Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Stayed Execution of Darien Houser

Darien Houser was scheduled to be executed by the people of Pennsylvania on 24 July 2012. His execution, however, has been stayed to allow him to file appeals in the federal courts.

I provide the following summary of his case from the adverse decision in Commonwealth v. Houser (2011):
A warrant was issued for appellant after he failed to appear for a rape trial. Sergeant Vincent DeSandro of the First Judicial District Warrant Unit was assigned the warrant and learned appellant was likely residing in Apartment 336 of a complex known as Fisher's Crossing at 4901 Old Stenton Avenue, Philadelphia. Sergeant DeSandro requested his partner Officer Eric Jones, Sergeant LeClaire, and Officer Carlo Del Borrello to assist him in executing the warrant. Sergeant LeClaire and Officer Del Borrello wore the required Warrant Unit uniform, which consisted of cargo pants, a shirt identifying them as officers in the Warrant Unit, a ballistics vest and cover containing the phrase "Warrant Unit" on both the front and back, and a baseball hat or wool cap with the phrase "Warrant Unit" on it. Sergeant DeSandro and Officer Jones, assigned to the FBI Fugitive Task Force, wore civilian clothing with ballistics vests with "Warrant Unit" on the front and back, along with their badges. 
The officers met near the apartment complex shortly before 2:00 a.m. on March 19, 2004. Philadelphia Police were called to assist and positioned themselves at the rear of the complex. As the Warrant Unit approached Apartment 336, they heard movement inside. After an initial knock on the door, the noise stopped. One of the officers covered the peephole, and the police pounded on the door, identifying themselves and their purpose. 
Appellant and his girlfriend, Naki Hutchinson, were inside the apartment, Hutchinson in the kitchen and appellant in the bedroom. Hutchinson told appellant someone was at the door, telling him it was either the police due to a noise complaint or an acquaintance playing a joke on them. Appellant instructed her not to open the door because it was the police. Nevertheless, Hutchinson heard the officers identify themselves and opened the door. 
Sergeant LeClaire entered first and informed Hutchinson he had a warrant for appellant. Sergeant DeSandro was directly behind him, followed by Officers Del Borrello and Jones. Inside the apartment, the kitchenette light was on, as well as a television and an aquarium light. Light from the exterior hallway also entered the apartment as Officer Del Borrello held the door open. The officers were only a few feet inside the door and approximately 14 to 15 feet from the bedroom when Sergeant LeClaire was heard to tell appellant to drop his weapon. At the same time, Sergeant DeSandro saw a barrel flash in the bedroom and sustained a gun shot wound to his left wrist. Sergeant LeClaire returned fire. Officer Del Borrello, at the threshold of the apartment, heard Sergeant LeClaire repeatedly direct appellant to put his gun down; he also heard him call for help, saying he was hit and "officer down." 
Officers Del Borrello and Evans removed Sergeant DeSandro to the exterior hallway. Officer Del Borrello later heard appellant reloading bullets into a magazine; appellant then attempted to run out the front door. As appellant neared the front door, he shot Officer Del Borrello in the abdomen. Officer Del Borrello returned fire as he ran past the front door on his way to seek cover and assistance down the hallway. As appellant extended his arm and gun into the hallway, Officer Jones began to fire, causing appellant to return into the apartment. At least one more shot was heard coming from inside the apartment. 
Philadelphia Police began arriving on the scene, including the two officers who were assigned to the rear of the apartment complex. Sergeant Frank Hayes arrived while gunfire was still being exchanged and positioned himself outside the apartment. After a lull in the gunfire, Sergeant Hayes entered the apartment; he found a living room window was open with its security bars wrenched from the wall. He also saw Sergeant LeClaire on his knees at the end of a sofa with a large blood spot on the left side of his head. Sergeant Hayes proceeded to search the apartment for appellant, while other officers attended to Sergeant LeClaire. Appellant was not found in the apartment. Another officer searched the alley below the open apartment window. He observed blood in the snow, which he was able to track to an apartment on the first floor. He radioed for the SWAT team, which subsequently entered the apartment and arrested appellant. 
Sergeant LeClaire sustained two gunshot wounds, each from a .45 caliber bullet. The first shot was to his abdomen, striking his external iliac artery. Without immediate medical attention, this wound was fatal; however, Sergeant LeClaire would have been able to speak and fire his weapon for several minutes before sustaining fatal blood loss. The second wound was also fatal; it penetrated the left side of Sergeant LeClaire's forehead, passing through the left side of his brain and lodging between his scalp and skull. 
