PA Superior Court Upholds Dismissal of Case Where Prosecutor Intimidated Defense Witness

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Byrd, upholding the trial court’s decision to dismiss serious criminal charges due to prosecutorial misconduct. Specifically, in Byrd, the trial court found that the assigned Assistant District Attorney intentionally intimidated a potential defense witness and pressured her not to come to court. The Superior Court agreed and found that the prosecutorial misconduct required the dismissal of the charges under the Double Jeopardy Clauses of both the United States and Pennsylvania constitutions.

Commonwealth v. Byrd

The defendant was charged with multiple drug, firearm, and sexual assault offenses in Allegheny County, PA. As a result of multiple suppression motions that the defendant filed on his behalf and which were on appeal with the Superior Court, only the charge of Persons Not to Possess a Firearm Charge (VUFA 6105) went to trial. The defendant demanded a jury trial and chose to represent himself, but he did have stand by counsel assisting him. The trial began on November 28, 2018. In the middle of the trial, the judge received a voice mail from a woman who had been set to testify as a character witness for the defendant in which the woman claimed that the assigned ADA intimidated her out of testifying.

The judge held a hearing outside the presence of the jury and played the voice mail. In this message, the witness stated that she had been threatened by the ADA. She stated that she was scared to the point where she did not want to participate in the trial. She further stated that the ADA told her that the defendant “is the most dangerous man that he has ever met or ever seen” and asked if she knew “how or why he was in jail up in Ohio.” The prosecutor also went into specific detail about the prior charges against the defendant. Finally, the prosecutor brought up personal details about the witness. He informed her that he was aware of her financial hardship, a recent break-up, and that “he knows a lot more about me than he should.” According to her, this phone call “freak[ed] [her] out,” and  she was scared of retaliation by the District Attorney’s Office and police. She was concerned that she or her family members could be charged with a crime that they did not commit. At the end of the hearing, the judge declared a mistrial because of the ADA’s actions.

The trial court then held hearings on February 13, 2017 and March 20, 2017 to determine whether the case against the defendant should be dismissed with prejudice. At the hearing, the ADA testified. On direct examination, he testified that he obtained personal information about the witness from listening to the phone calls from the defendant. He further stated that the purpose of the call was to see whether the defendant’s prior convictions would affect her opinion of the defendant. He denied that he was trying to intimidate her.

On cross-examination, he admitted that he told the witness that the defendant was one of the most dangerous people that he had ever met. He also admitted that he knew personal details about the witness from listening to the defendant’s prison phone calls. After these hearings, the trial court dismissed the charge with prejudice. The trial court then banned the prosecutor from ever litigating in her courtroom again and called him “sneaky.” The Commonwealth appealed.

In its appeal, the Commonwealth did not dispute that a mistrial should have been granted in the defendant’s case. The Commonwealth only appealed the finding of prosecutorial misconduct that resulted in the trial court dismissing the charges and preventing retrial because of double jeopardy. Specifically, the Commonwealth argued that the trial court failed to discern the distinction between prosecutorial error, which would not require the dismissal of the charges, and prosecutorial overreach, which would.  

What is Double Jeopardy?

The Double Jeopardy Clauses of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, § 10 of the Pennsylvania Constitution protect a defendant from repeated criminal prosecutions for the same criminal episode. The basic premise behind the Double Jeopardy Clause is that the government only gets one opportunity to convict a defendant. If the defendant is acquitted of a crime, then the government cannot try him again. However, an acquittal is not the only way to trigger the Double Jeopardy Clauses. It is also important to note that a state court conviction or acquittal may not prevent the federal government from prosecuting the defendant on federal charges.

Can Prosecutorial Misconduct Trigger Double Jeopardy Protections?

Yes. If a prosecutor engages in certain forms of intentional misconduct, the Double Jeopardy Clause bars retrial. Pennsylvania’s Constitution provides broader protections for criminal defendants than the U.S. Constitution. Consequently, Article I § 10 of the Pennsylvania Constitution bars retrial not only when prosecutorial misconduct is intended to provoke the defendant into moving for a mistrial, but also when the conduct of the prosecutor is intentionally undertaken to prejudice the defendant to the point of the denial of a fair trial. It is important to note that that an error by a prosecutor does not necessarily deprive the defendant of a fair trial. However, where the prosecutor’s conduct changes from mere error to intentionally subverting the court process, then a fair trial is denied and the charges must be dismissed.

It is important to emphasize that an inadvertent mistake by a prosecutor can be remedied by a mistrial and subsequent re-trial. It is only the more egregious actions by prosecutors that will result in the court dismissing the case with prejudice. As the Pennsylvania Superior Court stated in a previous decision that addressed this issue “intentional prosecutorial misconduct…raises systematic concerns beyond a specific individual’s right to a fair trial that are left unaddressed by retrial.”

The Superior Court’s Decision

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the charges against the defendant. Two judges voted in favor of affirming the order, and one judge dissented. The Court agreed that the ADA intentionally intimidated the witness to prevent her from testifying with the intent of depriving the defendant of a fair trial. Specifically, the Superior Court was deeply troubled by the prosecutor’s conduct in informing the witness of personal details of her life and that he editorialized about the defendant’s dangerous propensity. The Superior Court found that the prosecutors statements placed the witness in fear for her own safety and for that of her family. Thus, according to the Superior Court, the prosecutor’s actions were intended to deprive the defendant of a fair trial. His acts triggered double jeopardy protections, and the case against the defendant was properly discharged.

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