PA Superior Court: Commonwealth May Not Rebut Claim of Self-Defense by Showing Defendant Has Prior Conviction for Violent Offense

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Superior Court just announced its decision in Commonwealth v. Crosley, holding that the Commonwealth cannot use a defendant’s prior conviction for a violent offense in order to rebut a defendant’s claim that the complainant was a violent person who started the altercation. Instead, testimony to this effect by a criminal defendant in an assault or homicide trial would open the door only to evidence of the defendant’s reputation for violence. This decision limits the Commonwealth’s ability to rebut claims of self-defense in that the Commonwealth may not tell a judge or jury that the defendant has a prior conviction for assault or some other violent crime.

Commonwealth v. Crosley

This case had an unusual set of the facts. It is unclear how the defendant and the decedent met, but at some point the decedent gave the defendant permission to live in his shed. The defendant was not allowed inside the house without permission. When it was cold, the decedent would permit the defendant to live in the basement of the house. Additionally, the decedent was married and had a child living at the residence.

Eventually, the decedent’s wife tired of this arrangement. She wanted the defendant off of the property, so the decedent went and told the defendant that he would have to move out. The decedent’s wife testified that the decedent was unarmed when he went to speak with the defendant.

While she was in the shower, the decedent’s wife heard what she believed to be a gun shot. She instructed her daughter to go check on the decedent. The daughter then went to the basement where she observed the decedent and the defendant struggling for a gun. Upon seeing this, the daughter ran upstairs and told her mother what she saw. The decedent’s wife then went to her window where she observed the defendant chasing the victim and shooting at him. She yelled at the defendant to stop, and the defendant replied that the decedent “takes me for a fool.”  The wife went outside and found the decedent lying on the sidewalk with a bullet hole in his chest. He was alive at this point and taken to a local hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries.   

Police arrested the defendant and questioned him. He waived his Miranda rights and gave a statement to the police. He claimed that he had shot the decedent in self-defense. He further told the police about prior incidents in which the decedent had possessed a gun and threatened the defendant with the gun. He mentioned one specific instance where he had disarmed the decedent and hid the decedent’s gun. He took the police to the location where he had hidden the gun. The police recovered the gun and some ammunition.

Prior Bad Acts in Self-Defense Cases

After the decedent died, prosecutors charged the defendant with Murder, gun charges, and possession of an instrument of a crime. Prior to trial, the Commonwealth filed a Motion in Limine asking the trial court to allow the introduction of the defendant’s existing Aggravated Assault conviction. The trial court held a hearing, and the court ruled that the Commonwealth could introduce evidence of the Aggravated Assault conviction if the defendant took the stand and told the jury that the decedent was a violent person and that he had acted in self-defense. Undeterred, the defendant took the stand and testified that the decedent was a violent person who had attacked him first. The defendant also testified that he, the defendant, never carried a weapon and was not a violent person. The jury convicted the defendant of third-degree murder and the gun charges. The Court sentenced him to a lengthy period of state incarceration followed by a period of probation and also ordered him to pay $7,864.72 in restitution to the Pennsylvania Victim’s Compensation Fund. The defendant appealed.  

What is Character Evidence?

The defendant raised several issues on appeal. First, he argued that the trial court erred in permitting the Commonwealth to introduce evidence of his prior Aggravated Assault conviction in order to rebut his assertion that the complainant was the violent aggressor. In general, character evidence is extremely important in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania law permits criminal defendants to introduce character evidence to show that they are not the type of person who would commit the crime charged. In other words, a defendant who has no prior record may introduce evidence about his or her law abidingness, truthfulness, and non-violence to show that he or she would not have committed a crime. Under Pennsylvania law, the jury will then be instructed that character evidence alone may be enough for the jury to find reasonable doubt. Typically, in Philadelphia, if a defendant has good character, meaning no prior record, the Commonwealth will stipulate to it and the defendant may not have to call live witnesses to testify to the character evidence. When the defense does call character witnesses, the witnesses must testify only about the defendant’s good reputation for the relevant character traits; the witness may not testify about specific good things that the defendant has done or the witness’s own personal opinion.   

