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Commonwealth v. Knox

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

September 12, 2019


          Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence March 2, 2018 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-51-CR-0011694-2015

          BEFORE: LAZARUS, J., McLAUGHLIN, J., and STEVENS, P.J.E. [*]


          McLAUGHLIN, J.

         Leonard Knox appeals from the judgment of sentence entered following his jury trial convictions for third-degree murder and possessing instruments of crime ("PIC").[1] Knox challenges the denial of his motion to suppress, the sufficiency and weight of the evidence, and the discretionary aspects of his sentence. We affirm.

         Following the shooting death in November 2014 of Knox's stepbrother, Desmond Sinkler ("victim"), Knox accompanied Philadelphia police to a police station. The officers read him his Miranda[2] rights, and he signed a form waiving them and gave a statement. They subsequently charged Knox in the killing. Between December 2014 and September 2017, the court found Knox incompetent to stand trial five times. However, in August 2016, correctional officers observed that Knox "communicated effectively, appropriately and directly with other inmates and on the phone with relatives." N.T. Sentencing, 3/2/18 at 18. Mental health evaluators determined that Knox was competent to stand trial and had been malingering with respect to his mental health.

         Knox then filed a motion in December 2017 to suppress his statement to the police, alleging that he did not knowingly waive his Miranda rights because he was mentally ill and could not properly understand the rights he was waiving. Motion to Suppress, filed 9/24/17. The Commonwealth presented the following unchallenged evidence at the suppression hearing.

         On the day after the shooting, Detective John Harkins and Detective James Burns went to Knox's address. N.T. Suppression, 12/15/17 at 9. Knox willingly went to the Homicide Unit with police and they informed him of his Miranda rights, reading them from a standard form. Id. at 11-16. Detective Harkins testified that Knox expressed that he understood his rights and was willing to talk with the detectives without an attorney present. Id. at 16-17. He then told Detective Harkins that he was inside the bar when somebody broke his window and was not present when the shooting occurred. Id. at 20.

         While Knox was at the Homicide Unit, officers executed a search warrant on his home and car and found bloody clothing in his bedroom. Id. at 23-24. Detective Harkins confronted Knox with this new information, and Knox told him he "did it and he agreed to tell the truth." Id. at 24. Knox then changed his story, apologized for not being truthful, and was read his Miranda rights again. Id. at 33. He again waived his right to an attorney and gave a statement claiming self-defense.

         During both instances of questioning, Knox repeatedly asserted that he understood the Miranda rights that he was waiving and initialed forms indicating as much. Id. at 27-29. During questioning, Detective Harkins offered him bathroom breaks, food, and water. Id. 37-38. Detective Harkins explicitly asked Knox if he had any difficulty understanding him during the questioning and Knox answered in the negative. The detective testified that he asked, "Leonard, I also notice at times that you speak with a pronounced stutter. Do you have any difficulty understanding me?" Id. at 46. He said that Knox replied, "No, I just stutter a lot sometimes." Id.

         Detective Harkins also asked Knox if he was under the influence of any drugs, alcohol, or prescription medication during the questioning. Knox responded: "I take prescription medicine. I take something for acid reflux, and I take Lizapan for bipolar disorder. I can understand you fine, though." Id. at 32.

         The trial court determined that Knox had made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver. Id. at 50-55. The court consequently denied the motion to suppress and the case proceeded to trial.

         The evidence at trial was as follows. In November 2014, Knox and the victim drove separately to a bar where the victim worked. On the way, Knox picked up a woman named Sophia. When they arrived at the bar, the victim purchased a drink for Sophia, while Knox had his own drink. Knox and Sophia eventually returned to Knox's car. At that time, the bar was closed but some people remained inside. Outside, three gunshots rang out and the bar's occupants ran outside and found the victim bleeding on the ground. Medical practitioners at Temple University Hospital pronounced the victim dead at 2:58 a.m. Officer Raymond Andrejczak, who testified as an expert in ballistics identification, said that the three bullets found in the victim were 32-caliber bullets. N.T. Trial, 12/18/17 at 264.

