Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I Support the Stay of Execution of Dustin Briggs

Dustin Ford Briggs sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Pennsylvania. His execution had been scheduled for tomorrow, but has been stayed by a U. S. District Court  pending disposition of the anticipated petition for writ of habeas corpus.

I tell of the case against Dustin Ford by extracting extended segments from Commonwealth v. Briggs (2011). As I usually do, I have replaced each instance of the word "Appellant" with the appellant's last name, in this case Briggs. I have removed the many legal references and most the footnotes. The ellipses typically indicate a substantial portion of the decision has been excluded.

I make these changes to make the summary more readable and to focus it on the evidence rather than the legal reasoning. From Commonwealth v. Briggs (2011):
Dustin Briggs appeals from the sentence of death imposed on March 15, 2006 by the Bradford County Court of Common Pleas after a jury found him guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, and one count of robbery. After careful review, for the reasons set forth herein, we affirm Briggs's convictions of these offenses as well as his judgment of sentence. 
We begin by reviewing the factual occurrences giving rise to Brigg's convictions, as gleaned from the certified record in this matter. On the morning of Wednesday, March 31, 2004, Briggs was eating breakfast with his then-girlfriend April Harris Duva ("Duva") at the Bradford County home where he lived with his father. A driveway led to Briggs' house from Congdon Road, and the house was the first structure a person traveling the driveway from that road would encounter. As the driveway continued past the house, it divided into two parts, with the left fork leading to a barn and the right fork to a stand of pine trees. The majority of the Briggs property behind the house was used as an automotive junkyard and was littered with hundreds of derelict vehicles. 
Once Briggs finished eating, he left the house to go to work in the junkyard pulling radiators from cars. As Duva was washing the dishes, Arlan Briggs, who had been out in the junkyard cleaning radiators, entered the house and tried to call his daughter on the phone. As he hung up the phone, he noticed a car parked outside of the house. The car was an unmarked police vehicle driven by Bradford County Sheriff's Deputies Christopher Burgert and Michael VanKuren, who had come to serve arrest warrants on Briggs and Duva. Briggs's warrant was for non-payment of fines, costs, and restitution, while Duva's warrant was for the alleged manufacture of methamphetamine on the Briggs property. Arlan Briggs knew of the existence of these warrants and, thus, told Duva to hide -- whereupon she hurriedly ran to the basement. 
The deputies knocked twice at the door, but Arlan Briggs stayed out of sight and did not answer. Once the deputies ceased knocking, Arlan Briggs looked out the window and could no longer see their car, so he decided to go back outside. Duva, who was secreted in the furnace room in the basement, heard Arlan Briggs leave the house through the kitchen door and, thereafter, heard three gunshots. While exiting his house on the way to the barn, Arlan Briggs, who suffered from significant hearing loss, heard the sounds also, but he characterized them as banging noises which, at the time, he attributed to Briggs's work removing the radiators. 
Arlan Briggs proceeded to the barn, where he began to sort some of the radiators stored therein with the intent of salvaging the usable ones. After he had found two in acceptable condition, he carried them out of the barn and began walking with them towards the right fork of the driveway. At this point, he noticed the deputies' car parked in the drive about 200 feet from the house, with Briggs's Chevy Blazer positioned directly in front of it. After Arlan Briggs had walked further up the driveway into the junkyard to where his own pickup truck was parked he, at that point, noticed Deputy VanKuren prone and unmoving on the ground. He also observed Deputy Burgert lying in the yard nearby, gravely wounded. Arlan Briggs then ran back to his house, called 9-1-1, and urgently requested assistance. He also told Duva to get dressed and leave the property, as there was "trouble" and the two deputies were dead. 
According to testimony at Briggs's trial provided by Bradley Brown, an individual who had been a friend of Briggs for ten years, and who became a cellmate of Briggs after his arrest, Briggs admitted to Brown that he was the one who had shot the deputies. Brown testified that Briggs described to him the manner in which the shooting transpired as follows. Briggs was in the process of pulling a radiator out of a car when the deputies walked up behind him and called his name. Briggs claimed that he had a previous altercation with Deputy VanKuren and, hence, felt he was in fear for his life. As Briggs turned around in response to the deputies' call, he reached for his hip, on which he had a holstered revolver. After the deputies informed Briggs that he was under arrest, Deputy VanKuren attempted to unholster his own weapon, and Briggs reacted by pulling his gun out and shooting Deputy VanKuren twice. 
Footnote: Brigg's admission to Brown was corroborated by another witness, Mark Marcoccia, a mutual friend of both, who testified that Appellant showed him Brown's statement during a conversation in the prison law library, and, in response to questioning from Marcoccia, acknowledged that the statement was an accurate reflection of what had happened. 
Footnote: Marcoccia had previously testified on direct examination that his plea agreement for the federal drug charges contained a stipulation that he could petition for a reduced sentence if he cooperated with authorities and informed them of his or others' participation in criminal activities, and also that the agreement required him to give truthful information. 
Briggs next pointed his gun at Deputy Burgert and shot him twice, once in the abdominal region and once in the chest. Because of his wounds, Deputy Burgert fell to the ground, and Briggs advanced on him -- pressing his now empty gun to Deputy Burgert's face. Briggs demanded Deputy Burgert throw his service weapon, a .40 caliber "Glock" semiautomatic pistol, to the ground and, after Deputy Burgert complied, Briggs picked it up and pointed it at him. At this point, Deputy Burgert reached up to grab the gun and it went off. Briggs ran from the shooting scene, hastily changed clothes, and left the area. 
According to the testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. Samuel Land, who conducted the post-mortem examinations of the slain deputies, the autopsy results of Deputy VanKuren showed that he was shot once in the right upper chest, and the bullet passed through his right lung, severed his spinal cord, and came to rest lodged in his spinal column. Dr. Land opined that Deputy VanKuren was immediately paralyzed by this wound and suffered massive bleeding into his chest, which caused his death within minutes. Dr. Land noted that Deputy VanKuren was additionally shot a second time in his right forearm. When this bullet entered Deputy VanKuren's forearm it fractured it. The bullet then continued through the forearm and into his wrist, broke it, and then, finally, came to rest there. 
