Many defendants who are interested in filing Post Conviction Relief Act petitions often want to know whether they can raise claims of prosecutorial misconduct. In fact, claims of prosecutorial misconduct are one of the most common issues raised in Post Conviction Relief Act petitions, especially those that are filed pro se (without a lawyer).
The reality is that prosecutorial misconduct claims are often unsuccessful for two reasons. First, they are often difficult to support with sufficient evidence, and second, they are often hard to win because the legal standard is high. However, this does not mean that prosecutorial misconduct claims should be ignored. They in fact, should be scrutinized carefully because prosecutors do make mistakes.
Most prosecutorial misconduct claims involve claims that the prosecutor suppressed or withheld evidence. This is generally known as a “Brady” violation, named after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland (1963).
In Pennsylvania, criminal defendants can establish Brady violations if the prosecution suppressed either exculpatory evidence or impeachment evidence that was favorable to the accused. In addition, there is an additional requirement – withholding that evidence must have prejudiced the defendant.
Many defendants who want to file PCRA petitions often have questions about impeachment evidence, such as evidence that a witness had a prior conviction for lying. For example, in a murder case where an eyewitness identified the defendant as the killer, impeachment evidence is a crimen falsi conviction (conviction for lying or other fraudulent conduct). In other words, the eyewitness had a prior conviction for lying.
In these types of situations, which are quite common in criminal appeals in Pennsylvania, courts will not grant relief to defendants if the information was equally available to both the prosecution and defense. Basically, a defendant’s PCRA claim will be denied if both parties had equal access to the information, or if the defendant could have reasonably uncovered the evidence by exercising reasonable diligence.
Therefore, the prosecution’s failure to provide prior conviction records of prosecution witnesses is highly unlikely to support a claim for prosecutorial misconduct. However, failing to uncover that a key witness had a prior conviction may support an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.
This is precisely what happened in Commonwealth v. Grant, a 2002 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case. There, the defendant argued that the prosecution failed to reveal that the key witness had more than one crimen falsi conviction. He also argued that the prosecution failed to reveal that the same witness was on parole at the time of the trial.
At trial, the judge refused to allow the defendant to attack the credibility of the witness because the convictions the defendant did know about were too old (Pennsylvania rules of evidence impose a 10 year time limitation). On appeal, the defendant argued that had he known about the existence of an additional crimen falsi conviction as well as the fact that the witness was on parole, the trial judge may have allowed him to attack the credibility of the witness.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found in favor of the prosecution on this point. Because the evidence could have been uncovered by the defense, it did not amount to a Brady violation.
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