Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire recently won a new trial for a client who had been convicted of rape and related charges for allegedly molesting his step-daughter.
In Commonwealth v. R.S., the defendant had been charged with rape of a child and related charges for allegedly sexually assaulting his step-daughter. The client was represented by a different attorney at trial, and at trial, the complainant testified to the details of the alleged abuse. The Commonwealth also called a number of witnesses to testify to the complainant’s disclosure of the allegations as well as the investigating detective.
In response, the defendant’s attorney called his then-wife to testify that she did not believe the allegations and had never seen anything suspicious. He also called the defendant to testify, and the defendant adamantly denied the allegations. The Commonwealth introduced no physical or forensic evidence to corroborate the allegations, and there were no other witnesses who had ever seen anything even remotely inappropriate. Nonetheless, the jury convicted R.S. of the charges based solely on the testimony of the complainant. R.S. was sentenced to 40 years’ incarceration, and his direct appeals were denied.
The Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition
After the Superior Court denied the direct appeal, R.S. retained Attorney Goldstein to file a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition. Attorney Goldstein reviewed the transcripts and immediately noticed that the trial attorney had made a number of critical errors during the course of the trial. Most importantly, the trial attorney had failed to call character witnesses on R.S.’s behalf.
In Pennsylvania, character evidence is extremely important and may be the basis for reasonable doubt on its own. A defendant who has no prior criminal convictions may call witnesses to testify on his or her behalf and to tell a judge or jury that the defendant has an excellent reputation in the community for being a peaceful, non-violent person. A defendant who produces that type of testimony is then entitled to a special jury instruction which informs the jury that the character testimony, if believed, may provide the basis for reasonable doubt even if the jury otherwise believed the allegations.
Here, R.S. had no prior convictions, but his defense attorney failed to introduce any character evidence at trial. Therefore, one of the main claims in the PCRA Petition was that the defense attorney provided the ineffective assistance of counsel by neglecting to call character witnesses on R.S.’s behalf and thereby failing to obtain this critical jury instruction. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and eventually credited the attorney’s testimony that he felt that character evidence was not relevant because the defendant’s wife had testified that she did not believe the complainant. The trial court then denied the PCRA Petition, finding that trial counsel had provided the effective assistance of counsel.
The Appeal of the PCRA Petition’s Denial
PCRA Petitions can be difficult to win in the trial court because they are typically heard by the judge who presided over the trial. Naturally, many judges do not want to overturn a conviction for a case where they sat through the trial, particularly if the judge agreed with the result. Fortunately, the improper denial of a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition may be appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court and Supreme Court if necessary. Judges may also simply disagree with the claims raised in the Petition.
After the trial judge denied the PCRA Petition, Attorney Goldstein immediately filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. In a lengthy opinion, the Superior Court overruled the trial court and ordered a new trial. Superior Court concluded that based on a century of precedent, trial counsel was ineffective in failing to call character witnesses on R.S.’s behalf, and the mere fact that he had called fact witnesses as part of the defense did not eliminate the requirement that he provide effective representation by calling the character witnesses. The Court noted that this entire case came down to the testimony of two witnesses - the complainant who said that this happened, and R.S. who said that it did not. R.S. suffered prejudice from the fact that the jury was not informed of his outstanding reputation in the community and the instruction that that reputation alone could provide a reasonable doubt.
Fortunately, the Superior Court reversed the conviction and awarded R.S. a new trial at which he will be able to call the character witnesses.
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