Dr. Land also testified that the results of Deputy Burgert's autopsy showed he was shot in both the chest and abdomen. One of the bullets entered the right side of Deputy Burgert's chest, traveled through his lungs, piercing them both, and then exited the top of his left chest. The destructive force of this bullet's trajectory caused Deputy Burgert's right lung to collapse and his chest cavity to fill with blood which eventually resulted in his asphyxiation. The second bullet which entered Deputy Burgert's abdomen did not penetrate fully, having been stopped by his bulletproof vest in which it became wedged. Additional autopsy findings indicated that Deputy Burgert suffered a separate bullet wound to the fourth finger of his right hand. The bullet which caused this wound also fractured the index finger of his right hand and traveled through to strike him in the right thigh where it became imbedded. The medical examiner indicated that Deputy Burgert died within minutes from the effects of these multiple gunshot wounds. 
After the shooting of the deputies, Briggs immediately became the subject of a massive manhunt by police. On the next evening, Thursday, April 1, 2004, Briggs emerged from the woods and walked up the driveway of an acquaintance, Neal Saunders, who was standing in the driveway at the time with his next-door neighbor. Saunders' home was located within a mile of the Briggs' property. Briggs asked Saunders for a drink of water, and Saunders allowed him to drink from an outdoor spring. Briggs also requested to use Saunders' phone to call his brother, and Saunders agreed. Briggs dialed his brother's number twice and received no response. After Briggs hung up the phone, Briggs asked Saunders what "the word" was in the community, and Saunders told him people were blaming him for killing the two deputies. Briggs then nodded his head. Briggs asked Saunders if he would give him a ride to his brother's place, but Saunders refused and asked him to leave. Saunders also requested that Briggs turn himself in, and Briggs replied that he would like to, but would prefer to "have a chance with a lawyer" first. 
After Briggs left, Saunders called police, who converged on the area. Within an hour, state troopers in an unmarked car spotted Briggs crossing a wooded ravine near Saunders' house; whereupon, they surrounded and arrested him. Briggs, who was wet and cold, was placed in the back of the state police vehicle and covered with emergency blankets to help warm him. One of the troopers, Trooper Vincent Schreffler, gave Briggs Miranda warnings at that time which, according to Trooper Schreffler, Briggs indicated he understood. Trooper Schreffler asked Briggs if he wished to speak with them, and he replied "don't know." Trooper Schreffler next asked Briggs "where the gun was at," and Briggs offered no response. 
Briggs was transported to the State Police Barracks in Towanda. At this point, Briggs was released into the custody of Trooper David Pelachick. Trooper Schreffler informed Trooper Pelachick that he had read Briggs his Miranda rights. Briggs was also given a sandwich and drink, which he consumed. Trooper Pelachick, in the company of another state police officer, Trooper James Kerrick, proceeded to advise Briggs of the specific charges against him as listed in the criminal complaint, and Briggs indicated he understood the nature of those charges. Trooper Pelachick testified he told Briggs he would like to "give him an opportunity to explain his actions." According to Trooper Pelachick, Briggs responded that he wanted to talk to the troopers, but also that he wanted his attorney, Art Agnellino, to be present when he did so. The troopers offered to find Briggs another attorney, but he refused the offer, stating he wished to wait for Attorney Agnellino. The troopers called Attorney Agnellino, but failing to reach him, left a message. The troopers discontinued their attempts to interview Briggs that evening, and Briggs was taken to be arraigned—following which he was transferred to the Bradford County Jail. 
The next day, Friday April 2, 2004, Attorney Agnellino called the State Police barracks in the morning and informed them that he would not be representing Briggs. Later that afternoon, sometime after 4:00 p.m., Trooper Pelachick and Trooper Kerrick went to the jail to speak with Briggs and to tell him of Attorney Agnellino's decision. Briggs was brought to a medical examination room in the jail where the troopers and two jail correctional officers were present. Trooper Pelachick informed Briggs that Attorney Agnellino had declined to represent him. Trooper Pelachick asked Briggs whether he would like to speak with them without an attorney, or if he would like to find another attorney. Briggs stated that he wanted to talk to the troopers, but reiterated that he wanted an attorney present with him when he did so, and he expressed his desire to get a public defender. 
Trooper Pelachick testified that, after Briggs had made the request for a public defender, he told Briggs that he would not be able to speak with him that day but would talk to him later, with his attorney. Trooper Pelachick told Briggs he believed he was making "a wise decision" in wanting to talk to them and explain his actions. Trooper Pelachick told Briggs that "just because someone doesn't talk to us doesn't mean that they couldn't be convicted." Trooper Pelachick related that he informed Briggs of the case of another individual, John Kohler, who, in Trooper Pelachick's words, "never told us his side of the story, but . . . he ended up getting the death penalty anyway." Trooper Pelachick also told Briggs "it will be your decision whether you tell us or not, but your attorney's going to probably advise ya's [sic] not to." According to Trooper Pelachick, Briggs responded: "I know the deal, I've been through this before." 
Due to the lateness of the hour and the approaching weekend, Trooper Pelachick inquired whether Briggs wanted the troopers to contact the public defender so that they could arrange a meeting with him on Monday, or, whether he preferred they wait to hear from the public defender. Trooper Pelachick testified that Briggs replied: "no, let's go ahead and make this, let's get the ball rollin', let's shoot for Monday, you guys make the arrangements." 
