The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Thomas, holding that the trial court properly permitted the Commonwealth to introduce evidence that the defendant and an eyewitness who later recanted were incarcerated in the same prison before trial together in order to suggest that the eyewitness recanted out of fear of the defendant. The Superior Court allowed this testimony despite the fact that the there was no concrete evidence to show that the defendant and the eyewitness had communicated while they were incarcerated together or that the defendant had pressured the witness in any way.
The facts of Commonwealth v. Thomas
Philadelphia Prosecutors charged the defendant in Thomas with first degree murder, carrying a firearm without a license (VUFA Sec. 6106), and possessing an instrument of crime. The jury found him guilty, and the trial court immediately sentenced him to the mandatory life in prison without parole on the murder charge as well as an aggregate 4.5 to 12 years of incarceration on the other charges.
The evidence at trial showed that the defendant, the decedent, and a group of other men were playing dice in Philadelphia. At some point during the game, the men concluded that the decedent was cheating. One player angrily walked away from the game, but the defendant told him that he was going to handle it. Witnesses testified that later, while the decedent was bending over to roll the dice, the defendant pulled a gun and shot at him from behind, causing the decedent to fall to the ground. The defendant then shot him two more times in the face. Two of the witnesses who testified that the defendant committed the murder were a man named K.F. and a man named E.M. Philadelphia Police responded to the scene and transported the decedent to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Although K.F. gave a statement to police indicating that the defendant committed the murder, K.F. later recanted that statement and wrote a letter claiming that it was not the defendant who actually committed the murder. In response, prosecutors introduced evidence at trial that K.F. and the defendant were incarcerated at the same jail two months prior to trial. The defense attorney objected on the basis that telling the jury that the defendant was incarcerated would suggest to the jury that the defendant was a criminal, but the trial court overruled the objection and allowed the prosecution to introduce the evidence despite this potential for unfair prejudice against the defendant.
The Superior Court Appeal
After the jury convicted the defendant, he appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As one of the main issues, he claimed that the trial court erred in admitting the evidence that he and K.F. were incarcerated in the same prison at some point prior to the trial and K.F.’s recantation. K.F. had previously claimed in a video-taped statement that he watched the defendant shoot and kill the decedent. However, K.F. was subsequently arrested on unrelated charges of his own. Within one month of his arrest and incarceration in the same jail as the defendant, K.F. wrote a letter recanting his video-taped statement. Therefore, the Commonwealth argued that the incarceration in the same jail was relevant to show both the defendant’s consciousness of his own guilt and to explain why K.F. recanted his prior statement.
On appeal, the Superior Court agreed. It recognized that the courts have long recognized that any attempt by a defendant to interfere with a witness’s testimony is admissible to show a defendant’s consciousness of guilt. Additionally, the Commonwealth may cross-examine a witness in an attempt to show that there are reasons, such as fear or intimidation, why a witness may have changed his or her story. Therefore, the Commonwealth’s cross-examination of K.F. was relevant to show both the defendant’s potential consciousness of guilt and why K.F. may have changed his statement.
At the same time, the court recognized that there could be some prejudicial effect to informing the jury that the defendant was incarcerated prior to trial. However, the court found that the trial judge sufficiently eliminated the risk of unfair prejudice to the defendant by providing a cautionary instruction. In the instruction, the trial judge informed the jury that the jury should not consider the defendant to be a bad person or a person of bad character merely because he had been arrested and incarcerated pending trial. The judge made it clear to the jury that the only reason the defendant was in jail was because he was awaiting trial for this case, not because he was serving a sentence on some other case. The judge further instructed the jury not to draw any conclusions whatsoever from the mere fact that the defendant was in jail pending trial. Therefore, the Superior Court found that the trial court properly allowed the prosecution to ask these questions. It found the defendant’s other issues waived and upheld the conviction.
The court’s opinion, of course, completely ignored the fact that it was the Commonwealth’s fault that the defendant and the witness were held in the same jail. Philadelphia has at least four county prisons in which a defendant can be held while awaiting trial, and the jails have procedures by which inmates can be held separately from each other so that they do not have contact with each other. Prosecutors have the ability to house inmates in different counties or states when necessary and routinely do so. Here, the case suggests that the Commonwealth did nothing to inform the prison that the two inmates should be housed in different facilities. The Commonwealth also appears to have introduced no evidence that the two inmates actually came into contact with each other while incarcerated or that the defendant did anything to make the witness change his story. Nonetheless, the Superior Court seems to have ignored these basic facts in finding in favor of the Commonwealth.
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