The Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Perez, holding that the evidence that was presented at the preliminary hearing was not sufficient to force the defendant to face trial for the charges of first degree murder and possession of an instrument of a crime. The evidence that was presented against the defendant was entirely circumstantial, and the Court ultimately ruled that it was simply not enough to show even at a preliminary hearing that the defendant probably killed the complainant. This case is important because it shows that the preliminary hearing judge or magistrate should not simply approve charges merely because the Commonwealth has filed them. instead, the judge should review the evidence and determine whether there is really enough for the case to proceed to the trial level.
Commonwealth v. Perez
Two men went to a bar in Philadelphia. When they arrived, the defendant was also there. While one of the men was talking to a friend, the eventual-victim was dancing with a woman about five to eight feet away from the defendant. At approximately 1:50 AM, a bouncer spotted the victim and the defendant pushing one another. The two men were shoving one another in the center of two groups, comprised of between five and fifteen people each, when the bouncer stepped in and separated them. The victim told the bouncer that he and the defendant knew each other and that everything was “cool.”
A few minutes later, the decedent and the defendant were shoving one another again. The bouncer saw the defendant make a movement towards the victim’s neck, but he did not see the defendant actually stab the victim, nor did he observe a weapon of any kind in the defendant’s hands. However, when the bouncer and a colleague stepped in to break up the second shoving match, he noticed that the victim was holding his neck and that blood began “gushing out.” The victim’s friend only noticed something was wrong when the two bouncers moved to separate the victim and the defendant.
The friend then tried to speak with the victim outside of the bar, but the victim was unable to speak due to the severity of the wound. The friend applied pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding. Shortly after doing this, the friend saw the defendant exit the bar. According to the friend, the defendant had blood on his shirt. As such, the friend approached the defendant and punched him in the face because he believed that he was the cause of the victim’s injuries. The defendant then went back into the bar.
Later in the night, the bouncer saw the defendant walking around the bar in a tank top. The bouncer then approached the defendant and asked him why he was not wearing a shirt. The defendant stated that he took off the shirt and threw it in the trashcan after it got covered in blood. The defendant was then detained by the bar’s security not because of the incident, but because he owed $600 on his tab.
At approximately 2:00 AM, a pedestrian alerted a Philadelphia Police Officer of the stabbing. Upon entering the bar, the staff directed the officer to the defendant. The defendant was sitting alone at a table. The defendant was asked if he was involved in a fight. He denied being involved. He was also asked why he was not wearing a shirt. The defendant then showed the officer his bloody shirt. The officer then asked the defendant how he got blood on his shirt and he responded that he got hit. The defendant was subsequently arrested. The police were unable to find the weapon that was used to cut the victim’s throat.
The victim died at the hospital later that day. The medical examiner’s officer determined that his death was caused from a stab wound he sustained to his neck, which severed his jugular vein and trachea. The defendant was then charged with first-degree murder and possession of an instrument of a crime. On March 22, 2017, a preliminary hearing was held. At the hearing, the above facts were introduced into evidence. Additionally, the Commonwealth moved several exhibits into evidence including a DNA laboratory report indicating that the blood found on the defendant’s shirt belonged to the victim. At the conclusion of the hearing, the municipal court judge dismissed the charges for lack of evidence. The Commonwealth refiled charges later that day. The defendant’s case was then brought before the Court of Common Pleas where a different judge again dismissed the case for lack of evidence. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal.
What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing?
In Philadelphia, a defendant is only entitled to a preliminary hearing if he or she is charged with a felony. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether the Commonwealth has made out a prima facie case for the offenses charged. A prima facie case consists of evidence, read in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, that sufficiently establishes both the commission of a crime and that the accused is probably the perpetrator of that crime. Further, at these hearings, the evidence must be considered in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth. At these hearings, the Commonwealth need not prove the elements of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the prima facie evidence standard requires evidence of the existence of each and every element of the crime charged. Finally, and understandably very frustratingly, credibility of the evidence are not factors at this stage. With all of that being said, practically speaking, it is a much easier for the Commonwealth to get a case through the preliminary hearing level than it is for the Commonwealth to obtain a conviction.
The Superior Court’s Decision
The Commonwealth appealed the dismissal of the charges, and the Superior Court upheld the dismissal of the charges against the defendant. Although the Superior Court acknowledged that the Commonwealth has a very low burden to meet at these hearings, the evidence that was presented was simply not sufficient. The Superior Court highlighted that the defendant cooperated with the police, did not leave the scene, and denied his involvement in a fight on the night in question. Further, the Superior Court rejected the Commonwealth’s argument that only the defendant could have committed this crime. In its decision, the Superior Court emphasized that the bouncer did not actually witness the decedent get stabbed nor did he see the defendant with a weapon. As such, the evidence that was presented was not sufficient to establish that the defendant probably committed the crimes of first degree murder and possession of an instrument of a crime. Therefore, the defendant will not have to go to trial on these charges.
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