PA Superior Court: Defendant Must Be Permitted To Rebut Commonwealth's 404(b) Prior Bad Acts Evidence

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Yocolano, holding that the defendant's conviction must be reversed because the trial court improperly prevented the defendant from rebutting the Commonwealth's 404(b) Prior Bad Acts evidence. Under the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence, prosecutors may file a motion asking the trial court to allow them to introduce evidence of "prior bad acts" or crimes committed by a defendant. This type of evidence can be extremely prejudicial to the defendant, and the Superior Court has now ruled that the defense must be permitted to call witnesses to rebut this highly prejudicial testimony when such witnesses are available. 

Commonwealth v. Yocolano

In Yocolano, the defendant was charged with Aggravated Assault and various sexual assault charges against his paramour, who is referred to in the opinion as A.A. The testimony established that Mr. Yocolano and A.A. were in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship dating back to 2010 and had a child together. Throughout their relationship, there were multiple alleged instances of domestic violence. The police were called on several occasions. For example, in 2010, the police responded to a call that Mr. Yocolano had an altercation with A.A. where he chased her and caused damage to A.A.’s father’s house. In 2012, the police were called on several occasions including: an incident where police were called after Mr. Yocolano threatened A.A. with a machete; an argument between A.A. and Mr. Yocolano; A.A. calling the police on Mr. Yocolano after expressing suicidal thoughts after an argument between the two; A.A. filing a police report against Mr. Yocolano after he threatened and choked her; and Mr. Yocolano punching A.A. in the head and threatening to kill her and her family. In October of 2012, A.A. obtained a Protection from Abuse “PFA” against Mr. Yocolano. This incident led to the charges in question, and Mr. Yocolano was subsequently arrested.

Both before and during the trial, the Commonwealth filed multiple 404(b) motions in Mr. Yocolano’s case. Specifically, the Commonwealth sought to introduce evidence from the 2010 incident and three incidents from 2012. The prosecutors also sought to introduce two PFA’s against Mr. Yocolano filed by women other than A.A. on the fourth day of trial, and the trial court permitted the prosecution to introduce all of the prior bad acts evidence. 

What is a 404(b) Prior Bad Acts Motion?  

In most cases, a prosecutor may only use evidence against a defendant relating to the crimes alleged in the complaint. This means that prosecutors cannot simply tell a judge or jury that the defendant is a criminal or has a criminal record. A 404(b) Motion, commonly referred to as a “Prior Bad Acts Motion,” allows the Commonwealth to introduce prior acts against a defendant in the present criminal case against him under certain limited circumstances. A 404(b) motion cannot be used to prove a person’s character (i.e. that because a defendant did something bad once in their life, they are a bad person and thus did this crime), but rather it can be used to show motive, opportunity, intent, absence of mistake, knowledge, lack of accident, preparation, and plan. In domestic violence cases, 404(b) motions are common, and appellate courts have held that in some cases, they may be used to show “the continual nature of abuse and to show the defendant’s motive, malice, intent and ill-will toward the victim.” Commonwealth v. Ivy, 146 A.3d 241, 251 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016). Accordingly, prosecutors routinely argue that prior convictions or allegations of violence between the defendant and the complainant provided the defendant with the motive for the criminal behavior alleged in the current case or would show that the injuries could not have been caused as the result of an accident. 

Defending Against 404(b) Motions 

Obviously, prosecutors gain a tremendous advantage when they are permitted to inform a judge or jury of a defendant's prior record. The judge or jury become much less likely to be sympathetic and far more likely to believe that if the defendant committed a crime before, he or she must have committed a crime again. However, it is possible in many cases to successfully oppose these motions or limit the damage. In some cases, it may be possible to show a lack of similarity between the conduct or that the prejudicial effect would substantially outweigh any probative value. It also may be possible to successfully argue that the prior conviction does not establish any of the requirements which the Commonwealth must show. In other cases, it may be possible to call eyewitness from the other incidents to show that the other allegations are also false. Therefore, if you are charged with a crime and a prosecutor is seeking to introduce prior bad acts against you, it is imperative that you have a skilled attorney who can litigate a motion to prevent these prior bad acts from being introduced into trial or attempt to limit the damage by thoroughly investigating the allegations. In Mr. Yocolano’s case, his attorney was unsuccessful in opposing the three incidents from 2012, the incident from 2010, and the prior PFA’s which were filed by other women. 

