Pennsylvania criminal appeals are very complex. Given the strict time deadlines for filing an appeal (30 days from the day the sentencing order is entered by the clerk), the issues to be raised in the appeal must be streamlined. There simply isn’t enough time to investigate a new issue, theory or defense.
One of the most common issues raised in an appeal is a weight of the evidence challenge, which is often confused with a sufficiency of the evidence challenge. Read more about sufficiency of the evidence challenges in criminal appeals in Pennsylvania.
Weight of the Evidence – Not a Question of Enough Evidence, But the Meaning of the Evidence
A claim that a verdict is against the weight of the evidence essentially concedes that there was sufficient evidence to sustain the verdict. The issue is the weight or meaning of the evidence. Was there contrary evidence? If so, how strong was the evidence? Mere conflicts in testimony or issues with the credibility of a witness are not enough.
Time to Raise a Weight of the Evidence Challenge
Rule 607 makes it clear that a challenge to the weight of the evidence MUST be raised with the trial judge or it will be considered waived.
Rule 607. Challenges to the Weight of the Evidence.
(A) A claim that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence shall be raised with the trial judge in a motion for a new trial:
(1) orally, on the record, at any time before sentencing;
(2) by written motion at any time before sentencing; or
(3) in a post-sentence motion.
(B) (1) If the claim is raised before sentencing, the judge shall decide the motion before imposing sentence, and shall not extend the date for sentencing or otherwise delay the sentencing proceeding in order to dispose of the motion.
(2) An appeal from a disposition pursuant to this paragraph shall be governed by the timing requirements of Rule 720(A)(2) or (3), whichever applies.
Standard of Review for Weight of the Evidence Challenges
When entertaining a motion for a new trial on the ground that the verdict is contrary to the weight of the evidence, a trial court is called on to determine whether, “notwithstanding all the facts, certain facts are so clearly of greater weight that to ignore them or to give them equal weight with all the facts is to deny justice.” Commonwealth v. Brown, (PA Supreme Court, 1994)
When an appeals court reviews a weight of the evidence claim, assuming it was not waived, the key issue is the trial judge’s exercise of discretion. It is well settled that in Pennsylvania, the standard of review for a weight of the evidence claim is whether the trial judge abused his or her discretion in upholding the verdict, i.e., finding that the verdict was NOT against the weight of the evidence. In general, a new trial is usually warranted when the verdict was so contrary to all of the evidence that it shocks the conscience or one’s sense of justice.
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