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    Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules in 1st Degree Murder Case PCRA Petition Where Witness Recanted

    Commonwealth v. Small (Pennsylvania Supreme Court, July 18, 2018)

    In murder cases in Pennsylvania, defendants who’re convicted of murder often face enormous difficulties when filing PCRA (Post Conviction Relief Act) petitions. The reality is that the majority of PCRA cases are unsuccessful, especially because the claims are limited by law. One type of PCRA claim – newly discovered evidence – is rarely successful.

    In a July 2018 murder case, Commonwealth v. Small, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the defendant’s PCRA claim based on newly discovered evidence after the lower appeals court ruled in favor of the prosecution. The PA Supreme Court disagreed with the Superior Court and held that the PCRA court should have indicated whether it considered witness credibility issues. The case was therefore remanded back to the PCRA court.

    This type of outcome is fairly unique in appeals or PCRA cases involving murder or homicide charges like First Degree Murder. Let’s examine the Small case.

    Unwitnessed Shooting – Circumstantial Case

    In the Small case, there was no physical evidence tying the defendant to the shooting. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting. Instead, the prosecution’s case was entirely circumstantial. It relied heavily on testimony of two jailhouse informants, both of whom shared a jail cell with the defendant. They testified that the defendant admitted shooting the victim. In addition, multiple witnesses testified about the defendant’s behavior prior to and after the shooting. Each witness provided some piece of circumstantial evidence. One witness testified that he saw the defendant walking with the victim moments before he heard a loud sound. The witness testified that he then saw the defendant standing over the victim’s body before he fled.

    Witness for the Prosecution Recants

    In the defendant’s PCRA petition, he argued that another individual, P. Espada, was the shooter. This person was present at the club when the shooting happened and was actually a target in the subsequent police investigation. The PCRA petition presented a sworn statement of one of the key witnesses during the murder trial. The witness recanted and stated that Espada admitted to being the shooter.

    The PCRA court (trial court) considered the witness’ testimony and ordered a new trial. The prosecution appealed to the Superior Court which reversed the PCRA court. The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

    Interestingly, the issue in the Small case was whether the newly discovered evidence was “merely corroborative or cumulative,” i.e., whether it was redundant. At trial, the defense had presented evidence of two witnesses who testified that Espada had admitted to being the shooter. Therefore, the new evidence presented in the PCRA petition was essentially redundant. The PA Supreme Court’s analysis focused on the issue of credibility, since recantation testimony tends to be viewed as unreliable. Because the PCRA court didn’t indicate what determinations it made on credibility, the Supreme Court remanded for it to do so. Citing another case from 1997, Commonwealth v. Henry, the court in the Small case stressed, “Unless the [PCRA] court is satisfied that the recantation is true, it should deny a new trial.” This basically means that in order to get a new trial, the PCRA court has to believe the witness who recanted. For murder cases, especially appeals or PCRA matters, it’s critical to always be arguing and showing evidence of your client’s innocence where possible.

    For more info, visit the Philadelphia Murder & Homicide Law Library.

    David S. Nenner

    "Top Rated Criminal Defense Lawyer"
    (2015-2022)

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