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Commonwealth v. Thomas

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

August 20, 2019


          ARGUED: December 4, 2018

          Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence entered on June 16, 2017 in the Court of Common Pleas, Lancaster County, Criminal Division at CP-36-CR-0004095-2015.




         Following a jury trial, appellant Leeton Jahwanza Thomas (a.k.a. "Pie" Thomas) was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for the stabbing deaths of Lisa Scheetz and her minor daughter, H.S., one count of attempted murder for stabbing P.S., another minor daughter of Ms. Scheetz, and one count of burglary.[1] [2] After finding a number of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and determining the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances, the jury returned two verdicts of death. The trial court formally imposed two death sentences, plus a sentence of 20 to 40 years' imprisonment for attempted murder and 3 to 6 years' imprisonment for burglary. This direct appeal followed[3] and for the reasons expressed herein, we affirm the judgment of sentence.

         I. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         As appellant has been sentenced to death, we must independently review the record to determine whether the Commonwealth presented sufficient evidence to sustain the convictions of first-degree murder. Commonwealth v. Hicks, 156 A.3d 1114, 1123 (Pa. 2017) ("in all capital direct appeals, this Court conducts an independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a first-degree murder conviction, even if the defendant does not raise the claim"), citing Commonwealth v. Zettlemoyer, 454 A.2d 937, 942 n.3 (Pa. 1982). In conducting our review, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as the verdict winner in order to determine whether the jury could have found every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.

         To convict a defendant of first-degree murder, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant unlawfully killed another human being, the defendant acted with the specific intent to kill, and the killing was willful, deliberate, and premeditated. Commonwealth v. Dowling, 883 A.2d 570, 573 (Pa. 2005), citing Commonwealth v. Spotz, 716 A.2d 580, 583 (Pa. 1998); 18 Pa.C.S. §2502(a). The specific intent to kill may be inferred from the defendant's use of a weapon on a vital part of the victim's body. Hicks, 156 A.3d at 1124. Furthermore, the Commonwealth may sustain its burden by wholly circumstantial evidence and the jury is free to believe all, part, or none of the evidence. Id. at 1123, citing Commonwealth v. Cousar, 928 A.2d 1025, 1032-33 (Pa. 2007).

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the record establishes appellant was acquainted with the victims for many years as their neighbor in a rural area of Lancaster County.[4] On April 15, 2015, following an investigation prompted by Ms. Scheetz's allegations that appellant had sexually assaulted H.S. and S.S., officers of the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) arrested appellant and charged him with a number of sexual offenses. Appellant, who was born in Jamaica, but is a permanent United States resident holding a green card, was released on bail, and his formal arraignment in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas was scheduled for June 26, 2015.[5]

         In the early morning hours of June 11, 2015, Mr. and Mrs. Hershey heard terrified screaming emanating from the basement apartment. They opened the door connecting their home to the basement apartment, and found P.S. on the stairs covered with blood. Mr. and Mrs. Hershey pulled P.S. up the stairs into their home, locked their doors, and called 911. P.S., who suffers from cerebral palsy and has a below-average I.Q., told Mr. and Mrs. Hershey, who also knew appellant, that "Pie" had attacked her. When police and EMT personnel arrived, P.S. repeated several times that "Pie did this[.]"[6] N.T. Trial, 6/7/17 at 162. P.S. had been stabbed 10 times.

         Police and EMT personnel entered the basement apartment to discover Ms. Scheetz and H.S. dead from numerous stab wounds and it appeared the intruder gained entry to the apartment by cutting a window screen. Autopsies revealed Ms. Scheetz suffered 12 stab wounds to her chest and abdomen that penetrated her heart, lungs and spleen, and H.S. suffered six stab wounds to her face, neck, and shoulder. One of the stab wounds to the neck of H.S. was "through-and-through," meaning the knife entered the right side of the neck and exited the left side of the neck. N.T. Trial, 6/12/17 at 702.

         Police immediately proceeded to appellant's residence and drove past it, noticing an upstairs light was on. After turning the cruiser around and positioning themselves, police put spotlights on the house and, using a loudspeaker, told appellant to come outside. Additional lights within the house came on, and appellant's wife appeared at the front door where police told her they needed to talk to appellant. Appellant thereafter arrived at the door in bare feet, wearing only a bathrobe with no underclothing. While securing the residence, which also housed appellant's children and mother, the police noticed a bathroom on the second floor had a wet floor, wet tub, wet wash cloth and a towel on the floor, as if someone had very recently showered. The light in the second-floor bathroom corresponded to the location of the light within the house seen by the police during their initial drive by. The police arrested appellant and later that morning secured a search warrant for the premises.