Although the defense could not keep this highly prejudicial evidence out, the defense had thoroughly investigated the case and located a number of witnesses which were ready to rebut the prior bad act allegations. During the trial, the defense attempted to introduce evidence that would rebut the 2010 incident. However, the trial court precluded the defense from introducing evidence to rebut the claim, holding that it was “collateral.” Specifically, the trial court only allowed the defendant to introduce evidence that would rebut the allegations from December 6, 2012 (the day on which the crimes for which he was on trial allegedly took place) and was not allowed to introduce any evidence that would rebut the “prior bad acts” that the trial court had found admissible. Given all of this prejudicial testimony from other incidents, the defendant was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 18-36 years of incarceration.

Yocolano appealed, and the Superior Court reversed the conviction. The Court found that the trial court abused its discretion in preventing Mr. Yocolano from introducing evidence that would rebut these claims. The Superior Court cited an important Pennsylvania Supreme Court case called Commonwealth v. Ballard which held that “where the evidence proposed goes to the impeachment of the testimony of his opponent’s witness, it is admissible as a matter of right.” The Superior Court properly recognized that Mr. Yocolano should have been allowed to “test the veracity of A.A.’s version of events.” 

Protection from Abuse Orders and Rule 404(b)

The Superior Court also held that the trial court abused its discretion when it permitted the two PFA’s from different women to be introduced. Rule 404(b)(3) states that a prosecutor must provide “reasonable notice” if they seek to introduce these prior bad acts. Reasonable notice typically means that the prosecution must inform the defense in writing and in advance of the intent to introduce prior bad acts evidence. There are exceptions which allow the prosecution to introduce prior bad acts during trial where the prosecution can show good cause for the failure to provide prior notice. 

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for prosecutors to provide the defense with previously undisclosed evidence on the day of trial. Most judges will either permit the defendant to continue the case or preclude the last-minute evidence from being introduced. However, in this case, the Commonwealth provided the unrelated Protection from Abuse Orders against Mr. Yocolono on the fourth day of trial. The Commonwealth stated that the reason for the late discovery was because the prosecutor had just looked in the computer system mid-trial and happened to find the records. 

The Superior Court rejected the Commonwealth's argument that this constituted good cause. The Court held that the Commonwealth’s excuse did “not qualify as a valid legal excuse.”  Further, the Superior Court was skeptical that these third-party PFA’s would have met the substantive requirements of 404(b). In Mr. Yocolono’s case, the trial court failed to analyze the facts of the two other PFA’s and identify “a close factual nexus sufficient to demonstrative the connective relevance of the third-party PFAs to the crimes in question.” Based on all of these errors, the Superior Court ordered that the sentence be vacated and that the defendant receive a new trial. 

Facing Criminal Charges? We Can Help 

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta, Esq. and Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta, Esq. and Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Domestic violence and other assault cases are often more complicated than they would seem. In cases where the prosecution seeks to introduce prior bad acts evidence, the defense must thoroughly investigate the case and strongly oppose these 404(b) motions both on the law and on the facts. If you are facing criminal charges, you need an attorney who has the knowledge and expertise to defend your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully fought countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today. 

