The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Small, holding that the quality of evidence is relevant in determining whether a defendant is entitled to a new trial based on the after-discovered evidence prong of the Post-Conviction Relief Act (hereinafter “PCRA”). In general, after-discovered evidence may help a defendant get a new trial after a conviction, but the evidence may not be cumulative or corroborative of the type of evidence that was already presented at the original trial. In Small, the Court held that stronger evidence in support of a proposition for which there was some evidence introduced at trial may require a court to grant a new trial.
Commonwealth v. Small
On March 7, 2011, the decedent was killed after he suffered a contact gunshot wound to the left side of his head after he left a local club in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. No one saw the actual shooting, but a number of witnesses saw the defendant with the decedent moments before the shooting. The Commonwealth alleged that the defendant shot the victim because of his loyalty to a Mr. Espada. Specifically, the Commonwealth alleged that the defendant, who grew up with Espada, killed the decedent because the decedent had previously assaulted Ms. Tyson, the mother of Espada’s children.
The Commonwealth presented multiple witnesses to support this theory. Because no one actually witnessed the shooting, the Commonwealth relied primarily on circumstantial evidence at trial. For example, the Commonwealth called Ms. Tyson to testify about the decedent’s assault of her. Mr. Williams, the defendant's sister’s boyfriend, testified that he saw the defendant and Espada with the decedent moments before his demise. Although he did not see the defendant shoot the decedent, he did see the defendant standing over the decedent’s body before he fled the scene. The Commonwealth also called Mr. Evans to testify that he and a Mr. Gibson pursued the person whom they believed to be the shooter immediately after the shooting. They stopped their pursuit after someone fired two gunshots in their direction.
The Commonwealth also called Mr. Knight, who was one of the defendant's friends. He testified at trial that he saw the defendant approach the decedent and put his arm around him. He also saw the defendant running towards the river immediately following the shooting and, later on in the night, make statements such as “we did what we had to do” and “if it came down to it, pin it on my boy [Espada].” The Commonwealth also called police as witnesses. Specifically, the officers testified that they were able to track footprints in the snow that lead from the crime scene, to the riverfront, and then back to the defendant's apartment complex. Additionally, they called a forensic pathologist who testified that the decedent died as a result of a “contact gunshot wound” and that the gun that killed the decedent had to be pressed into the left side of his face. In addition to this circumstantial evidence, the Commonwealth also presented the testimony of two inmates who were former cellmates with the defendant. Supposedly, the defendant admitted to both of these cellmates that he killed the decedent.
At trial, the defense did not call any witnesses. Instead, they relied on the Commonwealth’s witnesses to establish the theory that Espada was the shooter. On cross examination, the defense was able to ascertain that Ms. Tyson had just given birth to one of Espada’s children only two weeks prior to the decedent assaulting her. Additionally, they were able to ascertain that Espada was more upset about this assault than the defendant and thus had a stronger incentive to kill the decedent. Espada was also in close proximity to the decedent prior to his murder.
Further, the defense was able to show that Espada shot at Mr. Gibson and Mr. Evans immediately after the shooting. They also were able to show that Espada had confessed, on at least two occasions, to the murder of the decedent. The defense was able to elicit this through the testimony of the defendant's sister. She testified that Mr. Espada confessed to his then-girlfriend that he had killed the decedent. Finally, in regards to the two jailhouse informants, they were able to impeach them to show that they received favorable treatment in their own pending cases in return for their testimony against the defendant.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and firearms not to be carried without a license. The trial judge sentenced him to life in prison as required by law. The defendant then filed several appeals which were ultimately denied. He then filed a timely PCRA petition. The PCRA petition sought a new trial on after-discovered evidence grounds. The defendant attached as an exhibit a notarized statement from Ms. Tyson. In this statement, Ms. Tyson stated that she withheld from the police and the jury that Espada admitted to her that he, not the defendant, shot the decedent. She also provided details about Espada's appearance and demeanor after the shooting which suggested that he could have been the shooter.
