PA Superior Court: Relevant, Exculpatory DNA Evidence Requires New Homicide Degree of Guilt Hearing

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Payne. The Superior Court held that the trial court erred in denying the defendant a new degree of guilt hearing where recently-obtained DNA evidence showed that the defendant did not rape the victim in a case in which the prosecution obtained a conviction for first degree murder by relying primarily on the fact that the defendant had allegedly raped the victim prior to killing her. This case involved a Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) challenge based on after-discovered evidence to the defendant’s conviction for first degree murder at a degree of guilt hearing in which the defendant pleaded guilty to homicide generally but argued that he should only be convicted of third degree murder. The degree of guilt matters tremendously in a homicide case because first degree murder requires a sentence of life without parole and third degree murder does not.

Commonwealth v. Payne

In 1977, the defendant pled guilty to murder generally, and three judges were empaneled to decide his degree of guilt. At this hearing, the Commonwealth presented evidence to support its position that the defendant committed a first degree murder. Specifically, the Commonwealth argued that the defendant murdered the victim while he was raping her.

As part of its case-in-chief, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of a Mr. Evans who was incarcerated with the defendant in Erie County prison. Mr. Evans testified that the defendant admitted to him that he strangled the victim in the woods after he raped her and that her death “was a culmination of a sexual fantasy that he had been living with for a long time; that he likes to tie women up and do crazy things to ‘em.” The Commonwealth also called a chemist employed with the Pennsylvania State Police to corroborate Mr. Evans’s testimony that the victim died while “protesting a sexual attack upon her.” The Commonwealth also presented a statement made by the defendant to the police.

Per the Superior Court’s decision, this statement was similar to Mr. Evans’s testimony. At the conclusion of the hearing, the defendant argued that this was a third degree murder. The Panel rejected his argument and convicted the defendant of first degree Murder. In its decision, the Panel placed significant weight on the conclusion that the defendant raped the victim when making its determination that it was a first degree murder and not third degree. Although other evidence was presented, the Panel relied exclusively of the testimony of Mr. Evans and the chemist in its opinion. The defendant was therefore automatically sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The defendant then filed the first of several appeals and PCRA petitions.

After several unsuccessful attempts at post-conviction relief, on January 8, 1997, the defendant filed a PCRA petition requesting DNA testing on the seminal fluid that was recovered from the victim’s body. The PCRA court denied his petition. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied his petition for allowance of appeal. On February 6, 2003, the defendant filed a Motion for DNA testing pursuant to the then-newly passed provision of the PCRA permitting DNA testing under certain circumstances. The PCRA court again denied his motion, and he appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court decision and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied his petition for allowance of appeal.

Undeterred, the defendant then filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against the Erie County District Attorney’s Office alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for its refusal to permit the DNA testing. While his case was being litigated in federal court, the defendant filed a second motion for DNA testing. On October 4, 2011, the PCRA court again denied relief and both the Pennsylvania Superior Court and Supreme Court also denied him relief. However, on December 16, 2014, the United States District Court signed a stipulated order permitting the post-conviction DNA testing. The DNA test results established conclusively that the defendant was excluded as a contributor to the seminal fluid found on the victim’s body.

Based on this new evidence, the Defendant filed another PCRA petition asserting that he is entitled to a new trial or degree of guilt hearing based on this after-discovered evidence. Again, the PCRA court denied him relief and the defendant filed another appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

What is a Degree of Guilt Hearing?

A degree of guilt hearing is required when a defendant pleads generally to murder in a case in which the defendant could receive the death penalty. If a defendant pleads guilty or no-contest, then the degree of guilt shall be determined by a jury, unless the Commonwealth elects to have a judge make a determination as to what degree of murder the defendant is guilty of and consequentially what his sentence will be. These hearings are quasi-trials where the Commonwealth and the defense can present evidence and argue that the defendant should be found guilty of first or third degree murder.

What is after-discovered evidence under the PCRA?

42 Pa. C.S. § 9543 (a)(2)(vi) is the statute that governs the after-discovered evidence prong of the PCRA. In order to obtain relief under this subsection, which could include a new trial and/or sentencing, a defendant must show that 1) the evidence has been discovered after trial and it could not have been obtained at or prior to trial through reasonable diligence; 2) the evidence is not cumulative; 3) it is not being used solely to impeach credibility; and 4) it would likely compel a different verdict. The test is conjunctive, meaning that each element must be satisfied. Further, the defendant must satisfy each element by the preponderance of the evidence standard in order to be successful.

In making this determination, the court will consider several factors in making its decision including: the nature of the new evidence; whether, and to what extent, the new evidence is consistent or inconsistent with the other trial testimony; whether, and to what extent, the new evidence is consistent or inconsistent with documentary evidence; the prosecution’s theory at the original trial, and the difficulty of making this argument in light of the new evidence; the prosecutor’s closing remarks, which may demonstrate the importance of the new evidence; and other relevant factors. However, one must remember that this “after-discovered evidence” does not require that the new evidence prove a defendant’s innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, the defendant does not have to prove his innocence in order to be successful in his petition, he is only required to show that it would have likely compelled a different outcome.   

The Superior Court’s Decision

The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the defendant was entitled to a new degree of guilt hearing. According to the Superior Court’s decision, the only issue was whether the defendant had established by a preponderance of the evidence that the DNA evidence would have changed the outcome of the trial if it had been introduced. In the instant case, the Superior Court held that this evidence would have changed the outcome of the hearing.

The reason is because the Commonwealth’s theory of the case was that the defendant killed the victim while sexually assaulting her. The prosecution repeatedly emphasized the evidence of seminal fluid during the closing argument to the Panel arguing that “at least it was a rape” and that the presence of seminal fluid was proof of the intent required for a first-degree murder conviction. As such, because the DNA evidence was uncontroverted in that the defendant was not the source, the Panel erred in placing such significant weight on it when making its decision. Further, this evidence discredits Mr. Evans’s testimony, a key witness against the defendant. Therefore, the defendant satisfied the after-discovered evidence requirements and the defendant is entitled to a new degree of guilt hearing.

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