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Commonwealth v. Hernandez

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 21, 2019

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
JOSE E. HERNANDEZ, Appellant

          Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence Entered June 27, 2018, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No. CP-51-CR-0603151-1988

          BEFORE: BENDER, P.J.E., LAZARUS, J., AND FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

          OPINION

          FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

         Jose E. Hernandez appeals from the June 27, 2018 judgment of sentence of four concurrent terms of 45 years' to life imprisonment imposed after a jury found him guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of possessing instruments of crime ("PIC").[1] After careful review, we affirm the judgment of sentence.

         A prior panel of this court summarized the relevant facts of this case as follows:

Appellant's[2] next door neighbor, Jerome Moses, testified that on March 14, 1988, he heard loud scuffling noises between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m. in the Hernandez apartment. As these noises continued, he heard Carmen Hernandez, appellant's stepmother, say three times, "I love you." He then heard three or four popping noises that sounded like a cap gun. Subsequently, Mr. Moses did not hear any more voices, but he did hear dragging sounds and noises resembling objects being replaced. He then heard somebody leave the apartment. When he looked out of the window, he saw one man get into the Hernandez family van. Mr. Moses originally thought that the man was appellant's father, since the individual was wearing Mr. Hernandez's jacket and since only the father drove the van. Once he learned that the father was dead, the witness then concluded that the man must have been appellant.
During the next week, friends, neighbors, and relatives became concerned about the Hernandez family since they had not been seen and since both of their vehicles were not in their normal parking places. Telephone calls to the apartment were not answered. Meanwhile, appellant decided to stay at his girlfriend's house, and he told her mother that he was alone since his family suddenly left without telling him or taking him with them. However, the family had not told anyone about these travel plans. Appellant attended school regularly during the week, took his girlfriend on a shopping spree, and moved a VCR and other valuable items out of his family's apartment and into his girlfriend's house. His girlfriend commented on numerous deep scratches on appellant's chest[, ] which he explained had been inflicted during a recent robbery.
Eventually, appellant was questioned in school by his parent[s'] friends and relatives concerning his family's whereabouts. He escorted them back to the apartment and allowed them to enter. When asked about blood stains on the sofa, appellant replied that the stains were Carmen's blood. When questioned about why the bathroom door was locked, the fan on, and a towel under the door, he had no explanation. Appellant fled when the bathroom door was broken down and the bodies of his father, stepmother, and two younger brothers were found in the bathtub. The bodies were encased in plastic bags and covered with towels. It was determined that both parents had been shot in the back of the head, one brother had been asphyxiated with a plastic bag over his head, and another brother had his skull crushed.
Appellant fled Pennsylvania in his father's Honda. He reached Florida and then headed west through Tennessee. Tennessee State Troopers Richard Austin and Joel Deal observed appellant's Honda parked in a rest stop. Several hours later, the officers observed appellant's Honda parked in the same place at the rest stop. Trooper Austin watched appellant get out of his automobile, stretch, and put on a long coat. Since the weather was warm, Trooper Austin became suspicious. He ran a computer check on appellant's license plate number which revealed that appellant was wanted in Pennsylvania in connection with multiple homicides, that the occupant of the Honda matched the description of the suspect, and that appellant was presumed armed and dangerous. The troopers returned to the rest stop, surprised appellant in the restaurant, and arrested him.
The troopers then asked for appellant's license and identification. Police retrieved these items after appellant indicated that they were in his wallet in his back pocket. When the troopers requested the keys to the Honda, appellant indicated they were in his coat pocket. Trooper Deal reached in and took the keys and handed them to Trooper Austin. Trooper Austin inspected the car, unlocked it, and retrieved a letter sitting on the car seat in plain view. The letter was written by appellant, and in it, he informed his girlfriend that he had killed his family, was proud of it, and felt better. The troopers then locked the car, made arrangements to have it towed, read appellant his Miranda[3] rights, and transported him to the nearest police station.
At trial, appellant alleged that he killed his father in self-defense and that his father continually abused him. He claimed his father was angry that appellant's stepmother again became pregnant and that his father frequently threatened to leave her or to kill the whole family. In fact, appellant alleged that his father was jealous and suspected him of impregnating his stepmother. Appellant produced witnesses who substantiated that his father beat him, was having marital discord, and had been seen by one of them threatening appellant by putting a gun to his head. Appellant's specific defense to the charges of first[-]degree murder was that his father had returned home in a drunken rage and forced appellant to kill the others. His father then made him clean the apartment. Later, in the car, his father again threatened him, but appellant was able to shoot his father. Appellant argued that the evidence supported this version of events since the blood-stained seats in the car matched only his father's blood type. The Commonwealth refuted this evidence by proving that the barrel of the murder weapon contained only the blood type[, ] which matched his stepmother, but not his father. Thus, appellant's stepmother[, ] rather than his father[, ] was the last one to be shot with that gun.

Commonwealth v. Hernandez, 590 A.2d 325, 326-328 (Pa.Super. 1991), appeal denied, 600 A.2d 534 (Pa. 1991).

         The sentencing court summarized the relevant procedural history of this case as follows:

On January 25, 1990, after a jury trial before the Honorable Eugene H. Clarke, a jury convicted [appellant] of four counts of First-Degree Murder and [PIC]. On that same date, [the trial court] sentenced [appellant] to two consecutive and two concurrent terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the First-Degree Murder convictions, ...

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