         On the night of the shooting, the victim's cousin, Termaine Heard-Blackwell, informed police at the hospital that Knox owned a .32-caliber revolver. Id. at 205-206. Blackwell testified that the victim did not carry a gun. Id. at 216. The victim's girlfriend, Trayeisha Smith, testified that she was at Knox's home the night before the shooting and she witnessed Knox remove a revolver from his pants. N.T. Trial, 12/19/17 at 53. She also testified that Knox had carried a gun in the past. Id. Knox's sister, Sarah Knox, testified that Knox did not carry a gun. Id. at 172.

         The medical examiner, Dr. Albert Chu, testified that the victim suffered from three fatal gunshot wounds in the chest. N.T. Trial, 12/18/17 at 138-144. There were also wounds to the victim's forearm, thigh, and lower jaw. Id. at 144-146. Dr. Chu noted that there was no evidence of a close-range shot. Id. at 141-142.

         Knox did not testify. The Commonwealth admitted into evidence Knox's statement to police, in which he claimed he shot the victim in self-defense as the victim kicked out the front window of his car and attempted to assault him. Id. at 92-103. In that statement, Knox claimed that he pulled the gun from the victim's waistband and shot the victim with the victim's own gun. Id.

         The jury found Knox guilty of third-degree murder and PIC. The trial court sentenced Knox to 20 to 40 years' incarceration for third-degree murder and imposed no further penalty for the PIC conviction. Knox filed a post-sentence motion, which the trial court denied, and this timely appeal followed.

         Knox raises the following claims on appeal:

(1) Did the trial court err in denying the motion to suppress [Knox's] statement?
(2) Was the evidence insufficient to sustain a conviction for Third-Degree Murder and Conspiracy to Commit Robbery?[3]
(3) Were the verdicts for both counts against the clear weight of the evidence?
(4) Did the trial court abuse its discretion by sentencing [Knox] to twenty (20) to forty (40) years['] imprisonment?

Knox's Br. at 5.

         I. Motion to Suppress

         Knox contends that the suppression court erred in denying his motion to suppress. He claims that because he was found incompetent one month after his statement to police, "[i]t is clear that [Knox] did not properly understand his Constitutional rights[, ]" and therefore the trial court should have suppressed his written statement. Knox's Br. at 12. He thereby claims that his Miranda waiver was not valid. Id. at 11. Knox also asserts that the trial court "exhibited clear prejudice against [him]." Id. at 12.

         Our standard of review of the denial of a motion to suppress is limited to determining if the record supports the suppression court's factual findings and if the legal conclusions drawn from those facts are correct. See Commonwealth v. Hoppert, 39 A.3d 358, 361 (Pa.Super. 2012) (quoting Commonwealth v. Jones, 988 A.2d 649, 654 (Pa. 2010)). Here, the Commonwealth prevailed before the suppression court, so "we may consider only the evidence of the Commonwealth and so much of the evidence for the defense as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the record as a whole." Jones, 988 A.2d at 654. Where the record supports the suppression court's factual findings, "we are bound by these findings and may reverse only if the court's legal conclusions are erroneous." Id.

         When determining the validity of a Miranda waiver, we employ a two-step inquiry. We first ask whether the waiver was voluntary in the sense of being the result of an intentional choice on the part of a defendant who was not subject to undue government pressure. Commonwealth v. Mitchell, 105 A.3d 1257, 1268 (Pa. 2014) (citing Commonwealth v. Logan, 549 A.2d 531, 537 (Pa. 1988) (opinion announcing the judgment of the Court)). If we conclude the waiver was voluntary, we then ask if the defendant was aware of the nature of the choice that he made by giving up his Miranda rights, i.e., whether it was ...

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