Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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At issue in this case was whether a superior court erred in it affirmed a Court of Common Please Criminal Division's decision overturning a Montgomery County District Attorney (DA) decision. The DA had disapproved the private criminal complaint of Luay Ajaj (Father) against Saja Ibrahim Abdulkareem Al Rabeeah (Mother) for violations of 18 Pa. C.S. § 2904(a) (interference with custody of children), and 18 Pa. C.S. § 2909(a) (concealment of whereabouts of a child). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the proper standard of review courts should apply when reviewing a disapproval decision under Rule of Criminal Procedure 506(B)(2) was: if the private complainant demonstrated that the disapproval decision amounted to bad faith, occurred due to fraud, or was unconstitutional. Applying that standard of review here, the Court concluded Father failed to demonstrate that the DA’s decision to disapprove the Complaint amounted to bad faith, occurred due to fraud, or was unconstitutional, and, consequently, the Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s order. View "In Re: Private Comp. Filed by L. Ajaj" on Justia Law

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The issue presented was one of first impression for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court: whether trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to a jury instruction in which the judge analogized jurors’ application of the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard to jurors’ hypothetical decision-making regarding surgery involving a “precious one.” Appellant Gerald Drummond was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the shooting deaths of Timothy Clark and Damien Holloway. Holloway had an on-again, off-again relationship with Drummond’s sister, Annie. It was alleged Drummond did not approve of the relationship. Gunshot evidence suggested Clark was killed execution-style by an assailant standing behind him while Clark knelt with his hands interlocked behind his head. Holloway was shot in the cheek; he died later from brain hemorrhaging. After review of the jury instructions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the instructions were reasonably likely to cause a jury to apply a diminished standard of proof in criminal cases, thus posing significant risks to a defendant’s due process rights. Accordingly, the Court found arguable merit to Drummond’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim. However, because counsel could not be deemed ineffective for failing to anticipate a change in the law, it affirmed the Superior Court’s order affirming the denial of Drummond’s PCRA petition. View "Pennsylvania v. Drummond" on Justia Law

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Appellant Demetrius Coleman appealed a superior court order vacating his sentence, and remanding the case to the Allegheny County Court of Common Please for resentencing. The Superior Court concluded the sentencing court erred in failing to sentence Appellant pursuant to the mandatory sentencing enhancement set forth in Section 9715(a) of the Sentencing Code, 42 Pa. C.S. § 9715(a), requiring that any person convicted of third-degree murder “in this Commonwealth who has previously been convicted at any time of murder . . . be sentenced to life imprisonment.” The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the Superior Court was correct in concluding that the mandatory sentencing enhancement applied to a defendant such as Appellant, who killed three people simultaneously and was thereafter convicted of three counts of third-degree murder. Upon careful review, the Supreme Court concluded the sentencing enhancement did apply in such a scenario. View "Pennsylvania v. Coleman" on Justia Law

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Four named appellants were convicted of what was codified in Pennsylvania as second-degree murder, and ineligible for parole per 61 Pa.C.S. § 6137(a)(1). Appellants petitioned for review at Commonwealth Court, seeking a declaration that Section 6137(a)(1) was unconstitutional as applied on the grounds that depriving Appellants of any opportunity for parole violated the Commonwealth and federal constitutions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine whether this suit was within the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction to hear suits against government agencies like the Board of Probation and Parole (“Board”) or whether the petition fell within the statutory exception for petitions in the nature of post-conviction relief. The Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s holding that it lacked jurisdiction. View "Scott v. Board of Probation and Parole" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur review in this case to determine whether the Commonwealth waived reliance on the doctrine of inevitable discovery where its Concise Statement of Matters Complained of on Appeal asserted only that the trial court erred in granting a motion to suppress filed by Appellant Nathanial Price because the affidavit of probable cause at issue failed to assert probable cause sufficient for the issuance of a warrant. Specifically, the Court addressed whether, under these circumstances, the doctrine of inevitable discovery constituted a “subsidiary issue” to the issue of the sufficiency of probable cause under Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b)(4)(v) and was thus not waived by operation of Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b)(4)(vii). Concluding that it was not a subsidiary issue and thus not preserved for review by the Superior Court, the Supreme Court vacated that court’s order. View "Pennsylvania v. Price" on Justia Law

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This appeal presented the issue of whether Section 7403(e) of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act (“MHPA”), 50 P.S. § 7403(e), authorized a trial court to dismiss criminal charges filed against a defendant who was incompetent, and would likely remain so, under circumstances where the passage of time and its effect upon the criminal proceedings render it unjust to resume the prosecution. Following established intermediate appellate court precedent, the Superior Court held that Section 7403(e) authorized dismissal of criminal charges only under circumstances where the defendant regained his competence, and not where he remained incompetent. Appellant Jquan Humphrey challenged this interpretation. After its review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the Superior Court’s interpretation of Section 7403(e) and held that the MHPA did not limit the trial court’s authority to dismiss criminal charges to circumstances where the defendant regained his competency. "Instead, Section 7403(e) authorizes a trial court to dismiss criminal charges filed against an incompetent defendant where the court finds that it would be unjust to resume the prosecution due to the passage of time and its effect upon the criminal proceeding." Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the judgments of the Superior Court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Humphrey" on Justia Law