         During the search, Trooper John Connelly entered a laundry room that held a washer and dryer. Trooper Connelly opened the washer, noted a strong odor of bleach, and saw the washer half-full of reddish-brown water that contained submerged items of clothing. Next to the washer was an empty bottle of Clorox bleach. The items of clothing recovered from the washer included a pair of appellant's sneakers. The items were sent to a crime laboratory for forensic testing, where a human blood stain was discovered on a protected area of stitching on the left sneaker. Subsequent testing of that blood sample revealed a DNA match to H.S.

         PSP investigators contacted Red Rose K-9, a bloodhound search and rescue organization, to attempt to track a path of the person who may have entered the basement apartment through the screen. Red Rose K-9 personnel arrived at the scene approximately 8 hours after the crimes were committed, retrieved a scent from the screen and delivered the scent to two bloodhounds. The first bloodhound, K-9 Ruben, tracked the scent from the screen directly to the patio of appellant's residence on Conowingo Road. Thereafter, a second bloodhound, K-9 Heather, also tracked the scent from the screen directly to appellant's patio. Additionally, PSP personnel subsequently found and removed several pairs of latex gloves and a camouflage cloth from the toilet drain in the second-floor bathroom.

         Prior to trial, appellant filed a motion requesting a hearing to determine whether P.S. was competent to testify at trial and seeking related discovery, and a supplemental motion requesting P.S. be evaluated by an expert. See Motion For Competency Hearing And Related Discovery, 3/6/17; Supplemental Motion for Competency Evaluation, 5/17/17.[7] The court denied the motions, but conducted a colloquy of P.S. outside the presence of the jury and permitted the parties to question her as well. Thereafter, the court determined she was competent to testify.[8] During her subsequent testimony, P.S., among other things, identified appellant - as "Leeton" and "Pie," and by pointing at him - as the person who repeatedly stabbed her as well as her mother and sister on the night in question. She remembered the specific date because it had been her last day of school and her sister S.S. was not home, but was "at the beach[.]" N.T. Trial, 6/8/17 at 269. She recognized Pie because she had known him practically her entire life.[9] Based on the record, it is clear the evidence was sufficient to sustain the verdicts of guilty as to two counts of murder in the first-degree.

         II. Competency

         Appellant's first two issues on appeal are related and his first issue has two components. He first claims the trial court erred and abused its discretion by (a) denying his initial pre-trial motion requesting a competency hearing and related discovery with respect to P.S.'s alleged intellectual and developmental limitations because they may affect her competency to testify, and (b) denying his supplemental motion requesting a competency evaluation to be conducted by an expert obtained by the defense after appellant reviewed P.S.'s educational records which indicated she had a full-scale I.Q. of 46. In his second issue, appellant claims the competency colloquy conducted by the trial court outside the presence of the jury was inadequate to establish P.S.'s competency to testify because "the court did not focus any of its inquiry on P.S.'s ability to perceive an event, recall the event, or communicate about it intelligently, or on her ability to understand the duty to tell the truth under oath." Appellant's Brief at 33.

         A. Pre-trial requests for hearing and expert examination

         The gravamen of appellant's first issue is the assertion a pre-trial competency hearing was "required" for the trial court to determine whether an expert's evaluation of P.S. was necessary to assist the court in determining whether she was competent to testify at trial. See Appellant's Brief at 24-28. Appellant alleges such a hearing was necessary and required because P.S. is "significantly mentally disabled, with a full scale I.Q. of only 46." Id. at 24. Thus, appellant insists the trial court erred in denying his pre-trial requests for a competency hearing, related discovery, and evaluation by an expert. Appellant cites to three cases that purportedly support his claim. See Appellant's Brief at 27, citing Commonwealth v. Koehler, 737 A.2d 225, 239 (Pa. 1999), Commonwealth v. Boich, 982 A.2d 102, 109-110 (Pa. Super. 2009) (en banc), and Commonwealth v. Alston, 864 A.2d 539, 549-50 (Pa. Super. 2004) (en banc). The Commonwealth responds the trial court's decision to conduct a competency colloquy during trial, rather than a pre-trial competency hearing was well within its discretion, and its decision should not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of that discretion. In its opinion, the trial court first recognized a witness is presumed to be competent, the determination of competency rests in the sound discretion of the trial court, and then determined P.S. was competent to testify based on its observation and evaluation of her during the competency colloquy conducted outside the presence of the jury at trial. Trial Court Op. at 2-3 (unpaginated original).