FAQ About Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”)

Introduction to PCRA Petitions

Many defendants who lose their trials or plead guilty are ultimately unhappy with the result and wish to appeal. Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act provides a mechanism for petitioners to attack their criminal convictions in the trial court and obtain a new trial or sentencing. PCRA Petitions can be extremely complicated and are difficult to win, but under the right circumstances, a PCRA Petition may allow you to obtain a new trial or sentencing. The most important thing to know is that as with direct appeals, there are extremely strict time limits for filing a Petition. Therefore, if you are considering an appeal or a PCRA, you should speak with a criminal defense attorney immediately. Our Philadelphia criminal appeals lawyers have extensive experience with direct appeals and PCRA Petitions. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with one of our award-winning defense attorneys today.   


What is the difference between a direct appeal and a PCRA Petition?

If you lose a criminal trial in the Court of Common Pleas or plead guilty and are unhappy with the outcome, there are two types of appeals which could get you another trial or sentencing.

The first type of appeal is called a direct appeal. A direct appeal is filed in the Superior Court. A direct appeal in the Pennsylvania Superior Court deals with legal errors committed by the trial court. This means that if the trial court improperly denied pre-trial motions such as motions to suppress or motions in limine, gave improper jury instructions, or made erroneous evidentiary rulings, the Superior Court could reverse your conviction in a direct appeal. The Superior Court will not receive new evidence, re-weigh the evidence, or review issues which were not preserved (usually by way of objection) by trial counsel.

The second type of appeal is actually filed in the Court of Common Pleas as a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition (“PCRA”). A PCRA Petition typically requests a new trial or sentencing due to the ineffectiveness of counsel, a change in constitutional law which occurred since trial, or the discovery of new evidence which would have led to a different result. There are important differences between the two types of appeals. A direct appeal is heard by a different panel of higher-ranking judges in the Superior Court, but a PCRA Petition is heard by the same trial judge who originally presided over the case unless the judge has retired or otherwise left the bench. In that case, a different judge would be assigned to rule on any Post-Conviction Relief Act Petitions.  


What types of claims can I bring in a PCRA Petition?

The most common claims which you can bring in a PCRA Petition are that you should receive a new trial or sentencing due to the ineffective assistance of counsel, the discovery of new evidence, or a change in constitutional law. The Act also allows for the DNA testing of evidence under certain circumstances. In general, direct appeals address some sort of legal error committed by the trial court, while PCRAs are more likely to challenge the performance of the defense lawyer at trial or address the discovery of new evidence.


What is ineffective assistance of counsel?

The Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions both require defense counsel to be competent. Although counsel is presumed to be effective and competent, if your trial lawyer was legally ineffective and you were prejudiced as a result, then you could receive a new trial or sentencing. Ineffectiveness claims vary and could raise all sorts of deficiencies in trial counsel’s performance. For example, ineffectiveness claims could include:  

  1. The failure to thoroughly investigate the case, interview defense or alibi witnesses, and call those witnesses at trial;
  2. The failure to object to legal errors made by the trial judge or improper questioning or argument from the prosecution which results in the trial court making erroneous legal rulings or those issues being waived on appeal;
  3. The failure to file pre-trial motions such as Motions to Suppress or Motions in Limine which would have made a difference in the case;
  4. The failure to request certain jury instructions or object to improper jury instructions ;
  5. The failure to hire an expert witness when necessary for the defense; and
  6. The failure to file post-sentence motions or a direct appeal when requested by the defendant.

There are countless other issues which could be raised in a PCRA Petition, and identifying potentially meritorious issues requires a thorough review of the transcripts as well as a full investigation of the case to see if there was something that original counsel missed. In order to win on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the petitioner must show that 1) counsel was ineffective, 2) the petitioner was prejudiced as a result, and 3) there was no reasonable, strategic basis for trial counsel’s decision.       


What happens when I file a PCRA Petition?

