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Kunkle v. Commonwealth

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 18, 2019

CHERYL KUNKLE Petitioner,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, et al. Respondents.

          Brann Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          MARTIN C. CARLSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         Before 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 conviction.

         We disagree.

         The 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.

         II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         The 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).

         Kunkle's 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).

         On 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).

         Kunkle 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;[1] (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).

         After a 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.

         III. Discussion

         A. State Prisoner Habeas Relief-The Legal Standard.

         (1) Substantive Standards

         In 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 ...

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