         Given the gravamen of appellant's argument is the trial court was required to conduct a pre-trial competency hearing, the cases he cites are inapposite, as none stand for that proposition. In Koehler, the defendant was charged with double murder, and during trial, he requested the court order a Commonwealth witness to undergo a psychiatric evaluation on the basis the witness's perceptions and recollections of the events in question "may have been inaccurate because of her psychiatric instability and/or drug use." 737 A.2d at 239. The trial court denied the request, and in doing so, stated on the record it had observed and heard the witness's lengthy trial testimony and there was nothing that would allow the court to conclude the witness was not competent "in her ability to observe, her ability to recall, and her ability to relate events[.]" Id. On direct appeal, Koehler claimed the trial court erred in denying his request. This Court noted determinations of testimonial competency rest in the trial court's sound discretion, and the court is under "no obligation to order an investigation of the competency of a witness unless the court has some doubt from having observed the witness." Id., citing Commonwealth v. Counterman, 719 A.2d 284, 295 (Pa. 1998). The Court noted competency is presumed, the burden of proving incompetency rests on the challenging party, and in order to be competent, a witness must have the ability "to (1) perceive an event with a substantial degree of accuracy, (2) remember it and (3) communicate about it intelligibly (4) mindful of his or her duty to tell the truth under oath." Id. (citation omitted). Recognizing the trial court's observations of the witness led it to conclude she was competent to testify, this Court determined "we discern absolutely no abuse of discretion in the refusal of the trial court to order that this witness undergo psychiatric evaluation." Id.

         In Boich, the Commonwealth appealed an order entered by the trial court granting a rape defendant's pre-trial motion to direct the alleged victim-witness to undergo an involuntary psychiatric examination "for purposes of deciding her competency to testify at trial." 982 A.2d at 104. An en banc panel of the Superior Court reversed. Pertinent to the instant case, the appellate court noted, "[a]bove all, given the general presumption of competency of all witnesses, a court ought not to order a competency investigation, unless the court has actually observed the witness testify and still has doubts about the witness'[s] competency." Id. at 109-110. "[A] court ordered, involuntary psychiatric or psychological examination 'should never be the starting point' for a competency evaluation." Id. at 110, citing Alston, 864 A.2d at 549 (additional citation omitted). "Therefore, a court ought not to order an involuntary psychiatric examination of a witness unless the record unequivocally demonstrates a compelling need for the examination." Id. (citation omitted). Moreover, in Alston, an en banc panel of the Superior Court noted, "a plurality of our Supreme Court has concluded that a psychiatric examination of a Commonwealth witness regarding competency may be ordered if a need for the examination is demonstrated." Alston, 864 A.2d at 549, citing Commonwealth v. Garcia, 387 A.2d 46 (Pa. 1978).

         We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the requested pre-trial competency hearing because appellant did not demonstrate a compelling need for it. Appellant's initial motion alleged P.S. had undefined physical and mental handicaps including a learning disability, and characterized her as "a few years behind." See Motion For Competency Hearing And Related Discovery, 3/6/17 at 2, ¶6. Appellant's supplemental motion alleged school records indicated P.S. "possess[ed] a Full Scale I.Q. of 46[.]" Supplemental Motion For Competency Evaluation, 5/17/17 at 1, ¶4. On this basis, the supplemental motion requested the trial court order that P.S. be evaluated by an expert obtained by the defense. However, there is nothing in these assertions showing the necessity for a pre-trial competency hearing or the necessity for evaluation by a psychiatrist or psychologist in lieu of a competency colloquy to be conducted by the court at trial.

