The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Conte, re-affirming that a trial court retains significant discretion in fashioning a sentence for a defendant following a trial. The court’s opinion illustrates the fact that the trial court is not bound by the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines when deciding on a sentence. Further, the trial court may consider all of the allegations at issue even if the defendant has been acquitted by the jury of some of the more serious charges.
The Facts of Commonwealth v. Conte
The Pocono Mountain Police interviewed the complainant, the defendant’s daughter, in January 2016 about alleged sexual assaults. The complainant told the police that the defendant sexually assaulted her on numerous occasions when she was between the ages of four and eight years old. On January 29, 2016, a criminal complaint was filed that charged him with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, and endangering the welfare of children (“EWOC”).
Prior to trial, both parties litigated a number of pre-trial motions. The Commonwealth filed a 404(B) motion, which is commonly referred to as a Prior Bad Acts Motion, to introduce the testimony of T.F., who was an acquaintance of the defendant’s children. T.F. alleged that the defendant had asked her to join him in his car and had placed T.F.’s hand over his pants and on his penis. The trial court expressed hesitancy in allowing the Commonwealth to use the testimony of T.F. in its case-in-chief. As such, the Commonwealth stated that it would only use T.F. as a rebuttal witness if the defense were to present any evidence.
At trial, the Commonwealth called the complainant as well as her mother and her brothers as witnesses against the defendant. The defendant, as well as his current wife, testified at trial. According to the Superior Court, the trial testimony painted a very different picture of what occurred during these years than what the complainant originally stated to the police. In fact, according to the prosecution’s witnesses, the defendant treated the complainant like “a princess.” However, to the other children, the defendant was a “cruel, vindictive and violent man who harbored no dispute in the house and regularly meted out physical punishment.” The defense’s witnesses sought to counter this narrative by suggesting that although the defendant was a disciplinarian, the household itself was warm and a welcoming place for family and friends. The Commonwealth then called T.F. as a rebuttal witness.
At the conclusion of the trial, the defendant was convicted of a single count of EWOC. He was acquitted of all other charges. The pre-sentence investigation report was prepared and the defendant was sentenced on June 20, 2017. At his sentencing hearing, the defendant called multiple witnesses to testify on his behalf. The defendant also spoke at his sentencing and stated: “I really don’t know why I’m here today.” The defendant’s guidelines were Restorative Sanctions to 6 months’ incarceration, with an upward enhancement of three months for the aggravated range. The judge proceeded to sentence the defendant to the statutory maximum of two and a half to five years’ incarceration.
In justifying this maximum possible sentence, the judge stated that the defendant was responsible for “the disharmony of the family.” Further, the sentencing court gave great weight to the testimony of the complainant. The complainant testified at the sentencing about the harm that she endured because of the defendant’s actions. Specifically, that she had attempted to commit suicide twice and has had difficult with normal healthy sexual relationships. As required in order to challenge a sentence on appeal, the defendant filed post-sentence motions. Those were denied. He then filed a timely appeal. Specifically, the defendant appealed the length of his sentence, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion when it imposed the statutory maximum, especially considering that he was found guilty of only one charge and that the trial court allowed T.F. to testify as a rebuttal witness. For purposes of this blog, only the appeal of his sentence will be addressed.
Can I Appeal My Sentence?
Yes, but your rights are limited. Judges are given a significant amount of discretion in creating a sentence for a defendant. Further, a defendant’s sentence will not be overturned on appeal unless the sentencing court abused its discretion. This is a very high standard to meet, and thus a defendant’s sentence will remain undisturbed unless the trial court was excessively cruel. For an example of this, please see our blog post for Commonwealth v. Sarvey (https://goldsteinmehta.com/blog/unreasonable-sentence-for-pill-sale).
When fashioning a sentence, a judge is supposed to take into consideration several factors. As a preliminary matter, the sentencing court must consider the sentencing guidelines for a particular defendant. The sentencing guidelines analyze the severity of the offense (also known as the offense gravity score) and the criminal history of the defendant (also known as the prior record score). When a judge does this, they are able to determine the sentencing guidelines for the particular defendant. The purpose of this is to try and create uniformity with sentencings across the Commonwealth (i.e. someone who commits a particular offense with a particular criminal history in Harrisburg should get a similar sentence if that same person were to commit the same offense in Philadelphia).
However, it is important to note that the sentencing guidelines are not mandatory. Further, courts should also consider additional factors when they sentence a defendant. Courts consider things such as the age of the defendant; the facts of the case; whether the crime involved violence; whether the defendant is a threat to the community; the rehabilitative needs of the defendant; the defendant’s stated remorse or lack thereof; etc. In other words, a judge must consider the character of the defendant. Consequently, when one looks at the individual characteristics of a defendant, this can be justification for departing from the guidelines.
The Superior Court Affirms the Sentence
The Superior Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it sentenced him to the statutory maximum. The Court rejected the argument that the sentence was excessive despite the fact that the defendant had been acquitted of the more serious charges at trial and that the guidelines called for a much shorter sentence. The Superior Court highlighted that the trial court had justifiable reasons for giving him the sentence that he received. Specifically, according to the Superior Court, the defendant did not show any remorse for his actions. Further, the Superior Court highlighted the lingering harm suffered by the complainant and her family because of the defendant’s actions. Therefore, the Superior Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion. The defendant will not receive a new sentencing hearing.
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