Despite an extensive search of the area the day of the shooting, the gun used to kill Sergeant LeClaire was not found. Police attempted to search a drain near where appellant entered the lower-level apartment, but the magnet used to recover evidence stuck to the sides of the drain, rendering it ineffective. Police returned over a year later and lowered a camera into the drain, revealing what appeared to be a gun inside. The drain was cut, and a gun was recovered with the magazine still inside, the hammer cocked, and one bullet in the chamber. Due to corrosion, the Commonwealth's ballistics expert could not say conclusively that it was the gun used to kill Sergeant LeClaire, although it was a.45 caliber with a seven-round magazine and matched Hutchinson's description of a gun owned by appellant. A loaded .32 caliber revolver, 19 spent .45 caliber casings and 18 unfired .45 caliber bullets were recovered in the apartment. Blood found on a .45 caliber ammunition box located on the sofa near Sergeant LeClaire's location was matched to appellant through DNA analysis. 
The Commonwealth charged appellant with murder, three counts of aggravated assault, and related crimes. A jury convicted him of three counts of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon; the jury could not reach a verdict on the murder charge. As a third-strike offender, appellant received two life sentences for two of the aggravated assault charges, 25 to 50 years imprisonment on the third aggravated assault charge, and five to 10 years imprisonment on the firearms violation. Retrial on the murder charge resulted in a conviction of first degree murder. ... 
We find the Commonwealth provided sufficient evidence to prove each element of first degree murder. Appellant opened fire on the Warrant Unit when they were only a few feet inside the door. Appellant shot Sergeant LeClaire twice in a vital part of the body. Two other officers were shot before retreating from the apartment. Despite the fatal wound to his abdomen, Sergeant LeClaire was able to call for help and yell "officer down" for a period of time; appellant reloaded his gun, and shot Sergeant LeClaire in the forehead. Appellant's blood was found in several locations in the apartment, including on a box of ammunition on the couch near where Sergeant LeClaire was found. 
To show motive for firing upon the officers, the Commonwealth introduced a letter appellant wrote to his wife while incarcerated in 2002. The letter stated, in relevant part, "I don't know where my road is going to lead to ... for I see my future on the run.... I don't believe I can do a long period of time in jail. ... I believe that the police will have to kill me before I come back to jail." ... 
Despite shooting Sergeant LeClaire twice, appellant argues the Commonwealth did not prove he acted with malice because his use of force was justified. Appellant maintains he fired upon the officers in self-defense, or at the least, imperfect self-defense. He claims he was in the bedroom counting money when he heard someone at the door. He asserts he did not know they were officers as they did not identify themselves as such. Additionally, citing the time of night, the low lighting conditions, and the fact that not all of the officers were in uniform or were in dark uniform, he claims he only saw shadowy figures enter his home. He also claims he saw someone place their arm around Hutchinson's neck and put a gun to her head. Appellant alleges these circumstances caused him to believe he was the victim of a home invasion. He claims, as he began moving to confront the shadowy figures, he was shot in the arm, then in the knee. The shot to the knee caused him to fall to the floor, where he happened to find a loaded gun, and returned fire. He tried to follow Hutchinson out the front door, but when he got to the doorway, two people on opposite sides of the hallway started shooting at him. He then heard one person say to the other, "You hit me, man," to which the other replied, "No, you shot me, man." At that point, he returned inside the apartment, shot the lock off the window, pulled the security bars off, and escaped to the ground below. ... 
Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, we find the Commonwealth disproved appellant's claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. The Warrant Unit knocked on the door, identified themselves, and announced their purpose for over a minute. All of the officers wore ballistics vests identifying who they were on both the front and the back. They were finally let in by Hutchinson, who stated she knew they were officers. Hutchinson also stated the officers never threatened her. Although there were only a few sources of light in the apartment at that time, the officers were able to see well enough without their flashlights. When the officers were only a few feet into the apartment, appellant opened fire on them, immediately wounding Sergeant LeClaire. The other officers retreated to find cover, and more shots were exchanged. Hutchinson testified that while she was still in the apartment she could hear Sergeant LeClaire yell "officer down." Appellant also refused to obey the officers' commands to drop his weapon. At some point, appellant reloaded his gun and continued firing, eventually shooting Sergeant LeClaire in the head. As appellant was the aggressor, he was not justified in using deadly force; accordingly, his self-defense and imperfect self-defense claims fail. 
Appellant claims the verdict was against the weight of the evidence because the evidence presented at trial demonstrated, at worst, he mistakenly believed his home was being invaded, causing him to use deadly force. He relies on the same facts discussed in his challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence: he claims he and Hutchinson were not aware it was the police knocking on the door; the lighting conditions made it difficult for him to ascertain who entered his home; and, due to the early morning hour and the fact that he was counting money in the bedroom, he believed he was the victim of a home invasion. Appellant argues his belief that his home was being invaded was reasonable and should negate the inference of malice used to convict him.
I oppose any execution in which the person scheduled to die might be innocent of the crime for which they are to die. In all other executions, I stand mute: I neither oppose nor support the execution. In the case of Darien Houser, I stand mute.