Trooper Pelachick then told Briggs, "well, we'll see you, I guess we'll see you Monday, or try to make it, try to . . . see you on Monday." At this point, Trooper Pelachick and Trooper Kerrick, as well as the two prison guards, started walking towards the door to leave the room but stopped when they heard Briggs sobbing loudly. Trooper Pelachick looked back at Briggs and saw him leaning against a table with his head down and heard him say: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, tell their families I'm sorry, I didn't mean to kill them." Upon hearing this, Trooper Pelachick asked Briggs if he would like to talk to them now without an attorney. Briggs answered, "no, no, I want to talk to you. . . no disrespect, I'm not trying to give you a hard time, but I want to wait until my attorney gets here." Trooper Pelachick told Briggs that they would hopefully see him Monday, after which the troopers departed. Briggs subsequently had no further interviews with the troopers. 
A little over three months later, on July 7, 2004, two boys pursuing a skunk through the woods within a mile of the Briggs property overturned some rocks in a pile during their search and discovered two guns underneath, one a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver, and the other Deputy Burgert's "Glock" service pistol. Additionally, secreted in a cavity underneath the rock were four unfired bullets, three of which were .357 Magnum cartridges and one which was a .38 caliber cartridge -- all of which a state police ballistics expert testified were capable of being fired from the Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver. The Glock, which has a fifteen round capacity, had only fourteen rounds in it at the time of its discovery. Subsequent ballistics tests performed on both recovered weapons indicated that the bullet lodged in Deputy Burgert's bulletproof vest and the one imbedded in the vertebrae of Deputy VanKuren's lower back came from the Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver. The tests further established that the bullet taken from Deputy Burgert's thigh was fired from the Glock pistol. In addition, ballistics tests showed that seven Winchester.357 Magnum shell casings recovered from various places on the ground in the Briggs' junkyard were discharged from the Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver. ... 
Briggs proceeded to a jury trial before Judge Feudale, which began on January 23, 2006. In addition to the evidence the Commonwealth presented, detailed above, Briggs called two witnesses, Sally and Harvey Ferris, who testified that Arlan Briggs had admitted that he shot one of the deputies, and his son, Mark Briggs, shot the other. According to Sally Ferris, who was the mother of Duva, Arlan Briggs told her that he had washed his hands with vinegar to remove the gunpowder residue and, also, that he melted the guns down so the police could not find them; however, by her account, Arlan Briggs later changed his story and told her he hid them in a ravine. 
Ultimately, the jury found Briggs guilty on February 7, 2006, and the death penalty phase of the trial began the next day, February 8, 2006. On February 9, 2006, the jury ... returned a sentence of death, which the trial court imposed on March 15, 2006. ... 
The trial evidence, as recounted above, is amply sufficient to sustain Briggs's conviction for the offense of first-degree murder. Briggs expressly admitted to his friend Bradley Brown that he shot the deputies as they attempted to take him into custody, and he again acknowledged his responsibility for causing their deaths when he made his tearful post-arrest declaration to Trooper Pelachick and the other individuals present in the Bradford County Jail Infirmary. ... 
Briggs contends that the trial court erred by precluding him from questioning Duva about the reason her trial testimony was inconsistent with that which she gave at an earlier preliminary hearing, and, also, differed from the contents of statements she previously gave to state police. Briggs wished to establish through this cross-examination that Duva had testified untruthfully at the preliminary hearing and given statements that were not entirely true to investigating officers because Briggs's brother, Mark Briggs, threatened her. Briggs is entitled to no relief on this basis. 
Our review of the record compels us to agree with the trial court that Briggs did not provide the requisite foundation for the avenue of cross-examination he wished to pursue, since there was no evidence of record to establish that Mark Briggs was the person who threatened Duva. Indeed, Mark Briggs testified immediately before Duva at trial, and he was extensively cross-examined by Briggs, through counsel, and asked repeatedly if he had threatened Duva. He denied having done so. Thus we discern no abuse of discretion by the trial court in barring, on this basis, Briggs's desired cross-examination of Duva. 
Furthermore, Briggs suffered no prejudice from the trial court's denial of his requested line of cross-examination, as we are in accord with the trial court's finding that Briggs's requested cross-examination was irrelevant under the circumstances. Any identification by Duva of Mark Briggs as the person who allegedly threatened her would only have been arguably relevant to the central issue in the case, i.e., who killed the deputies, if there was evidence suggesting Mark Briggs threatened Duva in order to conceal his own involvement in the murders. The trial court found no evidence to suggest Mark Briggs was involved in committing the murders. Additionally, the trial court apparently was willing to allow Briggs to raise a possibility of Mark Briggs' involvement in the murders through cross-examination, if he could lay a proper evidentiary foundation. The trial court indicated it would allow Briggs to cross-examine Duva about any potential threats from Mark Briggs, provided Briggs followed through on his offer of proof that he would produce evidence showing that Mark Briggs was at the junkyard at the time of the murders. The trial court found that Briggs produced no such evidence. As our review of the record indicates that it supports the trial court's conclusion, its decision to prohibit Briggs from pursuing cross-examination on these grounds likewise does not constitute an abuse of discretion. ... 
Briggs argues that the trial court erred by precluding him from presenting, at trial, the testimony of John Schwenkler, a public defender, who had represented Briggs the day before the shootings at a hearing in a city court proceeding in Elmira, New York. Briggs contends that Schwenkler would have testified that, though Briggs fully expected to be taken into custody at the conclusion of that hearing, Briggs nevertheless voluntarily appeared at that hearing. Briggs now asserts, somewhat implausibly, that Schwenkler's proposed testimony, if permitted, would have established that Briggs did not fear being arrested or incarcerated -- thereby negating the Commonwealth's suggested motive that he killed the deputies because he did not want to be taken into custody. The trial court excluded this testimony as irrelevant, and we agree with this determination.
With respect to the case of Dustin Briggs, I would like to understand more about the following issues of the case.

