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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Commonwealth v. Rivera-Rodriguez 2012 Pa. Super. 43

Read the Full-Text of the Opinion.

On the night of January 17, 2004, Rivera Rodriguez was walking alone when Mr. Gardina stopped his car beside him and asked if he knew where to purchase a small amount of marijuana. Rivera Rodriguez told the victim he could obtain marijuana for him and, after entering the victim’s vehicle, directed him to a friend named Sanchez. After Sanchez entered the car, Rivera Rodriguez told him, in Spanish, that he wanted to take Mr. Gardina to the lot behind Sanchez’s residence, rob him, and kill him. When they arrived at their destination, Rivera-Rodriguez held down the victim while Sanchez stabbed him to death. The two men then robbed the victim's body, and fled.

Rivera-Rodriguez was asked to come to the police station where he gave a signed confession to the foregoing.  He was charged with capital murder, and the District Attorney of Lancaster County began proceedings to impose the death penalty.  In exchange for foregoing imposition of the death penalty in the event of a conviction, Rivera-Rodriguez waived his right to a jury trial.  He was convicted of first degree murder, robbery, and related offenses, and sentenced to an aggregate term of imprisonment of life plus 23-to-46 years.  At the time of the murder and throughout the trial both the Commonwealth and the defense agreed that Rivera-Rodriguez' IQ was 58.

On collateral appeal, Rivera-Rodriguez argued that he was mentally retarded and, therefore, not subject to execution under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).  In that case, the Supreme Court of the United States held that imposition of the death penalty upon individuals who are mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  Thus, Rivera-Rodriguez argued, his waiver of a jury trial was made without consideration, because the Commonwealth could not have executed him regardless.  He argued that trial counsel was ineffective for counseling him to accept the Commonwealth's valueless offer, and demanded retrial.

Judge Bowes, writing for a unanimous panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, observed that in Atkins, the Supreme Court adopted the "clinical definition" of mental retardation, which required more than mere "subaverage intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills such as communication, self-care, and self-direction that became manifest before age 18."  Based on this, Rivera-Rodriguez' IQ—which was lower than Atkins' IQ of 59—was not disposative of the Commonwealth's ability to execute him.

Instead, Judge Bowes focused on Rivera-Rodriguez' adaptive skills, which had been the subject of extensive pre-trial examination in order to determine whether he was able to stand trial.  She observed that he had a girlfriend, had maintained steady employment and, in the words of one expert, "appeared to be functioning at a higher IQ than he tests."  On this basis, the Court held that Rivera-Rodriguez' attorneys fear that he could be executed was not unreasonable, and their counsel that he waive his right to a jury was not ineffective assistance.

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