Demetra Mehta, Esq. - Philadelphia PCRA Lawyer

Demetra Mehta, Esq. - Philadelphia PCRA Lawyer

In general, courts do not have any real time limit for addressing a PCRA Petition. Depending on the allegations in the Petition, the petitioner may request an evidentiary hearing which could result in witnesses testifying in a court hearing. For example, if the Petition alleges that defense counsel should have called an alibi witness at trial, then an evidentiary hearing would be necessary for the trial judge to hear from and rule on the credibility of the alibi witness. The court would also hear from trial counsel as to why counsel did not call the alibi witness to testify.

In cases in which a Petition alleges only some sort of legal error by counsel such as the failure to object to a clearly improper jury instruction, a hearing may not be necessary and a Petition could be granted without a hearing. In most cases, the petitioner will file a Petition requesting a hearing and/or relief and the Commonwealth will respond with a Motion to Dismiss the Petition. The trial court could then dismiss the Petition without a hearing, schedule argument on the Motion to Dismiss, or schedule an evidentiary hearing on the allegations in the Petition. If the trial court grants an evidentiary hearing, then the defense would call witnesses at the hearing and both sides would make argument before the court would rule on the merits of the Petition.


How long does a PCRA Petition take?

The amount of time before a PCRA Petition will be resolved varies in every case, and it depends on how complex the issues are and whether the trial court grants an evidentiary hearing. The courts will often grant a number of continuances for each side to file Petitions, write briefs, and prepare for evidentiary hearings, and the resolution of a PCRA Petition could take a year or more.


Can I appeal if the judge denies the Petition?

Yes, the denial of a PCRA Petition may be appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court by filing a notice of appeal within thirty days of the dismissal or denial of the Petition. The Pennsylvania Superior Court will review the allegations in the Petition and any transcripts from hearings in the Court of Common Pleas for legal error. For example, if the Common Pleas Judge concludes that the jury instructions used were proper, the Superior Court could rule on appeal that the jury instructions were not actually proper and a new trial should have been awarded by the PCRA court.


Can I file a PCRA Petition if I pleaded guilty?

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia PCRA Attorney

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia PCRA Attorney

Yes, you can file a PCRA Petition if you pleaded guilty. However, these are the most difficult types of PCRAs to win. The same rules apply to a PCRA attacking a guilty plea as a PCRA attacking a loss at trial. However, during the guilty plea colloquy, the defendant is typically questioned as to whether the defendant is making a knowing, intentional, and voluntary decision to plead guilty and whether the defendant is happy with the performance of his or her criminal defense lawyer. Because the guilty plea would have been rejected if the defendant did not seem to know what he or she was doing or if they were unhappy with the trial lawyer, it is much more difficult to win after a guilty plea.

Nonetheless, it is still possible to file a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition alleging that trial counsel was ineffective in recommending a plea or in presenting mitigation evidence at sentencing. For example, if trial counsel had video or should have had video showing that the defendant was innocent, but trial counsel instead recommended that the defendant plead guilty, then it may be that trial counsel was ineffective in recommending a plea instead of a trial. Additionally, it may be possible to file a successful PCRA Petition in cases in which constitutional law changes after the guilty plea or if the defendant uncovers newly discovered evidence which would have made a difference in the trial court. For example, if an eyewitness witness comes forward who was unknown to the defense who could have credibly testified that someone else committed the crime, the existence of the witness could be the basis for attacking the guilty plea.


What are the deadlines for filing a PCRA Petition?

A Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition generally must be filed 1) while the defendant is still serving his or her sentence and 2) within one year of the sentence becoming final. This means that if a defendant received a lengthy sentence, a PCRA Petition typically does not have to be filed until after direct appeals to the Superior Court and/or Pennsylvania Supreme Court have been exhausted. There is also a sixty-day exception to the one-year rule in cases where the law changes or the defendant learns of new evidence which could not have reasonably been discovered prior to trial or a guilty plea. This means that if the defendant learns of a previously unknown witness who would have been helpful to the defense, the defendant could file a PCRA Petition within sixty days of learning of that witness even if the normal one-year deadline has expired. However, once the defendant has finished serving the sentence, it is no longer possible to file a PCRA Petition, and the only remedy for a wrongful conviction would be a pardon.


