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Defendants can appeal their PA criminal convictions. One type of appeal is a PA Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition, which is very complicated, and many defendants may not know about PCRA petitions. Below is a hypothetical situation where a PCRA petition may be filed.
Hypothetical – Defendant Convicted after a Philadelphia Criminal Murder Trial
The defendant was convicted of murder by a Philadelphia jury 6 months ago and is currently serving time in prison. The defendant has always maintained his innocence. He says that the victim was shot by another person, and there was another person that witnessed the shooting. The defendant does not know who the witness was and his attorney never found the witness prior to trial. As it turns out, the prosecution had the witness’s contact information prior to trial but never disclosed it to the defendant’s lawyer.
In order to file a PCRA petition, it must be filed within a year of the conviction or the date the judgement becomes final. In addition, one of the following conditions must be met:
- the defendant is in prison for the crime/charge being contested,
- the defendant is on death row, or
- the defendant is serving a sentence for another crime and must complete that sentence before serving the sentence for the crime/charge being contested.
In this hypothetical, the defendant may file a PCRA petition because it is still within 1 year of his conviction and he is currently in prison for the murder.
Related: PCRA Petitions – New Trial Based On New Alibi Witness (This article explains other grounds of appeal in PCRA petitions such as newly discovered evidence, i.e., an alibi witness.)
What is a Brady Violation?
A Brady violation, named after the U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland (1963), is the prosecution’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence or impeachment evidence to the defense lawyer. A Brady violation happens during the discovery phase. In Brady, the defendant John Brady was charged with murder. At trial, Brady testified that he was involved with the murder, but he did not commit the murder. His friend, Boblit committed the murder. In preparation for the case Brady’s lawyer requested all of Boblit’s statements to the police. The prosecutor turned over the statements, but left out a statement showing that Boblit admitted to the murder. Brady was then found guilty of the murder and was sentenced to death. Brady appealed his conviction on the ground that the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence, i.e., Boblit’s statement. As a result, the United States Supreme Court granted Brady’s appeal.
The Supreme Court in Brady stated that “suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process when the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment irrespective in good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.” The court further stated that the prosecution has a duty to disclose pre-trial discovery even if the defense doesn’t request it.
Proving a Brady Violation
In order to establish a Brady violation, the defendant must prove the following:
- the evidence was favorable to the accused either because it was exculpatory or because it impeached a witness;
- the evidence was suppressed by the prosecution either willfully or inadvertently; or
- the evidence was material if there is a reasonable probability that had the evidence been disclosed to the defendant, the result of the trial would have been different. The Defendant was prejudiced as a result.
Applying Brady Violation to Philadelphia Criminal Murder Case
In any Philadelphia criminal case, whether it is drug related case or murder case, the prosecution must give the defense attorney any discovery evidence. The prosecution cannot give evidence that is only favorable for the prosecution. The prosecution must also hand over discovered evidence that is favorable for the defendant, i.e., evidence that may prove his innocence.
In this above hypothetical, it can be argued that there was prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecution had the contact information of a witness who also saw the murder, and the prosecution did not hand it over to the defense lawyer. If the witness contact information was produced, the result of the criminal murder trial would probably have been different. The witness was with the defendant at the time of the murder and would be able to testify that the defendant did not shoot the victim. Therefore, there is a reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different, i.e., the jury would not have convicted the defendant.
This is a hypothetical, and there are many nuances to PCRA petitions. There may be more than one ground of appeal such as ineffective assistance of counsel or newly discovered evidence.
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