Although the defense may introduce character evidence, the Commonwealth generally may not introduce evidence of a defendant’s bad character or prior criminal history for the purposes of proving that the defendant is a bad person who would commit the crimes charged. The logic behind the rule is that just because an individual committed a crime at some point in their life, it does not necessarily follow that they committed this particular crime. However, there are exceptions to the rule. The Commonwealth may try to introduce evidence of prior convictions through Pa.R.Crim.P. 404(b).   

What is a 404(b) motion?

Although the Commonwealth may not introduce character evidence to show that a defendant committed a crime because he has a character for criminality, the Commonwealth can introduce prior criminal contacts to rebut certain defenses. The rules permit the Commonwealth to file a 404(b) Motion. A 404(b) motion is commonly referred to as a “Prior Bad Acts Motion,” and prosecutors file them to rebut certain defenses such as mistake, fabrication, lack of knowledge. The Commonwealth may also introduce these “bad acts” to show that it was part of the defendant’s Modus Operandi or was part of a common scheme.

Let’s do an example of common scheme. Suppose that an individual is charged with Possession with Intent to Deliver a Controlled Substance, or selling drugs. More specifically, let’s say that he is accused of selling heroin with an X stamp on the package on the southwest corner of D and Allegheny Streets. Let’s also assume that he has a prior conviction for selling heroin with an X stamp on the package on the southwest corner of D and Allegheny Streets from a month prior to the arrest of his current case. If the Commonwealth were to file a 404(b) motion to introduce that prior conviction, they would have a decent argument that the defendant is engaged in a common scheme to sell heroin with X stamps on the package at the southwest corner of D and Allegheny Streets. Technically, this example did not address the defendant’s character. However, if a judge or a jury hears that a defendant has a prior conviction for selling drugs and is currently on trial for selling drugs, it is much more likely that he will be found guilty of the current offense because juries have a very hard time disregarding the fact that the defendant has a prior conviction. Accordingly, these 404(b) motions can make or break a case.    

The Pennsylvania Superior Court Limits the Commonwealth’s Introduction of Character Evidence to Rebut a Claim of Self-Defense

In cases involving crimes of violence, however, the Commonwealth may sometimes introduce character evidence when the defendant raises the issue of self-defense. The prosecution may not introduce this evidence as part of its case-in-chief, but if the defendant introduces evidence that the complainant was the aggressor and a violent person, it opens the door for the prosecution to attack the defendant’s character.

As previously explained, there are different rules for the Commonwealth and defendants when it comes to introducing character evidence. The rule governing character evidence is Rule 405. Typically, as the Crosley court explained, only defendants can introduce specific instances of conduct and this can only be done for alleged victims. As such, a defendant cannot introduce specific instances of conduct to show his character for non-violence. He would need a witness to discuss his reputation for non-violence. However, if a defendant is attacking a victim’s character, he can then use specific examples (i.e. a prior conviction of the witness for assault) to show that the witness was a violent person.

In rebuttal, the Commonwealth may only attack the defendant’s character through reputation evidence. The Commonwealth cannot bring in specific instances (i.e. a prior conviction) to rebut his claim. Therefore, in Crosley, the lower court erred in admitting Mr. Crosley’s prior aggravated assault conviction to rebut his self-defense claim. The Commonwealth would have had to call someone who knew the defendant to speak about his reputation for violence to rebut his self-defense claim.

Unfortunately for the defendant, the Superior Court held that the trial court did not completely err in allowing the Commonwealth to introduce the conviction. The defendant testified at his trial that “[he] never [carries] a weapon.” The problem with this statement is that his prior conviction involved a weapon. Therefore, the Superior Court held that the Commonwealth was allowed to introduce this conviction (which was a guilty plea) to impeach him. The defendant’s other grounds for appeal were also denied. Specifically, there was sufficient evidence to show that he committed third degree murder (as stated above, there was a witness who saw him shooting at the victim) and that the record supported a factual finding that there were costs incurred in trying to save the victim’s life and ultimately the  disposition of his remains.

Call the Award-Winning Criminal Law Office of Goldstein Mehta LLC if You Are Charged with a Crime of Violence

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