Should I file a PCRA Petition or a direct appeal?

Whether you should file a PCRA Petition or pursue a direct appeal is heavily fact-specific and depends on the exact circumstances of your case. You should always consult with an experienced appellate attorney before making that decision as it not always possible to file both types of appeals. In general, it usually makes sense to pursue a direct appeal first because a direct appeal must be filed within thirty days of sentencing or the denial of post-sentence motions if post-sentence motions were filed. This means that if the direct appeal is not filed, the right to have the proceedings reviewed by the Superior Court is waived forever. A PCRA Petition, however, may be filed after the Superior Court rules on the direct appeal so long as the defendant is still serving the sentence. Therefore, unless there are truly no legitimate issues to raise in the direct appeal or the defendant’s sentence is going to expire before a direct appeal would be resolved and a PCRA is more likely to be successful, it usually makes sense to pursue the direct appeal first. Both areas of law are extremely complex, so you should always consult with an experienced Pennsylvania criminal appeals attorney before making a decision on which type of appeal to file.   


Contact a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

The preceding information is no substitute for legal advice from an experienced criminal defense lawyer who regularly handles PCRA Petitions and direct appeals. This area of law is particularly complex and often changes. There are also extremely strict deadlines which must be observed or critical rights could be waived forever. Our Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers have successfully represented clients in PCRA Petitions and direct appeals to the Superior Court. We offer a free, 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to anyone who is considering appealing a wrongful conviction or filing a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with one of our award-winning defense attorneys today.  


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New Strangulation Offense Increases Penalties for Domestic Violence

Strangulation - A New Crime in Pennsylvania 

The Pennsylvania Legislature recently enacted a new statute which increases the potential penalties in many domestic violence cases. Under the new strangulation statute, it is now often a felony to choke a family member or domestic partner. Previously, choking which did not cause serious bodily injury would often be graded as a misdemeanor Simple Assault instead of a felony Aggravated Assault. Therefore, the strangulation statute has the potential to drastically increase the consequences of a domestic assault allegation. 

What is strangulation?

Pennsylvania law defines strangulation as:

"knowingly or intentionally imped[ing] the breathing or circulation of the blood of another person by:

(1)  applying pressure to the throat or neck; or

(2)  blocking the nose and mouth of the person."

The statute specifically negates any requirement that the prosecution prove an actual physical injury.  The law provides: 

"Infliction of a physical injury to a victim shall not be an element of the offense. The lack of physical injury to a victim shall not be a defense in a prosecution under this section."

This makes it easier for the prosecution to prove strangulation than to prove Aggravated Assault. Aggravated Assault requires the Commonwealth to prove that the defendant caused or attempted to cause serious bodily injury. Thus, in Aggravated Assault cases where the prosecution alleged choking of some kind, it was often a defense to the charge that the defendant did not cause any injury. If the defendant did not cause injury despite the choking, then the defense could argue that the defendant likely was not attempting to cause serious bodily injury. Although this defense would still remain viable against an Aggravated or Simple Assault charge, a lack of injury does not provide a legal defense to strangulation. 

What are the penalties for Strangulation?

A conviction for strangulation does not require a judge to impose a mandatory minimum sentence at sentencing. However, it is a serious charge because it is often a felony.

  • By default, strangulation is a misdemeanor of the second degree.
  • However, it becomes a felony of the second degree when the crime is committed against a family member, household member, or complainant with whom the defendant has had a sexual relationship.
  • It becomes a felony of the first degree when the defendant has a prior conviction for strangulation, if the defendant uses a weapon during the commission of the offense, or if the complainant has an active Protection From Abuse order against the defendant. 

