Comm. v. Fitzpatrick, 2018 PA Super 55 (Mar. 14, 2018)

This appeal was an appeal out of Philadelphia.  On August 14, 2015, a judgment of sentence had been entered against Fitzpatrick after a jury had convicted him of first-degree murder and third-degree murder of an unborn child.  Fitzpatrick had provided two signed statements to police admitting that he had shot Tiffany Gillespie in the head.

Before trial, Fitzpatrick challenged his statements to the police as being involuntary, the product of police coercion and physical force.  The trial court, believing the testimony of the police over Fitzpatrick about how his statements were obtained, allowed the statements into evidence.  Subsequently, the case proceeded to trial and Fitzpatrick was convicted of the above-mentioned homicide counts among others.  Accordingly, the court imposed two life sentences to run concurrent with one another.  Specifically, with regard to the third-degree-murder charge of an unborn child, the law required a mandatory life sentence since Fitzpatrick had, in this case, also acquired another murder conviction.

Following the sentence, while Fitzpatrick had not filed a post-sentence motion, he did file a timely notice of appeal, which was docketed in 2015.  While that appeal was pending, on April 21, 2016, the trial court, on its own, modified Fitzpatrick’s sentence for the third-degree-murder conviction and imposed a 20-to-40 year term of imprisonment to run concurrently with the life term.  Though the trial court had not provided a reason for this change, the Superior Court noted that it had decided on October 5, 2015 that third-degree murder of an unborn child did not trigger a mandatory life sentence under the law.  That case was Commonwealth v. Haynes, 125 A.3d 800 (Pa. Super. 2015).

Provided the trial court’s amended sentencing order, Fitzpatrick filed a new appeal from that order on May 10, 2016.  In both appeals, albeit at separate dockets, Fitzpatrick raised the following issues: 1) whether the trial court erred in allowing in his statements, and 2) whether the evidence was against the sufficiency of the evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Before addressing the issues, the Superior Court addressed the question of whether the trial court had jurisdiction to modify its original sentencing order.  Generally, a court may modify or rescind any order within 30 days of entry “if no appeal from such order has been taken or allowed.”  42 Pa.C.S. § 5505.  Here, of course, Fitzpatrick had taken an appeal well before the trial court modify his original sentencing order. The Superior Court noted, however, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Curt held that Section 5505 “does not impinge on a trial court’s inherent power to correct patent errors despite the lack of traditional jurisdiction.”  In the case of Commonwealth v. Holmes, 933 A.2d 57 (Pa. 2007), the Supreme Court approved of the trial court’s initiative to correct an illegal sentence despite the fact that the defendant had already taken an appeal. Thus, since the trial court was merely modifying Fitzpatrick’s sentence to comply with what the Superior Court held in Haynes, which was decided after Fitzpatrick’s sentence, the Superior Court held that there was no error.  Accordingly, the initial appeal was dismissed as moot, and the the Superior Court turned to address the issues raised on the most recently filed appeal.

In that regard, the issues were disposed of quickly.  The suppression issue was upheld due to the trial court’s credibility findings.  Since the trial court believed the police over Fitzpatrick regarding what transpired in taking his statements, the Superior Court noted it was bound to accept the trial court’s credibility findings.

In regard to the sufficiency claim, the Superior Court’s take on this issue was more interesting.  Consider the following:

In his second issue, [Fitzpatrick] purports to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions.  Specifically, he contends: “If the Superior Court rules that [my] statements were involuntary then the verdict is against the sufficiency of the evidence.”  In making his conditional argument, [Fitzpatrick] concedes that “as it stands, from the trial the evidence is sufficient based on all inferences in favor of the verdict winner.”

The Commonwealth responds that [Fitzpatrick’s] argument does not present a proper sufficiency claim, where the sufficiency of the evidence is not assessed on a diminished record, but rather on all the evidence presented at trial. . . . We agree.  [Fitzpatrick] concedes that there was sufficient evidence to support his convictions.

Accordingly, the Superior Court upheld Fitzpatrick’s convictions and modified sentence.