Criminal Trials in Philadelphia
Many Philadelphia residents who are facing criminal charges such as murder, attempted murder or serious drug distribution charges will roll the dice and take their cases to trial. This is fairly common because Philadelphia has a relatively low conviction rate, which is probably attributable to a varied jury pool and the sheer number of criminal cases.
While the odds are generally good for someone facing criminal charges in Philadelphia, the reality is that winning a Philadelphia criminal trial depends on a lot of different factors. There is no winning formula. Who the trial judge is and how the jury is selected are two key factors. For instance, how a trial judge rules on a piece of evidence can literally make or break a case. A jury stacked with sympathetic women in a rape case can also make or break a case.
Someone who has lost a criminal trial has a few options, but not a lot of time to decide what to do. This article will discuss the three options available to a Philadelphia resident who has just lost a criminal trial and been sentenced. Part 1 of this article will discuss post-sentence motions, and part 2 will discuss direct appeals and PCRA (Post-Conviction Relief Act) petitions.
Under Pennsylvania criminal rules of procedure, a criminal defendant can file certain post-sentence motions. These motions are filed with the trial judge, basically asking for reconsideration.
Rule 720 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure lays out post-sentence motions (how they are filed, grounds for these motions, timelines, etc.). Per Rule 720, a criminal defendant can raise pretty much any issue relevant to the case. However, this does not mean that post-sentence motions should be filed for any and all reasons. Instead, post-sentence motions should only be filed when there is a reasonable basis to do so, which will depend on the facts of the case.
Generally, grounds for successful post-sentence motions include:
- new evidence,
- a legal issue like a recent PA Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court case, or
- sentencing issues based on legal errors.
It is important to note that Rule 720 post-sentence motions must be filed within strict timelines, which vary depending on the issue raised. Motions for new trials based on newly discovered evidence can be raised after discovery. Generally, most other motions must be filed within 10 days of the date of the sentencing order.
Example 1 – Newly Discovered Evidence
After an attempted murder trial in Philadelphia, the defendant is found guilty. A few days after the trial, an unknown individual contacts the defendant’s family and says that they witnessed the shooting, but failed to come forward out of fear. This witness states that the defendant did not commit the shooting and wasn’t even at the scene of the crime.
Here, the defendant’s best course of action is to file a post-sentence motion for a new trial based on the new eyewitness. So long as it’s clear that the defense attorney could not have reasonably found the witness before trial, the trial judge would likely grant a new trial.
Example 2 – New PA Supreme Court Case
The day after a defendant is sentenced in a criminal case in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issues a game-changing opinion that applies retroactively (i.e., applies to cases that have already occurred). The best course of action would be to file a post-sentence motion, and the trial court would likely be forced to apply the new case.
While this scenario might seem far-fetched, it can and does happen. Criminal law is always changing. In fact, over the last year, Pennsylvania drug cases have been turned upside down due to recent changes to constitutional law by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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