         The law is clear that testimonial incompetence does not necessarily follow from intellectual disability, see Commonwealth v. Anderson, 552 A.2d 1064, 1068-69 (Pa. Super. 1988) ("mentally retarded" witness presumed competent to testify), appeal denied 571 A.2d 379 (Pa. 1989), [10] or from insanity or mental illness, see Dowling, 883 A.2d at 577-78, citing Counterman, 719 A.2d at 295. In Counterman, supra, the capital murder defendant, who killed his three children in a house fire, raised a pre-trial challenge to his wife's competency to testify, premised in part on her preliminary hearing testimony, in which she exhibited difficulty in comprehending questions and articulating responses. To support his claim, Counterman sought a court order compelling the release of Mrs. Counterman's psychological treatment records and requested the court order her to undergo a psychiatric examination. At a hearing on the motion, Counterman introduced his wife's school records, which reflected she possessed an I.Q. consistent with a diagnosis of intellectual disability. The trial court denied the requests. On direct appeal, in discussing the propriety of the trial court's denial of the requests, this Court noted the mental competency of all witnesses is presumed and incompetency does not follow from the fact of "mental illness." 719 A.2d at 295. The Court then held, in pertinent part, "Counterman's bare assertions concerning Mrs. Counterman's intelligence and her slowness in responding to questions did not suggest she could not accurately describe the events leading up to the fire. Consequently, the trial court properly exercised its discretion in denying Counterman's request for a competency examination of his wife." Id. at 296.

         A trial court is not required to order a pre-trial competency hearing but may do so in the sound exercise of its discretion. See id. at 295. Here, the chief allegations contained in the pre-trial motions for a competency hearing were P.S.'s alleged learning disability supported by a school record reflecting a below average I.Q. The record is clear the trial court conducted a competency colloquy during trial, outside the presence of the jury, during which it had the opportunity to carefully observe P.S. and consider whether she was, in fact, competent to testify pursuant to the proper legal standard, notwithstanding her physical and intellectual disabilities. Accordingly, we determine the trial court did not err or abuse its discretion in denying appellant's initial and supplemental pre-trial motions seeking a pre-trial competency hearing, discovery and expert evaluation. See e.g., Garcia, 387 A.2d at 55 (trial court did not abuse discretion at defendant's murder trial by failing to hold hearing or order psychiatric examination to determine competency of schizophrenic witness residing in mental hospital).

         B. Colloquy

         Appellant alleges the competency colloquy the court conducted was deficient because it was too "brief" and because "P.S. provided no verbal response to the majority of the questions." Appellant's Brief at 29. Appellant concedes "[P.S.] was able to state her age (17), her grade in school (11th), that if you say something that's not the truth, it would be 'a lie,' and that if the court stated that the DA was wearing a pink suit, that would be 'a lie.'" Id., citing N.T., 6/8/17 at 244-51. Appellant additionally concedes P.S. "[a]fter much prompting," replied in the affirmative when asked if she 1) promised to tell the truth, and 2) would be able to answer questions about what she remembered from the night she was stabbed. Id. Appellant claims, without further explanation, "the bailiff and court reporter were assisting her with every question." Id. at 30. Appellant also alleges P.S. gave vague answers ("kind of" and "sort of") when asked whether she remembered someone coming to her house and doing bad things, and if she could tell time. Id. Appellant also complains the court improperly sustained the Commonwealth's objections to certain questions posed to P.S. by defense counsel.[11] Based on these alleged deficiencies in the colloquy, appellant alleges the trial court's determination P.S. was competent to testify was reversible error, entitling him to a new trial, "at which a proper colloquy of P.S. should be conducted to determine whether she is competent to testify." Id. at 35. Finally, appellant alleges the court's error in finding P.S. competent to testify cannot be dismissed as harmless. Appellant concedes the remaining circumstantial evidence presented against him at trial was significant, but alleges it would have been insufficient to convict him absent the eyewitness identification provided by P.S. Thus, he claims it cannot be said her testimony did not contribute to the verdict.

         The Commonwealth responds "[t]he trial court questioned and received appropriate answers from [P.S.] as to why she was there, her knowledge of the difference between a truth and a lie as well as her duty to tell the truth." Commonwealth's Brief at 15. The Commonwealth asserts the record indicates P.S. was able to understand the questions asked and, despite an observed difficulty in expressing herself, to respond intelligently and appropriately. Moreover, the court properly sustained the Commonwealth's objections "to defense counsel's irrelevant question about a random day of the week, as well as the previously asked and answered question concerning the obligation to tell the truth." Id. at 19. Thus, the Commonwealth maintains the court did not err or abuse its discretion in determining P.S. was competent to testify. Even if the court erred, the error was harmless because P.S.'s identification of appellant was cumulative of the 911 call played for the jury, as well as the testimony of Mrs. Hershey, on-scene paramedics, and PSP troopers who testified at trial they heard P.S. identify appellant as her attacker on the night she was attacked, and there was overwhelming additional circumstantial evidence pointing to appellant's guilt.

