PA Supreme Court Reverses Murder Convictions Where Prosecution Hid Key Impeachment Evidence

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just announced its decision in Commonwealth v. Johnson, affirming the lower court’s finding that the prosecution committed Brady violations when it withheld several police reports that would have established that its star witness repeatedly engaged in criminal activity and acted on behalf of the police as an informant. This withholding of crucial impeachment evidence by the police and district attorneys in the case violated the defendant’s fundamental right to a fair trial and led to a reversal of his convictions for homicide.

Commonwealth v. Johnson

In Johnson, the defendant was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The Commonwealth alleged that on December 7, 1996, two cousins robbed a woman because they were looking for drugs and money. They did not find either drugs or money, but they did steal a camcorder and a Sony PlayStation. This woman then told her boyfriend that she had been robbed. The woman told her boyfriend that the robbers were wearing green hoodies during the robbery. The boyfriend knew the cousins and recalled that they were wearing green hoodies earlier on the day of the robbery. The boyfriend spoke with Mr. Johnson, the defendant, and another co-defendant. They also went to a local K-Mart and purchased shotgun shells.  

The next day, the boyfriend made contact with the cousins. He lured the cousins into a car under the ruse that they would oversee his drug-dealing business while he was out of town. Later that evening, the cousins were found dead on a gravel driveway. During the incident, the defendant was shot in the torso, and he later went to the hospital.

While at the hospital, the defendant gave a statement to the police. The defendant’s version of events was that his role was limited to driving the minivan. The defendant further stated that when the boyfriend was “showing” where the drugs were stashed, the cousins became suspicious and refused to follow him. Subsequently, the boyfriend began shooting and not only shot the cousins, but also shot the defendant. The defendant then went to a restaurant to get help, and that is where he encountered the police. The defendant did not say that he shot or possessed a gun in his statement, and he presumably denied that he knew that the boyfriend planned to shoot or kill the cousins. This statement was introduced against the defendant at his trial. Without additional evidence, however, the statement may not have been enough to convict the defendant of homicide. 

At trial, the Commonwealth alleged that the defendant was actually one of the individuals who shot the cousins. Specifically, they alleged that one of the bullets found in one of the victims came from a .38 caliber handgun. The Commonwealth then called a cooperating witness, Mr. Robles, who testified that the defendant owned a .38 caliber handgun and that the defendant confessed to him to taking the gun from the murder scene, wiping it off with his shirt, and then throwing it on the side of the road about a quarter mile from the scene of the crime. Robles’s testimony was crucial because it linked the murder weapon to the defendant

On cross-examination, defense counsel tried to attack Robles’s credibility by suggesting that he was engaged in criminal activities and was an informant for the Reading Police Department. The Assistant District Attorney objected to this line of questioning, but the court allowed defense counsel to inquire into areas of possible bias. Unfortunately, this cross-examination was limited because, as discussed later, the Commonwealth did not provide the defense attorney with existing police reports linking Robles to drug trafficking and other crimes. After both sides rested, the jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

The Defendant's Appeals and PCRAs

What followed after the trial was a very long and complicated factual and procedural history that spanned for almost two decades. Initially, after the sentencing, the defendant’s attorney obtained a letter that Robles sent to the Reading Police while he was incarcerated as a material witness. In that letter, Robles stated that he would “do anything” to get out of jail. The defendant filed an appeal, arguing that the failure to disclose this letter was a violation of Brady v. Maryland. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the argument because the Commonwealth gave the defense lawyer a police report that referenced this letter prior to trial, so the defense already knew about the letter at the time of the trial and was able to cross-examine Robles on the general subject of the letter. Thus, the defendant’s first Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition was denied.  

Eventually, the defendant's luck began to change. In a different homicide case in which he was also convicted based on Robles’ testimony, the defendant filed a federal habeas petition. In that case, Robles was again a key witness against the defendant. Again, Robles testified that Johnson had confessed to him. In the federal habeas litigation, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered the Commonwealth to disclose to the defense team any evidence of a relationship between Robles and the Reading Police Department and/or the Berks County District Attorney’s Office.  

In response to this order, the Commonwealth produced five police reports that could have been used to impeach Robles at both trials because they showed that Robles had repeatedly been investigated for serious criminal activity and not arrested or prosecuted. Specifically, these police reports included accusations that Robles robbed individuals, and in exchange for providing testimony about an unsolved murder, he would not be prosecuted. The reports also suggested that Robles engaged in drug trafficking, lied to police about his own crimes, and possessed and fired guns. Despite repeatedly being investigated for these crimes, Robles was never charged criminally.

After obtaining these police reports, the defendant amended his second PCRA petition to allege that the Commonwealth violated Brady by withholding these police reports. The PCRA court found that these documents were relevant and that there was a reasonable probability that the jury’s verdict would have been different had these reports been disclosed to the defense.  The Commonwealth then filed this appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

What is Brady Material?

In Brady v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court held that prosecutors must hand over all material that may potentially exonerate a defendant. Where the prosecution fails to do so, the defendant could be entitled to a new trial. Brady violations are typically challenged either on appeal or in Post-Conviction Relief Act proceedings.

In order to establish a Brady violation, a defendant must prove three elements: 1) the evidence was suppressed by the state either willfully or inadvertently; 2) the evidence was favorable to the defendant, either because it was exculpatory or because it could have been used for impeachment; and 3) the evidence was material in that its omission resulted in prejudice to the defendant. The ultimate issue for a Brady claim is whether there is a reasonable probability that the outcome at trial or sentencing would have been different if the Government had turned over the Brady material. A reasonable probability does not mean that it would be more likely than not that a different verdict would be reached, but only that the likelihood of a different result is great enough to undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial.

Police Reports Which Could Be Used To Impeach A Key Witness Are Brady Material

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, unsurprisingly, found that the withheld police reports were Brady material. In its opinion, the Court found that the police reports “are textbook impeachment evidence” and that “[t]hey suggest that Robles sought to curry favor with the police in the face of ongoing criminal investigations and mounting evidence of his own criminal conduct.” Further, the reports showed that Robles had a financial interest in testifying against Johnson because he himself was involved in drug trafficking and would have gained from eliminating a competitor.

The Court further emphasized how crucial Robles was to the case against the defendant. Robles’s testimony was what connected Mr. Johnson to the murder weapon. Without Robles’s testimony, the Commonwealth may not have been able to prove the necessary intent for a first-degree murder conviction. As such, this material could have been very damaging to the Commonwealth’s case in that it may have convinced a jury that Robles was lying to benefit himself, and thus the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA court and granted Mr. Johnson a new trial.  

PCRA Petitions

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act provides a number of different ways to challenge a wrongful conviction. If you were previously convicted and believe that this occurred either through wrongdoing by the government or that your trial attorney was ineffective, you need an attorney who has the keen attention to details that will make or break your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully litigated countless PCRA petitions. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.