Character Evidence • Motive • Mitigation • Victim Impact Testimony

Commonwealth v. Hairston, PICS Case No. 14-0132 (Pa. Jan. 21, 2014) Baer, J. (36 pages).

Defendant was convicted of two counts of murder in April 2002 and sentenced to death on each conviction. He made several claims of error relating to his convictions and sentence. The court affirmed judgment of sentence.

In May 2000, defendant was arrested for assaulting his step-daughter. Following his arrest, defendant threatened to kill himself and his family if his step-daughter persisted in pressing charges. Prior to that trial, firefighters responded to a fire in defendant’s home. They found defendant’s wife dead from blunt force trauma to the head. His son survived the fire but later died at the hospital. Firefighters found defendant in the home with self-inflicted puncture wounds to the neck and chest. Defendant was charged with two counts of criminal homicide in the death of his wife and son. He was convicted and sentenced to death on both counts.

Defendant argued admission of evidence of arson was improper and the trial court failed to balance whether the probative value of that evidence outweighed the potential for unfair prejudice. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing testimony about the fire. Evidence of other crimes may be used to show motive or intent. Defendant made no pre-trial objection to the arson evidence, nor did he object when the first witness testified regarding the fire. The trial court had also given a limiting instruction that evidence pertaining to the arson was admitted only to establish defendant’s state of mind and not his character.

At trial, defendant requested a jury instruction regarding second degree murder for the killing of another while engaged in the commission of a felony. The trial court refused to provide this jury instruction because it determined there was no evidence to show that the murders were incidental to the act of arson.

Defendant claimed the trial court erred in admitting evidence that he had previously been arrested for attempting to rape his step-daughter. The trial court gave a limiting instruction that evidence of the assault was purely to establish a motive for the homicides. The court found no abuse of discretion in allowing this evidence at trial because it went to defendant’s motive, which is admissible.

During the penalty phase, defendant argued the trial court erred in allowing testimony by a person who was not a member of the victims’ family. A family friend testified about the impact of the murders on the family. The court found this individual offered insight into the effect of the murders on the family and the trial court did not err in allowing such testimony.

Defendant argued he should have been able to introduce mitigating evidence that his wife visited him while he was in jail on charges for assaulting her daughter. The court held defendant’s speculation about the victim’s motives in visiting him at the jail did not establish anything about defendant’s character. The trial court did not err in excluding this evidence.

Defendant also claimed the commonwealth failed to give notice of aggravating circumstances involving the assault conviction, but the court found no abuse of discretion because defendant had constructive notice.