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Posted by on Feb 22, 2017 in Criminal, Direct Capital Review | 0 comments

Com v. Smyrnes: Capital Appeal

The facts in this case are a repeat of those in Com v. Knight, and they are horrific enough not to bear repeating. Smyrnes appears to have been the ringleader of the conspirators described in the previous appeal. As a matter of both practice and public interest, this case hardly warrants a review, as the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reviewed and affirmed all matters of the trial. Indeed, most of the points of review were deemed to have been waived by the Defendant, whose failure to object, and indeed, his endorsement of the trial court’s rulings led the Court to refuse further discussion of most of his objections.

Two points stand out, however: first, the Court takes a moment to caution prosecutors on “the value of restraint in scenarios involving potential prejudice connected with . . . non-essential evidence” such as photographs of victims. Here, the Commonwealth made limited use of a pre-injury photograph of the mentally disabled victim to demonstrate what she looked like before her hair was cut by the defendant.

This portion of the opinion represents a possible refinement on prior caselaw, which held that photographs of a victim may not be entered to prove an uncontested element of a crime, or to demonstrate a “victim’s character or physical abilit[y].” Com v. Rivers, 537 Pa. 394, 406-07 (1994). This is in keeping with Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 403, which requires a balancing of the unfair prejudice created by a piece of evidence with its probative value.

It is plain that the Court did not approve of the use of the photograph in this case, as it “was by no means essential to the prosecution to place this photograph before the jury.” The Court goes on to argue that it “had some relevance,” and to rest its decision on the Commonwealth’s “limited use” of the photo. Of course, “relevance” is only a baseline of admissibility under Pa.R.E. 402, and Rule 403’s balancing test is left unaddressed by the Court. It is hard to see how a photograph was necessary to prove that the victim’s hair was cut during the torture sequence preceding her murder, and a photograph proving that she once had long hair could hardly be argued to be probative. The Court more properly should have ruled this an error, but ruled it harmless and unprejudicial to the defense; however, the Court appears to be squeamish about admitting even a minor fault in a death penalty case that it has no intention of remanding for a new trial.

Second, the Defendant raised a novel argument that the aggravating factor of a murder “committed by means of torture” in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(8) could not be imputed to a conspirator who was not the “instrumentality of death.” The Defendant was found vicariously responsible for murder by virtue of his encouragement of the others, his leadership in the conspiracy to murder, and his malicious state of mind. But while the Defendant participated in the acts of torture, he did not give the final blows of the knife that killed the victim, and argued he could not properly be attributed with the aggravating circumstance of torture for the purpose of reaching a death penalty verdict. The Court notes that, although the active voice is required elsewhere in the aggravating factors statute, the passive voice referring to an offense “committed by means of torture” clearly demonstrates the propriety of the torture aggravator even when the Defendant was not the physical murderer.

Capital Appeals are statutorily-required of the Commonwealth’s High Court, to ensure that a sentence is not “the product of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor,” and to ensure that the aggravating factors were properly found by the jury. 42. Pa.C.S. § 9711(h)(3). The resulting opinions rarely make for interesting reading or for novel caselaw, but they serve an important role in ensuring the justice of executions.

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