         The trial court noted a witness is presumed to be competent, and further noted the burden of proving incompetency rests on the party challenging competency. Trial Court Op. at 2 (unpaginated original), citing Commonwealth v. Goldblum, 447 A.2d 234, 239 (Pa. 1982). The court set forth the four-pronged legal standard upon which to judge a witness's competency. Id., citing Koehler, 737 A.2d at 239. The court observed it questioned P.S., "focusing on her ability to perceive an event, recall the event, communicate about it intelligibly, and her ability to understand the duty to tell the truth[.]" Id. at 2-3. The court added there was no difficulty in understanding P.S., and even though she had some difficulty expressing herself, that difficulty was not an issue as to her competence to testify. The court noted competency determinations rest in the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be reversed absent a flagrant abuse of discretion. Id. at 2, citing Commonwealth v. R.P.S., 737 A.2d 747 (Pa. Super. 1999) (court did not commit flagrant abuse of discretion in determining six-year-old child witness/victim incompetent to testify where witness had no memory of alleged criminal acts committed against him).

         The pertinent Rule of Evidence provides:

Rule 601. Competency
(a) General Rule. Every person is competent to be a witness except as otherwise provided by statute or in these rules.
(b) Disqualification for Specific Defects. A person is incompetent to testify if the court finds that because of a mental condition or immaturity the person:
(1) is, or was, at any relevant time, incapable of perceiving accurately;
(2) is unable to express himself or herself so as to be understood either directly or through an interpreter;
(3) has an impaired memory; or (4)does not sufficiently understand the duty to tell the truth.

Pa.R.E. 601.

         In Anderson, supra, the Superior Court observed although children are presumed competent to testify, "when a proposed witness is under fourteen years of age," the competency investigation "must be more searching in proportion to the proposed witness's chronological immaturity." 552 A.2d at 1068 (citations omitted). The panel went on to hold "the competency considerations applicable to a child witness are also applicable to a retarded adult with the mental capacity of a child[, ]" and "the determination of the trial court regarding the testimonial competency of a mentally retarded person will not be disturbed absent a clear abuse of discretion." Id. The Anderson panel noted, although the intellectually disabled witness in that case "did experience some difficulty in understanding the questions[, ] . . . she unambiguously identified [the appellant] as one of the perpetrators of the crime[.]" Id. at 1069. Ultimately, the intermediate court was "satisfied . . . the trial court conducted its inquiry into the testimonial competence of [the intellectually disabled witness] in a thorough and conscientious manner, . . . [and] did not abuse its discretion" in determining the witness was competent to testify. Id.

         We cited Anderson with approval in Dowling, which involved the trial court's determination an allegedly mentally ill child witness was competent to testify. Although the record showed there were no questions posed of the witness specifically regarding her ability to perceive or recollect past events, we nevertheless observed "a trial court can base its competency determination on criteria other than specifically-targeted questions, criteria such as the witness's demeanor, alertness, thoughtfulness, sincerity and general responses and testimony." Dowling, 883 A.2d at 577, citing Commonwealth v. Hart, 460 A.2d 745, 747 (Pa. 1983) (trial court based competency evaluation on witness's demeanor during voir dire and testimony); Commonwealth v. Short, 420 A.2d 694, 697 (Pa. Super. 1980) (trial court's opportunity to observe demeanor, alertness, thoughtfulness and sincerity of child witness may be more informative than answers child gives to certain questions). Having reviewed the record and all the circumstances, this Court concluded Dowling failed to demonstrate the trial court abused its discretion in finding the challenged witness competent to testify. Id.

         Here, we have similarly reviewed the entire record, including the transcription of P.S.'s responses during the competency colloquy and her trial testimony.[12] We are satisfied the trial court properly conducted its inquiry and committed no abuse of discretion in determining P.S. was competent to testify. Moreover, the Commonwealth's objections to defense questions regarding P.S.'s understanding of what an "oath" is, and what she did "last Monday" were properly sustained. See Commonwealth v. Penn, 439 A.2d 1154, 1158-59 (Pa. 1982) (trial court properly determined twelve-year-old witness was conscious of duty to testify truthfully, "notwithstanding his unfamiliarity with the specific word 'oath'"); Pa.R.E. 402 ("Evidence that is not relevant is not admissible."); Commonwealth v. Laird, 988 A.2d 618, 636 (Pa. 2010) ("the decision to admit or exclude evidence is committed to the trial court's sound discretion and its evidentiary rulings will only be reversed upon a showing that it abused that discretion").

         III. Eyewitness ...

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