Misdemeanors of the second degree are punishable by up to two years in prison. Second degree felonies are punishable by ten years in prison, and first degree felonies may be punished by up to twenty years in prison. Because there is no mandatory minimum, the judge has a tremendous amount of discretion when deciding on a sentence for a strangulation conviction, and a sentence could range from probation to jail time. All convictions for domestic violence prohibit the defendant from possessing a firearm. 

What are the defenses to strangulation charges?

Despite the reduced legal burden for the prosecution in terms of proving strangulation, there are still a number of potential defense to this charge. Many of the defenses  are the same as the defenses available in all domestic violence cases. Depending on the circumstances of the case, potential defenses may include:

  • Pre-trial diversionary programs. In Philadelphia cases in which the complainant did not suffer serious injury, prosecutors often offer entry into pre-trial domestic violence diversionary programs which may result in the dismissal and expungement of charges if the defendant pays a fine, attends counseling sessions, completes community service, and stays out of trouble for six months. 
  • Credibility. Although the Commonwealth may prove strangulation without proving that the complainant suffered some kind of actual injury, the absence of injuries is still relevant in terms of whether the complainant is telling the truth. If the complainant alleges that the defendant choked him or her for a lengthy period of time but the complainant does not have any marks around the throat, then it may be possible to show that the complainant has fabricated the story. Additionally, cross examination may reveal that the complainant has a motive to fabricate for reasons such as jealousy, financial gain, or to obtain lawful immigration status. Every defendant in Pennsylvania has the right to a trial by jury or a trial with a judge, and the Commonwealth must prove each element of a statute beyond a reasonable doubt. If the judge or jury do not believe the complainant, then that could lead to an acquittal despite the fact that the Commonwealth is not required to prove that an injury occurred.  
  • Self-Defense. Self-defense could also be a defense in an assault case. If the defense can show that the complainant attacked the defendant first, then the defendant may have been justified in fighting back. If the defense introduces some evidence of self-defense, the Commonwealth must disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. If the Commonwealth cannot do so, then the defendant would be acquitted.   

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Strangulation Charges

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. and Demetra Mehta, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. and Demetra Mehta, Esq.

The Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys of Goldstein Mehta LLC have successfully represented hundreds of clients in domestic violence and domestic assault cases. We have already defended clients who are charged with strangulation and successfully moved to have these serious charges dismissed at preliminary hearings in courts throughout Pennsylvania. We are experienced and understanding defense attorneys who will fight for you. If you are facing domestic violence allegations or any other criminal charges, call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session. 



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Third Circuit Overturns PA Murder Conviction Due To Prosecutor’s Knowing Use Of Perjured Testimony

Prosecutors May Not Knowingly Introduce Perjured Testimony 

Federal and state courts have previously held that prosecutors may not knowingly use perjured testimony or knowingly allow perjured testimony to go uncorrected. However, the standard of review on appeal and in post-conviction proceedings has not always been clear. In Haskell v. Superintendent Greene SCI, et al, the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the knowing use of perjured testimony by the prosecution in a state criminal trial may lead to the reversal of a conviction in habeas litigation. In order to obtain relief, the defendant must show a reasonable likelihood that the perjured testimony affected the judgment of the jury.

Prosecutors charged Haskell with murder after a gunman shot and killed a man in a bar in Erie, Pennsylvania in December 1994. The primary issue at trial was whether authorities correctly identified Haskell as the gunman. In addition to some circumstantial evidence linking Haskell to the crime, the Commonwealth also presented four alleged eyewitnesses who claimed that Haskell was the shooter. Three of them had significant problems with their testimony. One witness recanted on the stand and testified he had identified Haskell solely in the hopes of getting out of jail on his own unrelated case, and two others denied being able to identify the shooter in earlier statements given to the police. Therefore, the testimony of the fourth eyewitness was important.

