The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Gill, holding that the Superior Court erred when it reversed the trial court’s ruling that permitted the defendant to introduce evidence of other burglaries in an attempt to show that someone else had committed the burglary in this case. This is an important decision both because it re-affirms that a defendant has the right to try to prove that someone else could have committed the crime charged and because it limits the Superior Court’s ability to reverse an evidentiary decision of the trial court permitting a defendant to introduce that evidence.
The Facts of Gill
In 2013, a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper was assigned to investigate an alleged burglary that had recently occurred at a residence owned by the complainant in French Creek Township, Pennsylvania. The complainant reported to the trooper that someone had stolen $40,000 in $100 bills from a bag inside of a lockbox in his basement. He also stated that the money was still in the lockbox on July 26, 2013, when he placed his monthly deposit into the bag.
The complainant stated that he did not observe any signs of a forced entry into the home and that he suspected that the person who had stolen the money entered his home by way of the keypad on his garage door. According to the complainant, there were only two people who knew the code and where he kept his money: the defendant and his neighbor. He did not suspect the neighbor because he had known her for over 25 years and trusted her. He stated that he suspected the defendant because he had only known him for a few years and that the defendant was having financial problems, including a recent bankruptcy.
The trooper subsequently interviewed the defendant. The defendant confirmed that he knew about the complainant’s money, where the money was kept, and where the complainant stored the key to his lockbox. The trooper also learned that the defendant recently bought a truck and paid for the truck in $100 bills. The trooper then filed a criminal complainant charging the defendant with burglary, theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property and criminal trespass.
The defendant subsequently filed a document entitled “Motion for Release of Investigatory Files/Omnibus Pretrial Motion.” In the motion, the defendant averred that he became aware that the complainant accused another unknown person of burglarizing his home, on two separate occasions, and stealing money from a safe located in his home between May 1, 2016 and June 23, 2016. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to allow him access the State Police’s investigatory file concerning the 2016 incident. Based on this review, the defendant subsequently filed a Motion in Limine asking the trial court to allow the admission of this evidence at trial to show that someone else could have committed the burglary.
According to the defendant’s motion, the allegations against him and the subsequent allegations made by the complainant were almost identical. Specifically, both allegations alleged that approximately $40,000 was stolen, the money was stolen from a lockbox, one of the incidents did not show signs of forced entry, and the perpetrator had knowledge about the safe/lockbox. The defendant argued that he should be allowed to introduce this evidence at his trial. Additionally, he filed another Motion in Limine to introduce the testimony of the complainant’s daughter. Per the defendant, she would testify that the complainant previously accused her of breaking into his home and stealing $30,000. Additionally, she would testify that the complainant previously accused two other individuals of breaking into his home and stealing tools. The defendant wanted to introduce this testimony to show that the complainant has a penchant for accusing people of burglary and that someone else may have committed this crime.
The trial court held a hearing on the motions. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court granted his motion in part and denied it in part. The court permitted the defendant from presenting evidence of the subsequent 2016 burglaries but denied his motion to allow the complainant’s daughter to testify. In the same order, the court directed the Commonwealth to provide all reports, statements, and investigatory files regarding the 2016 incident. The Commonwealth then filed an interlocutory appeal to the Superior Court.
In a published opinion, the Superior Court granted the Commonwealth’s appeal and issued an order barring the defendant from introducing the evidence of the other burglaries at trial. In its appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the 2013 and 2016 burglaries were not “so similar, distinctive, or unusual as to suggest that they are the handiwork of one individual.” The Superior Court stated that “the fact the burglaries involved the same residence, and the victim reported to have similar amounts stolen in the 2013 and…2016 burglaries” were insufficient factors to conclude that both burglaries were done by the same individual. The defendant then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Can I present evidence that someone else did the crime?
Maybe. Attorneys are always permitted to try to present evidence at trial, but the evidence must be admissible under the rules of evidence. The rules of evidence can be very restrictive, but usually these rules are to the defendant’s advantage. Why? Because it is the Commonwealth’s burden to provide enough evidence to convict a defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, so it is usually the Commonwealth that is presenting the majority of the evidence and struggling to get that evidence admitted. The defense often does not present any evidence at all.
One well-known example of a rule of evidence that often benefits the defense is the rule against hearsay. The rules of evidence prohibit the use of hearsay in a criminal trial, and this is usually to the defendant’s advantage because it forces the Commonwealth to bring the actual witnesses of an alleged crime to court rather than relying on a police officer who would merely testify to what these witnesses told him. However, as shown in Gill, the defense can also be hamstrung by the rules of evidence. In Gill, the defense attorney was prohibited by the Superior Court from calling the complainant’s daughter to testify because of an evidentiary ruling made by the trial court.
Nonetheless, the defendant’s attorney was successful in convincing the trial court to permit him to introduce evidence from the other burglary. This allowed him to show not only that someone other than the defendant may have committed these crimes, but also that there are issues with the complainant’s credibility and memory (the complainant appeared to have quite the bad luck by getting burglarized and having $40,000 repeatedly stolen from him). More importantly, however, the defendant was now able to show that other people have burglarized his home using the keypad. Thus, because the complainant’s home continued to be burglarized in this highly specific way (when presumably the defendant could show that he did not commit these subsequent burglaries) then this would be evidence that the defendant did not commit the 2013 burglary.
It may go without saying, but the facts in Gill are unique. Nonetheless, there are other ways to introduce evidence that someone else committed a crime. For example, let’s assume that you are stopped in a car and the police then search the car and find drugs. Let’s also assume that you are not the only occupant of the vehicle and one of the people in the car has a prior conviction for possessing a controlled substance. If you are charged with possessing those drugs, you can file what is called a Thompson motion. This motion would allow you to bring the passenger’s prior convictions for possession and would give you additional support that those drugs did not belong to you. If you are arrested and charged with any type of crime, you need an experienced attorney who knows the rules of evidence so that you can be properly defend your case.
Ultimately, all evidence must be relevant in order to be admissible. If evidence is not relevant, then a trial court may properly exclude the admission of the evidence. In this case, the issue was simply whether the defendant’s proffered evidence of the subsequent burglaries would be relevant to show whether or not he had committed the crime. In making that determination, the court had to look at how similar the burglaries were in order to determine whether they would be exculpatory for the defendant. The trial court concluded that they were sufficiently similar to suggest that the defendant may not have committed the first burglary. The Superior Court, however, disagreed.
The PA Supreme Court’s Decision
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the Superior Court erred when it overturned the trial court’s decision to allow the defendant to introduce evidence from the subsequent burglary. The Supreme Court found that the Superior Court improperly conducted its own review of whether it thought that the evidence would be relevant instead of applying the correct “abuse of discretion” standard and evaluating whether the trial judge’s reasoning was properly based in law. What this standard means is that the Superior Court should not make its own ruling. Instead, if the trial court’s decision is arguably correct, then the Court should affirm the decision even if different judges could reasonably degree. The Supreme Court noted that it is “improper for an appellate court to step into the shoes of the trial judge and review the evidence de novo.” The Supreme Court also criticized the Superior Court for its evaluation of the evidence. The Supreme Court found that the Superior Court substituted its judgment for that of the trial court which is not permissible. Finally, the Supreme Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it granted the defendant’s motion and thus the trial court’s ruling will stand.
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