Third Circuit Overturns PA Murder Conviction Due To Prosecutor’s Knowing Use Of Perjured Testimony

Prosecutors May Not Knowingly Introduce Perjured Testimony 

Federal and state courts have previously held that prosecutors may not knowingly use perjured testimony or knowingly allow perjured testimony to go uncorrected. However, the standard of review on appeal and in post-conviction proceedings has not always been clear. In Haskell v. Superintendent Greene SCI, et al, the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the knowing use of perjured testimony by the prosecution in a state criminal trial may lead to the reversal of a conviction in habeas litigation. In order to obtain relief, the defendant must show a reasonable likelihood that the perjured testimony affected the judgment of the jury.

Prosecutors charged Haskell with murder after a gunman shot and killed a man in a bar in Erie, Pennsylvania in December 1994. The primary issue at trial was whether authorities correctly identified Haskell as the gunman. In addition to some circumstantial evidence linking Haskell to the crime, the Commonwealth also presented four alleged eyewitnesses who claimed that Haskell was the shooter. Three of them had significant problems with their testimony. One witness recanted on the stand and testified he had identified Haskell solely in the hopes of getting out of jail on his own unrelated case, and two others denied being able to identify the shooter in earlier statements given to the police. Therefore, the testimony of the fourth eyewitness was important.

The fourth eyewitness consistently testified that Haskell was the shooter. However, she had a number of legal problems of her own. In addition to facing a parole violation in Erie County, she was also in jail on Simple Assault charges. In addition to her Erie County legal problems, she also faced numerous theft charges in Mercer County. She testified that she smoked marijuana with Haskell shortly before the shooting and witnessed him committing the crime. At the preliminary hearing, she denied having any pending charges and insisted that she was in custody solely due to the parole violation. She also insisted that she had not discussed cooperation with the prosecution. She stuck to that story at trial, again insisting that she was in jail for a parole violation and that she did not expect to receive anything in exchange for her testimony.

Of course, that was a lie. The detectives and prosecutors in Erie helped her with her pending charges both before her testimony at trial and afterwards. They wrote letters to the judges in her cases as well as the prosecutors in Mercer County, and the witness was eventually released with a suspended sentence due to the fact that she cooperated by testifying in a homicide. Despite knowing that the witness perjured herself by denying any cooperation or anticipated benefit, the prosecutor actually argued during closing argument that it was ridiculous to think she would receive any personal benefit from testifying against the defendant. That prosecutor then sent a letter to the judge in Mercer County explaining the importance of her testimony in the homicide.   

Based on the circumstantial evidence and the testimony of the four witnesses, Haskell was convicted and sentenced to life in jail. He initially filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition alleging that the fourth witness’s perjured testimony violated his right to due process. The state court dismissed the PCRA, finding that it was time-barred. He then filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, and the Commonwealth conceded that the claim was not in fact time barred. The federal District Court held that the testimony was false and the prosecution knew or should have known it was false. However, the District Court denied the habeas petition, finding that the testimony would not have had a substantial effect on the jury’s verdict. Haskell appealed.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court. The Third Circuit recognized that a state violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee when it knowingly presents or fails to correct false testimony in a criminal proceeding. Consequently, the Supreme Court has consistently held that a conviction obtained by the knowing use of perjured testimony is fundamentally unfair, and must be set aside if there is any reasonable likelihood that the false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury. Likewise, the same result must occur when the State, although not soliciting false evidence, allows it to go uncorrected when it appears. A conviction must be set aside even if the false testimony goes only to a witness’s credibility rather than the defendant’s guilt. 

Accordingly, the Third Circuit recognized that in order to establish his claim, Haskell must have shown that

  1. the fourth eyewitness committed perjury,
  2. the Commonwealth knew or should have known that the testimony was false,
  3. the false testimony was not corrected,
  4. there is a reasonable likelihood that the perjured testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury. 

The Third Circuit held that Haskell established all four prongs of this test. First, it was uncontested that the eyewitness had lied about not receiving favorable treatment in exchange for cooperation. Second, the Commonwealth knew about it because the prosecutors involved actually obtained that favorable treatment for her. Third, the prosecution failed to correct the perjured testimony and instead argued that it was ridiculous to believe she would receive any benefit. Finally, there is a reasonable likelihood that the false testimony could have affected the verdict. The Court noted that she was a key witness because all of the other witnesses had significant problems with their testimony. They either recanted or had given prior inconsistent statements in which they denied being able to identify the shooter. It was only the fourth eyewitness who claimed to know Haskell before the shooting and that she could therefore definitively identify him. Because her testimony was central to the case, the Court held that her perjured testimony posed a reasonable, and significant likelihood of affecting the verdict. Therefore, the Third Circuit reversed Haskell’s conviction.

Haskell should put prosecutors throughout the Third Circuit on notice of both their pre-trial discovery obligations and their duty to correct perjured testimony when they know about it. Every criminal defendant has a constitutional right to due process, and due process includes the right to a fair trial. It is impossible to have a fair trial when the prosecution is willing to introduce testimony that it knows to be false, and prosecutors simply may not hide exculpatory evidence from the defense. 

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