The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. DeCosta, holding that the trial court erred in continuing jury deliberations and taking the jury’s verdict in the defendant’s absence because the absence was not the defendant’s fault. DeCosta re-affirms the fact that criminal defendants in Pennsylvania have a fundamental right to be present for their trials. Although that right may be waived by a defendant, a court obviously may not continue proceedings where the defendant is absent involuntarily.
The Facts of DeCosta
In DeCosta, the defendant was arrested for threatening two strangers with a knife in front of a Pathmark store. One of the strangers drew a gun and warned the defendant to stop, but the defendant ignored the warning. The stranger shot the defendant in the groin as the defendant charged him with the knife, causing serious injury. Despite the significant injuries to the defendant, prosecutors charged the defendant with two counts each of Aggravated Assault, Terroristic Threats, Simple Assault, and Recklessly Endangering Another Person. They also charged him with one count of possessing an instrument of crime for the knife.
The defendant proceeded to trial by way of jury trial. The jury began its deliberations on a Friday. The jury did not reach a verdict that Friday and was scheduled to reconvene on the following Monday. As deliberations were set to resume, the defendant’s attorney informed the judge that the defendant had been hospitalized over the weekend with sepsis. The defense attorney informed the court that the defendant was sedated and on a ventilator and therefore could not attend the trial. The defense attorney provided documentation confirming the defendant’s medical problems and refused the court’s request that he waive his client’s presence for any questions from the jury.
Despite the defense attorney’s refusal to waive his client’s presence, the court decided to proceed in absentia. The court found that no prejudice would result from the defendant’s absence and that defense counsel could address any questions from the jury without his client there. Defense counsel objected and asked either that the judge stay the proceedings or declare a mistrial. The judge refused, and the jury subsequently requested instructions on the definitions of certain criminal charges. The defense attorney again objected to proceeding in absentia, but the court overruled the objection and re-instructed the jury on the definition of the charges. Shortly thereafter, the jury found the defendant not guilty of Aggravated Assault but guilty of possessing an instrument of crime and one count of terroristic threats. Once the defendant recovered from sepsis, the trial judge sentenced him to 4-10 years’ incarceration for these misdemeanor convictions.
The Appeal of the Criminal Case
The defendant appealed his conviction to the Superior Court, arguing that he was entitled to a new trial because the trial judge improperly continued the proceedings without him. He argued that he had both a statutory and constitutional right to be present in court for the jury’s questions and the taking of the verdict. Ultimately, the Superior Court found that the defendant was entitled to a new trial because he did have a statutory right to be present. It noted that Rule 602(A) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure provide the defendant with the right to be present at every stage of a trial. Specifically, the rule provides:
The defendant shall be present at every stage of the trial including the impaneling of the jury and the return of the verdict, and at the imposition of sentence, except as otherwise provided by this rule. The defendant’s absence without cause at the time scheduled for the start of trial or during trial shall not preclude proceeding with the trial, including the return of the verdict and the imposition of sentence.
Given the clear language of the rule, the court concluded that the defendant had the right to be there for the return of the verdict by the jury unless the defendant had waived that right through his own actions. In the trial court’s opinion, the judge had tried to argue that the defendant waived that right because the defendant had pretended to be in more pain from his shooting injury than he really was, had faked the need for a wheelchair in front of the jury, and had possibly tried to commit suicide because he was found to have pain medication and anxiety medication in his blood when he went to the hospital for the sepsis.
The Superior Court, however, rejected the trial court’s opinion. It found that the trial court overstepped its role and became an advocate for the prosecution instead of a neutral fact finder. The burden of showing that a defendant has voluntarily chosen not to appear for court rests with the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth introduced no concrete evidence that the defendant had either tried to commit suicide or that he did not really need to go to the hospital. Instead, the trial judge had improperly assumed the role of prosecutor and relied on speculation in finding that the defendant chose not to be present for trial. Therefore, the Superior Court awarded the defendant a new trial.
Notably, the Superior Court found that the defendant was only entitled to the new trial due to the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Constitution did not require that he receive a new trial. Although the Due Process Clause of the Constitution requires the defendant’s presence for a trial to proceed, there are exceptions for minor parts of the proceedings where the defendant would not suffer prejudice from not being present. The defendant may not have suffered prejudice from his failure to be there, so the Superior Court relied entirely on the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure in reaching its decision. Nonetheless, this is a good decision from the Superior Court which confirms what should be obvious – that a trial court cannot proceed with a trial where the defendant has fallen ill with a life-threatening condition through no fault of his or her own.
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