The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Urwin, holding that the defendant should not receive a new trial in his Murder case despite the fact that the trial judge was later convicted of stealing cocaine from evidence around the time that the judge presided over the case. The Court found that the defendant failed to successfully prove that the judge was actually under the influence at the time of the trial, and therefore the judge’s ongoing thefts did not necessarily mean that the judge was unfair during the trial.
Commonwealth v. Urwin
The decedent’s body was discovered in a field in Washington County in February 1977. The police determined that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. The investigators were able to locate her clothing which was scattered nearby and the police seized it as evidence. The victim was last seen with the defendant and a Mr. Davoli, however the charges against Mr. Davoli were dismissed at the preliminary hearing. At the time, the defendant was not charged with her death.
The case remained unsolved for several decades until the victim’s clothing was submitted for DNA testing in 2009. The results of the testing contained the profiles of both the defendant and Mr. Davoli. The police then questioned Mr. Davoli, and he confessed to his and the defendant’s involvement in the victim’s death. The defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with first degree murder. The defendant was very concerned about proceeding by way of jury trial because he thought that female jurors would not be sympathetic to him. As such, the defendant elected to have a bench trial in front of the Honorable Paul Pozonsky.
At his trial, Mr. Davoli testified against the defendant. He testified that he and the defendant each had sex with the victim and then the defendant dragged her from the vehicle and beat her with a car tool. The court convicted the defendant of third-degree murder and sentenced him to 10-20 years’ incarceration. The defendant then appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court affirmed his sentence and, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied his petition for allowance of appeal.
The PCRA Petition
The defendant then filed a timely Post-Conviction Relief Act (hereinafter “PCRA”) petition. In his PCRA petition, he raised several claims based on trial counsel’s alleged errors. He also asserted that Judge Pozonsky had been convicted of theft of cocaine and that he had been using cocaine during the trial. Specifically, Judge Pozonsky would order police to deposit cocaine in the evidence locker in his courtroom and then take it it for his personal use. The defendant therefore argued that he had an incompetent tribunal which violated his right to due process. A different judge presided over the PCRA litigation, and that judge ordered a hearing at which the defendant’s trial counsel and other witnesses testified.
During the hearing, the witnesses were asked about Judge Pozonsky’s behavior during the trial. The defendant’s sister testified and said that Judge Pozonsky was “acting funny” and “not paying attention to the proceedings.” Additionally, the defendant’s trial counsel stated that although Judge Pozonsky acted not as one might expect a judge to act, he dismissed it “because he always appeared that way.” Further, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the defendant’s case stated that Judge Pozonsky’s behavior was “consistent” with the other experiences he has had with the judge over the years. Ultimately, the defendant’s PCRA petition was denied because he failed to adequately show that Judge Pozonsky was under the influence of cocaine during his trial. The defendant then filed a timely appeal.
Can You File a PCRA Petition Because of a Judge’s Actions?
Sometimes. Typically, PCRA petitions allege either after-discovered evidence or ineffective assistance of counsel. However, the PCRA statute is not limited to just those two avenues of relief. 42 Pa C.S.A. § 9543 (a)(2)(i) allows a defendant to get relief if “[a] violation of the Constitution of this Commonwealth or the Constitution or laws of the United States, which in the circumstances of the particular case, so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place.” In the instant case, the defendant argued that he should receive a new trial because Judge Pozonsky was using cocaine during his trial and this undermined the reliability of his conviction.
The Superior Court’s Decision
The Superior Court denied the defendant’s appeal. The Superior Court agreed with the PCRA court that the defendant had not met his burden. The Superior Court found that Judge Pozonsky was not addicted to cocaine even though he would regularly order police officers to deposit cocaine in an evidence locker in his courtroom and would use this cocaine for his personal use. The Superior Court cited Judge Pozonsky’s disbarment opinion as evidence that he was not addicted to cocaine. Therefore, the Superior Court determined that the defendant’s claim that Judge Pozonsky was high during his trial as “speculative at best.” As such, the defendant was not entitled to relief, and he will have to serve his sentence barring further appeals.
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