Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Probably Not Impending Execution of Ralph Birdsong

Ralph Birdsong sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Pennsylvania. His execution is currently scheduled for 17 January. Though it is likely his execution will be stayed, I will nonetheless review his case in this post. I offer the following summary from the adverse appeal in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Ralph Birdsong. To improve the readability, I have excluded the legal references and I have changed most instances of Appellant to Birdsong.
Appellant, Ralph Birdsong, was convicted of two counts of first degree murder, possession of an instrument of crime, six counts of aggravated assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, rape, and criminal conspiracy on October 27, 1989, following a consolidated bench trial before the Honorable Juanita Kidd Stout. A separate penalty hearing was held, and the trial court found two aggravating circumstances: that Birdsong "ha[d] a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence to the person" and that Birdsong "ha[d] been convicted of another murder, committed . . . at the time of the offense at issue." No mitigating circumstances were found, and ... the trial judge sentenced Birdsong to death for the first degree murder conviction. In addition, the trial judge sentenced Birdsong to a consecutive term of fifty-two and one-half (52½) to one hundred five (105) years of imprisonment for the other convictions stemming from the incident which occurred on July 17, 1988. Thereafter, the trial court heard and denied Birdsong's post-trial motions. 
Birdsong does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence; however, we have independently reviewed the record to determine the sufficiency of the evidence supporting Birdsong's conviction consistent with our obligation in a case in which the death penalty has been imposed. ... The test for determining the sufficiency of the evidence is whether, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner and drawing all proper inferences favorable to the Commonwealth, the trier of fact could reasonably have determined all elements of the crime to have been established beyond a reasonable doubt. 
On July 17, 1988, Birdsong and his brother, Anthony Birdsong, went to a residence located at 5723 North 17th Street. Birdsong entered the residence while Anthony remained outside. The Commonwealth presented the testimony of several eyewitnesses who saw Birdsong commit the crimes on the day in question. 
Gregory Johnson, who lived at 5723 North 17th Street, testified that he was seated at the dining room table ingesting crack cocaine in the early morning hours of July 17, 1988. Hassan Holmes and Kim Glenn were also present. The doorbell rang, and Holmes arose and observed through a window that Birdsong, also known as "Hakeem," was at the front door. At that point, Johnson arose from the table to admit Birdsong, whom he had known for ten years. Birdsong then entered the house, walked by Johnson, turned around, and shot Johnson in the back of the head with a shotgun. Although the impact of the shotgun blast caused Johnson to fall to the floor, he was nevertheless able to get up and run out of the house. 
Hassan Holmes corroborated the testimony of Johnson by identifying Birdsong as the person who rang the doorbell on July 17, 1988. Holmes assumed that Birdsong wished to purchase drugs from Johnson, who was a dealer. After seeing Johnson shot, Holmes attempted to flee to the basement, but Birdsong intercepted him and shot him in the shoulder. Holmes then heard James Bagwell, who was sleeping on the living room couch, get off the couch and attempt to flee to the basement. However, Birdsong intercepted Bagwell and fatally wounded him as he ran down the stairs. Shortly thereafter, Holmes managed to flee from the house. 
Additionally, Andre Kinard testified that he saw Birdsong shoot Bagwell in the head as Bagwell was running down the basement stairs attempting to flee. Kinard then tried to flee, but Birdsong shot him as well. 
Kim Glenn also testified that Birdsong, whom she had known for one and one-half years, rang the doorbell that morning. Glenn was able to identify Birdsong because she had sold drugs for him in the past. Glenn hid under the dining room table as Birdsong proceeded to shoot Johnson, Holmes, and Bagwell. When Birdsong went upstairs, Glenn hid under a mattress in the front of the house. From there she heard a second man enter the house and warn Birdsong about the police. 
The Commonwealth presented the testimony of Monroe Clark, who testified that he was in the second floor bedroom with Gloria Pannell when Birdsong kicked in the bedroom door. Birdsong fired shots, but missed Clark. Birdsong's shots hit Pannell. After leaving the room for a brief instant, Birdsong reentered the room and fatally shot Pannell while standing over her as Clark hid in the bedroom closet.
Fifteen-year old Quinzell Pannell testified that he, his brother Albert, and his sister Yiana were in another bedroom when Birdsong entered and struck them repeatedly with the butt of his gun. After beating the children, Birdsong then directed them into another bedroom. On the way, Birdsong struck Quinzell in the back of the head causing Quinzell to fall to the floor. Next, Birdsong took Albert out of the room and shot him. Birdsong then returned, stated "I am going to rape you, bitch," and took Yiana out of the room. 
Yiana corroborated the testimony of Quinzell. She also testified that Birdsong forced her out of the house and across the street to a park where he proceeded to rape and sodomize her. By stipulation, the results of the rape kit taken at the hospital were admitted, showing the presence of sperm in Yiana's vagina and rectum. 
Albert Jones testified that Birdsong, whom he had known for sixteen years, showed up at Jones' apartment in the early morning hours of July 17, 1988, with blood on his hands and the back of his legs. Birdsong then requested a ride to pick up his car and Jones assented. When the two arrived at the driveway where Birdsong's truck was located, they were stopped by Detective Thomas Augustine. 
Detective Augustine testified that when he stopped Jones, the passenger in Jones' car, who was later identified as Birdsong, looked very nervous. Detective Augustine noticed a jacket under the passenger seat, picked it up, and felt a magazine from a gun. When Detective Augustine asked whose jacket it was, Birdsong admitted it was his, but fled the scene when Detective Augustine indicated that he would like the two men to come with him. Through continued questioning of the driver, Detective Augustine adduced that the passenger was Birdsong. Additionally, upon further investigation, the detective discerned that the jacket contained an empty magazine from a .45 caliber handgun. 
Birdsong disappeared from Philadelphia and was subsequently arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on November 14, 1988. 
The parties stipulated that the jacket recovered from Jones' automobile was stained with human blood. It was further stipulated that Gloria Pannell and James Bagwell died of multiple gunshot wounds. Finally, it was stipulated that Albert Pannell suffered a gunshot wound to the back of the head which rendered him permanently disabled and confined to a wheelchair. 
Clearly, the evidence introduced at trial, viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth as verdict winner and drawing all proper inferences favorable to the Commonwealth, was sufficient for the trier of fact to reasonably have determined all elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
I find no one, not even Ralph Birdsong, claiming that he is factually innocent of the crimes. While I vehemently oppose the execution of someone who might reasonably be factually innocent of the crime for which they are to die, I neither oppose nor support executions in which the person clearly committed the crime. In the case of Ralph Birdsong, I therefore stand mute with respect the propriety of his execution.


Anonymous said...

When is this god-damned mother fucker going to be executed? It pisses me off that PA residents have to pay for this animal's food, clothing and shelter for almost 30 years. He did it, ok? He fucking murdered people. Send his sorry ass to hell already.

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