007, following a jury
trial, Kunkle was found guilty of first-degree murder,
solicitation to commit murder, aggravated assault, burglary,
and tampering with/or fabricating physical evidence. On June
20, 2007, she was sentenced to life imprisonment without the
possibility of parole. Kunkle subsequently filed a
post-sentenced motion, which was denied.
(Doc. 10-12, at 1-2).
first appeal to the Superior Court was dismissed on May 12,
2008 due to her counsel's failure to file a brief.
Thereafter, Kunkle filed a petition under Pennsylvania's
Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) seeking to
reinstate her appeal rights. On her second appeal to the
Superior Court, Kunkle raised three issues for review,
challenging the sufficiency of the evidence for her murder
conviction, the testimony of Dr. Land as hearsay, and the
fact that the trial court allowed the Commonwealth to use a
blood spatter expert at trial. (Id., at 2).
Kunkle's conviction and sentence were ultimately affirmed
on December 2, 2009, and her appeal nunc pro tunc to
the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was denied on August 31, 2011.
Commonwealth v. Kunkle, 27 A.3d 223 (Pa. 2011).
August 31, 2012, Kunkle, through her appointed counsel, filed
a PCRA petition seeking to reinstate her appellate rights, as
her previous direct appeal attorney had abandoned several
issues that Kunkle believed to have merit. (Doc. 10-13). The
petition was granted, and Kunkle appealed to the Superior
Court. The Superior Court denied this appeal on November 6,
2013 (Doc. 10-17), and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied
a petition for allowance of appeal nunc pro tunc on
April 22, 2015. Commonwealth v. Kunkle, 114 A.3d
1039 (Pa. 2015). Thereafter, Kunkle filed a PCRA petition
challenging her trial counsel's ineffectiveness in
several respects. (Doc. 10-18). This petition was denied on
December 21, 2015. (Doc. 10-20). On appeal, the Superior
Court affirmed the denial on November 4, 2016 (Doc. 10-22),
and Kunkle's petition for allowance of appeal to the
Pennsylvania Supreme Court was denied on April 11, 2017.
Commonwealth v. Kunkle, 168 A.3d 1250 (Pa. 2017).
then filed the instant habeas petition. (Doc. 1). In her
petition, she raises four grounds which she believes entitle
her to relief: (1) there was insufficient evidence to convict
her of first-degree murder; (2) the trial court erred when it
denied her motion to suppress hearsay statements from the
deceased victim; (3) the trial court erred when it denied
her motion to exclude a blood spatter report and the
testimony of Paul Kisch; and (4) the Superior Court erred
when it deemed her weight-of-the-evidence claim waived on
appeal. (Id.) For their part, the respondents
concede that Kunkle has exhausted all of her claims in state
court, but argue that none of Kunkle's claims have merit,
and thus the petition should be denied. (Doc. 10-1).
review of the record before us, we conclude that the
Commonwealth presented ample evidence from which the jury
could have found Kunkle guilty of first-degree murder and the
related offenses. We further conclude that because there was
sufficient evidence to convict Kunkle, her remaining claims,
even if found to have arguable merit, would amount to
harmless error. Thus, we will recommend that this habeas
corpus petition be denied.
State Prisoner Habeas Relief-The Legal
order to obtain federal habeas corpus relief, a state
prisoner seeking to invoke the power of this Court to issue a
writ of habeas corpus must satisfy the standards prescribed
by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, which provides in part as follows:
(a) The Supreme Court, a Justice thereof, a circuit judge, or
a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of
habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to
the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is
in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or
treaties of the United States.
(b) (1) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf
of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State
court shall not be granted unless it appears that-
(A) the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the
courts of the State;
(2) An application for a writ of habeas corpus may be denied
on the merits, notwithstanding the failure of the applicant
to exhaust the remedies ...