The PCRA court held an evidentiary hearing on May 12, 2015. At this hearing, Ms. Tyson testified that within twenty-four hours of the murder, Espada called her and confessed to the murder. Ms. Tyson also spoke with Espada in person and described him as a “hot mess” and that “he cut his hair and he just looked like he was up all night crying and stuff and he was like shaken up.” According to Ms. Tyson, Espada killed the decedent because of his prior assault on Ms. Tyson. Ms. Tyson testified that she did not tell the police this because her children were in foster care and she was receiving threats on Facebook. She also stated that the police threatened her and that the reason she came forward was because she wanted to remove the stress she bore from withholding this information. On January 19, 2016, the PCRA court granted a new trial based on the defendant's after-discovered evidence claim. The court stated that Ms. Tyson’s testimony satisfied all four factors (as discussed later) which a petitioner must meet in order to obtain a new trial based on after-discovered evidence. However, the PCRA court did not specifically address the credibility of Ms. Tyson; meaning it made no finding as to whether or not it found her testimony to be truthful.
The Commonwealth appealed. The Superior Court reversed the PCRA court. It held that Ms. Tyson’s testimony was merely corroborative and cumulative of the evidence presented at trial. The Superior Court further held that this testimony “goes to the very heart of the defense’s theory at trial” and faulted the PCRA court for accepting Ms. Tyson’s testimony “with no apparent corroboration.” It is important to remember that there was already testimony introduced at trial that Espada admitted to committing the murder. The defendant then filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
What is The After-Discovered Evidence Prong of the PCRA Statute?
The law on after-discovered evidence has been around for almost two centuries. Pennsylvania courts will allow a defendant to receive a new trial if they present evidence that meets four requirements: 1) the evidence could not have been obtained prior to the conclusion of the trial by the exercise of reasonable diligence; 2) the evidence is not merely corroborative or cumulative; 3) the evidence will not be used solely to impeach the credibility of a witness; and 4) the evidence would likely result in a different verdict if a new trial were granted. This is a conjunctive test and a petitioner must satisfy each of these elements by the preponderance of the evidence standard. Additionally, there are timing issues. For example, a petitioner cannot file a PCRA petition while an appeal is pending, and the petition must be filed within one year of the petitioner's sentence becoming final or within sixty days of the discovery of the evidence if the petitioner is outside of that initial one year window. Further, the petition must still be serving the sentence in order to file a PCRA Petition. As shown by the elements, a petitioner can have an uphill battle in satisfying all four elements. The reason why it can be difficult to succeed on this motion is that the courts have articulated a public policy that seeks to limit continued litigation.
What is Merely Corroborative and Cumulative Evidence?
The Supreme Court accepted the appeal and ruled that the evidence was not necessarily corroborative or cumulative because it may have been evidence of a higher quality than the similar evidence which had been introduced at trial. However, because the trial judge did not specifically find that he or she believed the testimony, the Court remanded the case for a credibility determination.
In its decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that in its After-Discovered Evidence jurisprudence the Court never precisely defined what is “merely corroborative or cumulative” evidence. Accordingly, the Court looked to other jurisdictions for guidance. Specifically, the Court analyzed decisions from both New York and Georgia. In those states, the appellate courts analyzed the grade or the character of the evidence that was newly discovered. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found these positions persuasive and adopted them. Specifically, the Court held that “[i]f the new evidence is of a different and ‘higher’ grade or character, though upon the same point, or of the same grade or character on a different point, it is not ‘merely’ corroborative or cumulative, and may support the grant of a new trial based on after-discovered evidence.”
When applying this new rule to the instant case, the Supreme Court held that Ms. Tyson’s testimony, though technically cumulative, was a much higher grade and character, if believed, than what was presented at trial. Ms. Tyson was the mother of Espada’s children and thus her testimony would arguably be much more persuasive than what was presented at trial. Additionally, she would be able to testify about his physical appearance in the immediate after hours of this shooting, which could also be more persuasive than what was presented at trial.
Unfortunately for the defendant, despite this favorable ruling, he is not guaranteed a new trial. As stated above, the PCRA court did not make a clear credibility determination of Ms. Tyson in its opinion, which is necessary to rule on an after-discovered evidence petition. Therefore, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court chose not to grant the defendant's petition. Instead, it remanded the case for the PCRA court to make the credibility determination.
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