Applicability to Mandatory Life Sentence for Simultaneous Offenses and Deaths

Commonwealth v. Coleman, 2021 WL 467585 (Pa. Super. 2021) (unreported), allocatur granted Aug. 11, 2021, appeal docket 88 MAP 2021

Coleman fled from police during a traffic stop, ultimately crashing his car into a Mercedes SUV and a Ford Fusion. All three individuals in the Ford were killed instantly. As a result of the incident, Coleman was convicted of three counts each of Third-Degree Murder. The Commonwealth filed a Notice of Intent to Proceed Under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9715(a), which provides for mandatory life imprisonment for a second or subsequent conviction of Third-Degree Murder. In particular, the Commonwealth asked the sentencing court to sentence Coleman to a term of 20-40 years’ incarceration for his conviction at Count 1 of the Criminal Complaint arising from the death of one of the passengers, and then to apply Section 9715(a) to Coleman’s convictions at Counts 2 and 3 of the Criminal Information arising from the deaths of the remaining two victims. Coleman argued that Section 9715(a) is inapplicable because the deaths caused by him occurred simultaneously and his convictions were “at most minutes apart.” Slip op. at 15. The Commonwealth argued that application of Section 9715(a) was proper based Commonwealth v. Morris, 958 A.2d 569 (Pa. Super. 2008) (en banc) in which Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s application of imposition of a mandatory life sentence where the defendant had been convicted at the same trial of two separate charges of third-degree murder, and sentenced for both convictions at the same sentencing hearing. Opining that the Commonwealth’s argument was “illogical” and “ludicrous,” the trial court refused to apply Section 9715(a) to impose a mandatory life sentence because the deaths and offenses were simultaneous.

The Commonwealth argued that the sentencing court erred when it refused to apply 42 Pa.C.S. § 9715(a) and impose a mandatory sentence of life in accordance with the holding in Morris. Coleman argued that Superior Court should revisit Morris.

Agreeing with the Commonwealth that Morris was dispositive, Superior Court vacated the judgment of sentence and remanded for sentencing in accordance with Section 9715(a). Specifically, the court emphasized the Morris Court’s reasoning that:

Section 9715 specifically focuses upon whether, at the time of sentencing, a defendant has been previously convicted “at any time.” The statute does not state that the two murders must be tried and sentenced separately. Indeed, the plain language of the statute requires that the trial court determine whether a previous conviction exists at the time of sentencing, without giving consideration to when the conviction occurred. Further, the statute does not make any distinction between convictions that arise from a single criminal episode and multiple criminal episodes. We are bound by the unambiguous language of this statute and we cannot insert additional requirements that the legislature has not included.

Slip op at 16-17, quoting Morris, at 581. “Thus,” Superior Court concluded, “notwithstanding the trial court’s conclusion that the Commonwealth’s argument was ‘illogical’ and ‘ludicrous,’ the holding from Morris is controlling and the trial court erred as a matter of law in refusing to apply Section 9715(a).” Slip op. at 17.

In his concurring opinion, Judge Strassburger agreed the issue was controlled by Morris, but believed that case was “wrongly decided”:

I recognize that I am bound by that decision. However, I am not bound to like it. While I would not use such fiery language as the learned trial judge, the Honorable David Cashman, who referred to Morris as ”illogical” and “ludicrous,” I believe it was wrongly decided.

Concurring slip op. at 1-2.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur limited to the following issue:

Should the mandatory sentencing provision of 42 Pa.C.S. §9715(a) apply to a case where the offenses and the deaths were simultaneous?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.