U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses Murder Conviction for Failure to Present Cogent Defense

 Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

The United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals has decided the case of Workman v. Superintendent Albion SCI, et. al., holding that trial counsel’s failure to present a cogent defense based on the actual evidence presented at trial constituted the ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court found that because defense counsel’s entire defense was based on facts which were not at all based on the evidence presented by the Commonwealth, defense counsel was ineffective in defending Workman.

The Facts of Workman

In August 2006, Workman’s co-defendant shot the victim during an accident which occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hearing the shots, the defendant found the victim and co-defendant and then proceeded to shoot at the co-defendant a total of eight times. One of these bullets ricocheted off a solid object and struck the victim in the chest. The victim also had been shot by the co-defendant. Unfortunately, the victim died as a result of his injuries. According to the assistant medical examiner who testified a trial, either of the two bullets that struck the victim could have caused his death.

Workman and the co-defendant were charged with first-degree murder. Prior to the trial, the Commonwealth offered Workman a plea bargain of twenty years of incarceration in exchange for a guilty plea. Workman rejected this offer because, according to trial counsel, he could not be convicted for killing someone who was already dead. This theory was problematic because the facts did not support trial counsel’s theory because it was unclear as to whether or not the victim was still alive when Workman’s bullet struck him.

What is Transferred Intent?

Despite the undisputed fact that Workman did not intend to kill the victim, the Commonwealth proceeded on the theory of transferred intent and argued that Workman, in firing at the co-defendant, had intended to illegally kill the co-defendant. Therefore, his intent to kill co-defendant transferred when his bullet struck the victim. At trial, the medical examiner would testify that the wound to the victim’s chest, caused by the ricocheted bullet fired by Workman, was “much more immediately fatal,” but that the other bullet fired by the co-defendant could have caused death. Despite the evidence to the contrary, Workman’s defense attorney proceeded under the theory that the victim was already dead when Workman’s bullet struck him. Further, Workman did not present any evidence at his trial. Additionally, his trial counsel’s opening statement was five sentences long. The defense lawyer simply stated that the defense did not plan to present any evidence.

After the conclusion of the Commonwealth’s case, Workman’s trial attorney made a motion for judgment of acquittal, arguing that Workman could not be convicted of killing the victim because the victim was already dead. Workman’s trial attorney did this despite the fact that the evidence of record did not support this claim. The medical examiner had specifically testified that Workman’s bullet could have been the cause of death, and no one testified to the contrary or otherwise rebutted that testimony. The trial court denied trial counsel’s motion. Undeterred, trial counsel made the same argument during closing argument to the jury. Unfortunately for Workman, the jury was not persuaded, and it convicted Defendant of first-degree murder. The jury acquitted the co-defendant. Workman received a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. He filed direct appeals that were ultimately denied, and after his appeals were resolved, he filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition alleging ineffective assistance of counsel.

Workman’s first PCRA petition was denied. Notably, in this petition, his PCRA lawyer did not allege that his trial counsel failed to present a realistic defense or that he provided incorrect advice that led Defendant to reject a plea offer. Instead, his PCRA attorney alleged that trial counsel’s only failure was in not requesting a jury instruction that indicated that the transferred intent doctrine also applied to Workman’s claim of defense of use of force to protect a third person. This was a bad claim for a PCRA because the jury instruction had actually been provided to the jury.

Habeas Petition

Workman then filed a pro se habeas petition to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In his petition, he alleged that because of trial counsel’s ineffective assistance, he rejected a guilty plea and did not testify. Defendant’s habeas petition was subsequently denied by the federal district court, and he then appealed to the Third Circuit. Although not addressed in this article, a considerable portion of the Third Circuit’s opinion focused on the procedural issues and whether or not Workman’s petition could be heard at all because of his failure to raise the issues in his PCRA petition. The Third Circuit held that the PCRA lawyer was ineffective in failing to raise these issues in his PCRA petition. Therefore, Workman should not be penalized for the lawyer’s ineffectiveness and could proceed on the merits.

What is Ineffective Assistance of Counsel?

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the United States Supreme Court held that if you are charged with a crime, you are entitled to an attorney. In Strickland v. Washington, the United States Supreme Court held that a defendant is entitled to a constitutionally adept attorney. In other words, if a defendant’s attorney is so bad, it is possible that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel could be violated. In Pennsylvania, if you wish to proceed with an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, you must file a PCRA petition (as the defendant in this case did). Over the years, both Pennsylvania and Federal courts have made it relatively difficult to prevail on these claims. The courts give great deference to the trial attorney’s strategy. Nonetheless, if a petitioner can show that his claim has arguable merit, no reasonable basis existed for counsel’s action or failure to act, and the petitioner suffered prejudice as a result of counsel’s error, then he or she may be successful in getting a new trial.

Third Circuit Holds that Both the PCRA and Trial Attorneys Were Ineffective

In Workman, the Third Circuit was merciless in its criticism of Workman’s trial and PCRA attorneys. In regards to his PCRA attorney, the Court stated “it appears that [PCRA] counsel’s claim was that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a jury instruction that was actually given. This is the epitome of a doomed claim.” Because he did not raise any of the obvious and legitimate claims that should have been raised, the Third Circuit found that he was ineffective. Consequently, because defendant’s PCRA counsel was ineffective, he was still eligible for relief despite the procedural failures of his PCRA and habeas petitions.

The Court then addressed his trial attorney’s failures. The Court stated that “counsel’s utter and complete failure to test the Commonwealth’s case with appropriate cross-examination of [the medical examiner], his failure to present witnesses…in support of his position, or to adapt his argument to the testimony in evidence” rendered him ineffective. Further, the Court also held that his counsel “acted as not an advocate of is client but of his theory” and that he “fail[ed] to understand what was happening in the case in which he was ostensibly participating.” As such, because Workman’s trial counsel failed to adapt to the evidence that was presented at trial, he was ineffective. Workman will receive a new trial.

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