Sufficiency of Evidence • Manslaughter • Self Defense • Mutually Inconsistent Inferences • Conflicting Testimony

Commonwealth v. Gesslein, PICS Case No. 14-0361 (C.P. Lehigh Dec. 20, 2014), Steinberg, J. (34 pages).

The court of common pleas granted defendant a new trial after he was convicted of manslaughter because there were two equally and mutually inconsistent inferences that could be drawn from the evidence and, thus, the commonwealth failed to disprove defendant’s self-defense claim. Affirmance recommended.

Defendant, Andrew Gesslien, was working as a security guard at the North End Republican Club in the early morning hours of April 29, 2012, when he shot and killed Michael Randolph. There was no dispute that Randolph barged into the club after being denied admittance several times. Defendant asserted self-defense at a criminal trial.

A jury found defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter. After sentencing, defendant moved for a new trial, which motion the court of common pleas granted. The commonwealth filed an appeal, prompting the court’s opinion. The commonwealth argued that the court abused its discretion when it found that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence.

The court noted that a new trial should not be granted because of a mere conflict of testimony or because the judge, on the same facts, would have arrived at a different conclusion. “Rather, the role of the trial judge is to determine that notwithstanding all the facts, certain facts are so clearly of greater weight that to ignore them or to give them equal weight with all the facts is to deny justice.”

On the night in question, defendant denied Randolph permission to enter the club based on an incident from the night before, when Randolph was screaming obscenities and swinging a beer bottle. When Randolph arrived the next night, defendant denied him permission to enter the club. Randolph became irate and made verbal threats at defendant.

Eventually, Randolph “flung the door” out of defendant’s hand and, with three friends, rushed the club door. Defendant and Randolph became involved in a physical altercation. When defendant extricated himself from Randolph, he backed away and saw Randolph reaching into his waistband. “When he reached into his waistband, as his hand was coming up, I seen the black handle of a firearm[,]” defendant stated. He then drew and fired his gun at Randolph.

The commonwealth was required to prove the elements of the charge of voluntary manslaughter and bore the burden of disproving defendant’s self-defense claim beyond a reasonable doubt. According to the commonwealth, defendant did not reasonably believe that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.

The court found it clear that defendant’s use of deadly force was dependent upon whether Randolph had a firearm in his possession and reached for it during the confrontation. The focal point of the commonwealth’s evidence was that no forearm was recovered from Randolph’s body by police.

Sergeant Alicia Conjuor, one of the first officers to respond to the scene, observed Randolph on the ground in the club. She stated that a large crowd, which she described as “generally hostile to the police,” had gathered. Police were needed to get the crowd back so emergency personnel could assist Randolph. Conjuor’s entire shift of 14 officers responded. Conjuor testified that she did not encounter any cooperative witnesses and that her questions were met with expletives.

The court found that two equally reasonably and mutually inconsistent inferences could be drawn from the evidence: either Randolph did not possess a firearm or, in the “morass of hostility,” the firearm was spirited away from the scene. When two equally reasonable and mutually inconsistent inferences can be drawn from the same set of circumstances, a jury must not be permitted to guess which inferences it will adopt, the court explained.

The court found that the commonwealth’s inference that Randolph did not have a firearm was crippled by an equally and mutually inconsistent inference and by the absence of any witnesses to support it. None of Randolph’s friends were presented as witnesses. Moreover, defendant’s detailed account of his confrontation with Randolph was corroborated by two other witnesses.

The only witness to deny that there was a physical altercation between defendant and Randolph was a man named Miguel Gomes. The court found that Gomes’s testimony was subject to the incontrovertible physical facts rule, which holds that where the testimony of a witness is contradicted by incontrovertible physical facts, the testimony of such a witness cannot be accepted and a verdict based on it will not be sustained.

Based on certain physical evidence, including the location of shell casings, the court found that the version of events as told by Gomes was a “work of fiction.” The court decided to grant a new trial due to the extraordinary circumstances, including the commonwealth’s decision to rely Gomes, whose testimony was intentionally distorted. This case did not involve a mere conflict of testimony, but a verdict so contrary to the evidence as to the shock the court’s sense of justice. As such, the court recommended affirmance.