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In an appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the unwanted kissing of a person’s neck constituted the touching of “sexual or other intimate parts” for purposes of the crime of indecent assault. The Court determined that “other intimate parts” were those parts of the body that were personal and private, and which a person ordinarily allows to be touched only by other individuals with whom the person has a close personal relationship, and which are commonly associated with sexual relations or intimacy. Applying this meaning, the Court concluded that the neck was an intimate part of the body, and thus, it did not disturb the jury’s finding that Appellant Carl Gamby, by grabbing the victim, K.A., from behind and kissing her neck for the purpose of sexual gratification, committed indecent assault. View "Pennsylvania v. Gamby" on Justia Law

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A trial court found Appellant Victor Stevenson guilty of indirect criminal contempt for violating a final order issued pursuant to the Protection from Abuse (“PFA”) Act. On appeal to the Superior Court, Appellant argued that the evidence of record was insufficient to support his conviction because the Commonwealth failed to present adequate proof that he received proper notice of the final PFA order from a member of law enforcement or a person tasked by the trial court to provide such notice. The Superior Court rejected this argument, holding that the subject of a final PFA order had to have notice of the order to be found guilty of indirect criminal contempt for violating the order but that it was unnecessary for a member of law enforcement or a person designated by the court to provide that notice. Finding no reversible error, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court. View "Pennsylvania v. Stevenson" on Justia Law

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On the morning of May 27, 2016, the body of Denhad Taiedi, who owned the Jefferson Hills Motel, was discovered in the motel’s office with a fatal gunshot wound to the head. Blood stains were found on a tray inside a cash box, inside a bank bag, and on the office door, and a trail of fresh blood drops led from the motel office to the parking lot. Testing of the blood revealed that it matched Appellant Derrick Gallaway’s DNA, and, on August 26, 2016, a warrant was issued for his arrest. When officers were unable to locate Appellant at any of his known addresses, his information was entered into the National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”). More than a year later, Appellant was arrested in Carmichael, California, and he was extradited to Pennsylvania on or around December 13, 2017. On the third and final day of trial, the Commonwealth sought and was granted permission to play for the jury an edited version of Appellant’s videotaped interview by police detectives. The edited version of the videotaped interview was approximately 17 minutes long, and clearly showed Appellant in bright red prison clothing throughout. The Commonwealth asserted that the videotape evidenced Appellant’s consciousness of guilt, as it showed him making false statements to police regarding, inter alia, whether he was in Pittsburgh at the time the Victim was killed, whether he had ever stayed at the motel, and whether he knew two testifying witnesses. In this appeal by allowance, the issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's consideration was whether the Superior Court’s determination that the probative value of videotape evidence which showed Appellant in prison clothing outweighed its prejudicial effect, such that admission of the evidence did not deprive Appellant of a fair trial under Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501 (1976). To this, the Court held that the probative value of the evidence was not outweighed by its prejudicial effect, and, thus, it affirmed Appellant’s judgment of sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Gallaway" on Justia Law

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Appellant Paul Taylor appealed the denial of his fifth petition for post-conviction relief. In 1991, Taylor brutally murdered his wife, two of his minor children, his mother-in-law, and his mother-in-law’s minor son. Taylor pled guilty to five counts of criminal homicide generally. Following a degree-of-guilt hearing, the trial court convicted Taylor of first-degree murder on all five counts. The matter proceeded to a penalty phase hearing, following which the trial court determined that the imposition of the death penalty was appropriate for four of Taylor’s murder convictions and that a penalty of life imprisonment was appropriate for the remaining murder conviction. The trial court formally imposed Taylor’s sentences on January 23, 1992. Petitioner premised his fourth PCRA petition upon the well-publicized scandal involving the exchange of inappropriate emails between employees of the OAG and members of the judiciary, including former Justices Eakin and McCaffery. Petitioner alleged that emails exchanged during the pendency of "Taylor IV" reflected partiality on the part of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in disposing of his appeal, in violation of Taylor’s due process rights. The PCRA court dismissed Taylor’s fourth petition, concluding that the PCRA court lacked the authority to grant the relief that Taylor sought. Taylor then appealed. On November 6, 2019, with its participating members being equally divided on the matter, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA court’s order by operation of law. In his fifth PCRA petition, Appellant reasserted his due process claim premised upon the alleged partiality of the Supreme Court in Taylor IV arising out of the email scandal, as well as a request for a new appeal in that matter nunc pro tunc. The Supreme Court agreed with the conclusion of the PCRA court that Appellant untimely filed his fifth petition, therefore denial was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Taylor" on Justia Law