A Look at Evidentiary Issues in Common Philadelphia Murder Trials by a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer
Typical Philadelphia Murder Cases: Shootings & Robberies
Philadelphia murder cases often involve shootings and robberies that result in death, whether intended or not. Here’s an example of a robbery that resulted in an unintended death (felony murder): a Philadelphia resident is accused of robbing a convenience store in West Philly with 2 accomplices. During the robbery, the store clerk is shot during a struggle with one of the accomplices and later dies due to the injuries. Even though the death was not intentional, all accomplices including the get-away driver would be charged with felony murder.
Here’s a common example of murder in the first degree: a Philadelphia resident is charged with first degree murder in the shooting death of a neighbor at a party. The shooting occurs at night, in a dark room. An eyewitness claims to have witnessed the shooting and also tells detectives that the shooter and the victim had previously fought over a girl. Therefore, the prosecution asserts that the shooting was intentional, due to the prior fight over a girl.
Attacking Credibility of an Eyewitness
For felonies like homicide charges in Philadelphia, defendants will often take their chances at trial. After all, Philadelphia historically, has one of the lowest felony conviction rates around the country.
Oftentimes, in Philadelphia murder cases, the outcome at trial will depend on eyewitness testimony. Whether it’s a single eyewitness or multiple eyewitnesses, credibility can always be attacked. In this Philadelphia criminal legal article, we discuss the various trial tactics for attacking the credibility/believability of an eyewitness in a murder case.
Does an Eyewitness Have a Motive to Lie?
In many Philadelphia murder cases, a key eyewitness will have a motive to lie. Oftentimes, especially for shootings that occur in West Philly or North Philly, the victim, defendant and eyewitness know each other or have had prior relationships or dealings. It’s not uncommon for an eyewitness to have a motive to lie about the identity of the shooter. Money, drugs and prior beefs between people are all common motives to lie.
Using the shooting example above, the credibility of the eyewitness can be attacked by evidence that the eyewitness hated the alleged shooter. The defense can call witnesses to testify that the eyewitness had previously made threatening, disparaging comments about the shooter.
For more legal info, visit the Philadelphia Murder Case Law Library.
Is an Eyewitness Known to be a Liar or Dishonest?
In some murder or homicide cases, a key witness or eyewitness will be known to be dishonest. In other words, the witness will have a reputation for lying and being dishonest. In these cases, the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence allow a defendant to call another witness to testify about the key witness’s reputation for untruthfulness.
Using the shooting example above, let’s say that the particular eyewitness is known in the neighborhood as being a liar and stealing from others. The defense could call multiple witnesses to testify that the eyewitness has a reputation for being untruthful and lying. See Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 608 below.
In addition, the credibility of any witness can be attacked by evidence that the witness was previously convicted of a crime of dishonesty, such as fraud or perjury. There are some limitations on this rule. See Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 609 below.
Other Ways to Attack Credibility
In many Philadelphia murder cases, an eyewitness or other witness may have their credibility attacked in other ways. Was an eyewitness under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time they witnessed the murder? Can an eyewitness’s testimony be attacked by proving that the witness didn’t actually see or hear what they say they did?
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Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence
Rule 608. A Witness’s Character for Truthfulness or Untruthfulness.
(a) Reputation Evidence. A witness’s credibility may be attacked or supported by testimony about the witness’s reputation for having a character for truthfulness or untruthfulness. But evidence of truthful character is admissible only after the witness’s character for truthfulness has been attacked. Opinion testimony about the witness’s character for truthfulness or untruthfulness is not admissible.
(b) Specific Instances of Conduct. Except as provided in Rule 609 (relating to evidence of conviction of crime),
(1) the character of a witness for truthfulness may not be attacked or supported by cross-examination or extrinsic evidence concerning specific instances of the witness’ conduct; however,
(2) in the discretion of the court, the credibility of a witness who testifies as to the reputation of another witness for truthfulness or untruthfulness may be attacked by cross-examination concerning specific instances of conduct (not including arrests) of the other witness, if they are probative of truthfulness or untruthfulness; but extrinsic evidence thereof is not admissible.
Rule 609. Impeachment by Evidence of a Criminal Conviction.
(a) In General. For the purpose of attacking the credibility of any witness, evidence that the witness has been convicted of a crime, whether by verdict or by plea of guilty or nolo contendere, must be admitted if it involved dishonesty or false statement.
(b) Limit on Using the Evidence After 10 Years. This subdivision (b) applies if more than 10 years have passed since the witness’s conviction or release from confinement for it, whichever is later. Evidence of the conviction is admissible only if:
(1) its probative value substantially outweighs its prejudicial effect; and
(2) the proponent gives an adverse party reasonable written notice of the intent to use it so that the party has a fair opportunity to contest its use.
(c) Effect of Pardon or Other Equivalent Procedure. Evidence of a conviction is not admissible under this rule if the conviction has been the subject of one of the following:
(1) a pardon or other equivalent procedure based on a specific finding of innocence; or
(2) a pardon or other equivalent procedure based on a specific finding of rehabilitation of the person convicted, and that person has not been convicted of any subsequent crime.
(d) Juvenile Adjudications. In a criminal case only, evidence of the adjudication of delinquency for an offense under the Juvenile Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § § 6301 et seq., may be used to impeach the credibility of a witness if conviction of the offense would be admissible to attack the credibility of an adult.
(e) Pendency of an Appeal. A conviction that satisfies this rule is admissible even if an appeal is pending. Evidence of the pendency is also admissible.