Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Coleman, holding that a criminal defendant who kills three people during the same incident and is then convicted of third degree murder for each killing is subject to the mandatory life without parole sentencing enhancement that applies for multiple convictions for third degree murder. Many statutes that impose enhanced sentences for subsequent offenses require that the offenses take place at different times, but the Supreme Court has held that killing more than one person and then getting convicted of life without parole requires a mandatory life sentence pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S. § 9715(a).

The facts of Commonwealth v. Coleman

Police observed the defendant make an illegal left turn in a white Hyundai. They approached the vehicle when it stopped at a gas station. The defendant did not have a driver’s license, and when additional officers arrived as backup, the defendant fled in the vehicle. This led to a high-speed chase. The defendant eventually crashed the Hyundai into two vehicles at an intersection. The force of the impact caused the vehicle to explode into flames, killing all three occupants of one of the vehicles instantly. Prosecutors charged the defendant with three counts of murder.

At trial, the defendant was convicted of three counts murder in the third degree, amongst other charges. Before sentencing the Commonwealth filed a notice of intent to proceed under Section 9715(a) of the Sentencing Code. The trial court declined to apply the sentencing enhancement and instead imposed consecutive terms of 20 to 40 years of incarceration for each of the defendant’s third-degree murder convictions. The defendant was ultimately sentenced to an aggregate term of 70 to 140 years of incarceration.

The Appeal

 The Commonwealth appealed, arguing that the statute requires life imprisonment even where a defendant commits multiple counts of third degree murder at the same time but did not have any prior convictions for murder.

Section 9715 of the Sentencing Code, entitled “Life imprisonment for homicide,” provides:

(a) Mandatory life imprisonment.–Notwithstanding the provisions of section 9712 (relating to sentences for offenses committed with firearms), 9713 (relating to sentences for offenses committed on public transportation) or 9714 (relating to sentences for second and subsequent offenses), any person convicted of murder of the third degree in this Commonwealth who has previously been convicted at any time of murder or voluntary manslaughter in this Commonwealth or of the same or substantially equivalent crime in any other jurisdiction shall be sentenced to life imprisonment, notwithstanding any other provision of this title or other statute to the contrary. 

The trial court wrote an opinion in which it argued thatSection 9715(a) was a recidivist sentencing statute and that the defendant was not a recidivist because, while he had been convicted of three counts of criminal homicide, he had never “previously” committed criminal homicide.

 

Both parties appealed to the Superior Court. The Superior Court ruled in favor of the Commonwealth. The Court found that the defendant should have been sentenced to life without parole. The Superior Court concluded that the defendant’s third-degree murder conviction at Count 1 of the Criminal Information constituted a prior conviction for purposes of applying Section 9715(a) when sentencing him for his convictions of third-degree murder at Counts 2 and 3 of the Criminal Information. The Superior Court therefore remanded the case for the trial court to sentence the defendant to life without parole.

The defendant filed a petition for allowance of appeal to the Supreme Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to review the case. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to resolve the following issue:

Should the mandatory sentencing provision of 9715(a) apply to a case where the offenses and the deaths were simultaneous?

The Defendant argued that Section 9715 of the Sentencing Code should not be construed to apply to a case such as this one, where a single course of conduct caused multiple, instantaneous, simultaneous deaths and the convictions at issue were, at most, minutes apart. The term “previous” in the code is meant to refer to a prior conviction outside the current matter. The Commonwealth focused on principles of statutory construction and Section 9715(a)’s use of the phrase “previously been convicted at any time.” They further argued that the phrase should be interpreted literally, meaning that there is no previous conviction too remote, nor too recent, to be exempt from the rule.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decided with the Commonwealth. The Court ruled that § 9715 of the applies under these circumstances. § 9715(a) provides that any person convicted of third-degree murder in this Commonwealth who has previously been convicted at any time of murder must receive an enhanced sentence. The statute does not define any of the terms in this operative phrase. Giving the most pertinent terms their plain and ordinary meaning, the term “at any time,” the General Assembly made clear that there is no limitation relative to a person’s previous conviction that would preclude application of the sentencing enhancement insofar as it concerns § 9715(a). Thus, § to Section 9715(a), so long as a person convicted of third-degree murder has previously been convicted of murder at any point in time, the sentencing enhancement applies to that person.

The Supreme Court, therefore, affirmed the Superior Court’s ruling to vacate defendant’s judgment of sentence and remand for resentencing in accordance with § 9715.

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