What are the circumstances of his alleged confessions to his alleged friends, who were also fellow inmates. Did they provide snitch testimony for the State in exchange for favorable treatment by the State? When did they inform the State of what they knew about the details of the crime?  Was it only after the weapons had been recovered and tested?

Were the weapons tested for Briggs' fingerprints? If so, what were the results? If not, why not?

Why was Briggs not allowed to cross-examine Duva about her prior inconsistent statements, and the possibility she changed her story based on threats by Mark Briggs? The appellate court agreed with the trial court's ruling because the "trial court found no evidence to suggest Mark Briggs was involved in committing the murders." Am I missing something? Didn't Briggs call two witnesses who "testified that Arlan Briggs had admitted that he shot one of the deputies, and his son, Mark Briggs, shot the other"? Is that not evidence that Mark Briggs was involved in committing the murders? It may not be proof, but isn't it testimonial evidence that Mark Briggs was involved in the murders?

Was Trooper Pelachick the last person leaving the infirmary room when Briggs allegedly said he "didn't mean to kill them"? It seems awfully convenient that Briggs made that non-confession confession after being so persistent on insisting that he be represented by counsel before he said anything.

I concede that it is quite possible that Dustin Briggs is factually guilty of the crime. This case, however, is troubling because of the means used by the State to secure his conviction, and by the flimsiness of the actual evidence against him.

With respect to the case of Dustin Briggs, I support the stay of execution.