The fourth eyewitness consistently testified that Haskell was the shooter. However, she had a number of legal problems of her own. In addition to facing a parole violation in Erie County, she was also in jail on Simple Assault charges. In addition to her Erie County legal problems, she also faced numerous theft charges in Mercer County. She testified that she smoked marijuana with Haskell shortly before the shooting and witnessed him committing the crime. At the preliminary hearing, she denied having any pending charges and insisted that she was in custody solely due to the parole violation. She also insisted that she had not discussed cooperation with the prosecution. She stuck to that story at trial, again insisting that she was in jail for a parole violation and that she did not expect to receive anything in exchange for her testimony.

Of course, that was a lie. The detectives and prosecutors in Erie helped her with her pending charges both before her testimony at trial and afterwards. They wrote letters to the judges in her cases as well as the prosecutors in Mercer County, and the witness was eventually released with a suspended sentence due to the fact that she cooperated by testifying in a homicide. Despite knowing that the witness perjured herself by denying any cooperation or anticipated benefit, the prosecutor actually argued during closing argument that it was ridiculous to think she would receive any personal benefit from testifying against the defendant. That prosecutor then sent a letter to the judge in Mercer County explaining the importance of her testimony in the homicide.   

Based on the circumstantial evidence and the testimony of the four witnesses, Haskell was convicted and sentenced to life in jail. He initially filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition alleging that the fourth witness’s perjured testimony violated his right to due process. The state court dismissed the PCRA, finding that it was time-barred. He then filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, and the Commonwealth conceded that the claim was not in fact time barred. The federal District Court held that the testimony was false and the prosecution knew or should have known it was false. However, the District Court denied the habeas petition, finding that the testimony would not have had a substantial effect on the jury’s verdict. Haskell appealed.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court. The Third Circuit recognized that a state violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee when it knowingly presents or fails to correct false testimony in a criminal proceeding. Consequently, the Supreme Court has consistently held that a conviction obtained by the knowing use of perjured testimony is fundamentally unfair, and must be set aside if there is any reasonable likelihood that the false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury. Likewise, the same result must occur when the State, although not soliciting false evidence, allows it to go uncorrected when it appears. A conviction must be set aside even if the false testimony goes only to a witness’s credibility rather than the defendant’s guilt. 

Accordingly, the Third Circuit recognized that in order to establish his claim, Haskell must have shown that

  1. the fourth eyewitness committed perjury,
  2. the Commonwealth knew or should have known that the testimony was false,
  3. the false testimony was not corrected,
  4. there is a reasonable likelihood that the perjured testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury. 

The Third Circuit held that Haskell established all four prongs of this test. First, it was uncontested that the eyewitness had lied about not receiving favorable treatment in exchange for cooperation. Second, the Commonwealth knew about it because the prosecutors involved actually obtained that favorable treatment for her. Third, the prosecution failed to correct the perjured testimony and instead argued that it was ridiculous to believe she would receive any benefit. Finally, there is a reasonable likelihood that the false testimony could have affected the verdict. The Court noted that she was a key witness because all of the other witnesses had significant problems with their testimony. They either recanted or had given prior inconsistent statements in which they denied being able to identify the shooter. It was only the fourth eyewitness who claimed to know Haskell before the shooting and that she could therefore definitively identify him. Because her testimony was central to the case, the Court held that her perjured testimony posed a reasonable, and significant likelihood of affecting the verdict. Therefore, the Third Circuit reversed Haskell’s conviction.

Haskell should put prosecutors throughout the Third Circuit on notice of both their pre-trial discovery obligations and their duty to correct perjured testimony when they know about it. Every criminal defendant has a constitutional right to due process, and due process includes the right to a fair trial. It is impossible to have a fair trial when the prosecution is willing to introduce testimony that it knows to be false, and prosecutors simply may not hide exculpatory evidence from the defense. 


Goldstein Mehta LLC: Criminal Defense Lawyers in Philadelphia, PA 

Goldstein Mehta LLC: Criminal Defense Lawyers in Philadelphia, PA 

If you are facing criminal charges or are interested in appealing a conviction, we can help. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully resolved countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.