Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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Appellant Qu’eed Batts was convicted of a first-degree murder that he committed when he was fourteen years old. The issue for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether the sentencing court imposed an illegal sentence when it resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After careful review, the Court concluded, based on the findings made by the sentencing court and the evidence upon which it relied, that the sentence was illegal in light of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). Pursuant to its grant of allowance of appeal, the Court further concluded that to effectuate the mandate of Miller and Montgomery, procedural safeguards were required to ensure that life-without-parole sentences were meted out only to “the rarest of juvenile offenders” whose crimes reflected “permanent incorrigibility,” “irreparable corruption” and “irretrievable depravity,” as required by Miller and Montgomery. The Pennsylvania Court recognized a presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender. To rebut the presumption, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of rehabilitation. View "Pennsylvania v. Batts" on Justia Law

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In a capital post-conviction appeal, Appellant Michael Pruitt raised six challenges, several of which fell within the category of the claims deemed to have been abandoned by the PCRA court. In 2003, Appellant forcibly entered the home of Greta Gougler, where he robbed, raped, and murdered her. Appellant was arrested, tried, and convicted for first -degree murder, rape, robbery, and other offenses, and a jury returned a death verdict in a capital sentencing proceeding. On direct appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. In 2009, Appellant brought these proceedings under the Post Conviction Relief Act (the "PCRA"). The post -conviction court conducted a series of evidentiary hearings, throughout which Appellant was represented by the members of the Federal Community Defender Office. Later, per Appellant's request, those attorneys were removed from the representation and new counsel was appointed in their place. In 2015, Appellant submitted a request to proceed pro se. The PCRA court scheduled a proceeding, at which Appellant agreed to continue to be represented by counsel but was deemed by the court to have "knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily abandon[ed] any issues raised by prior PCRA counsel and/or [current counsel] that are not contained in [a] memorandum in support of the PCRA relief petition filed this date[.]" The PCRA court subsequently denied relief on the remaining claims for relief. This appeal followed. The Supreme Court concluded the record supported the PCRA court's determination that Appellant abandoned the six claims at issue here, and affirmed the court's subsequent order. View "Pennsylvania v. Pruitt" on Justia Law

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Appellant Leon Mills challenged a superior court decision to overturn a county court’s finding of a violation of Rule of Criminal Procedure 600 that he receive a prompt trial. The Rule requires that trial commence within 365 days from the date the criminal complaint is filed. Delays at any stage of the proceedings caused by the Commonwealth when it fails to exercise due diligence count in the 365-day tally. On June 6, 2011, the Commonwealth filed a complaint against Appellant charging him with a series of crimes arising out of a drive -by shooting, including attempted murder and aggravated assault. At a status meeting on March 20, 2012, however, per the Commonwealth's request, trial was continued. Trial was rescheduled to September 10, 2012. The outcome of the dismissal motion turned on whether or not 174 days was to be included or excluded in the 365 -day calculation. The common pleas court enforced the rule's main directive, and dismissed. Upon review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with Appellant that time attributable to the normal progression of a case simply was not "delay" for purposes of Rule 600, and reinstated the dismissal order. View "Pennsylvania v. Mills" on Justia Law

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Appellee was charged with a single count of possession with intent to distribute, or possession, of a “designer drug,” a substance similar to a scheduled controlled substance, not the same. The trial court here determined experts have been unable to reach an agreement on a method for analyzing and determining the similarities between the chemical structures the controlled substance and its designer analogue, leading it to conclude this disagreement rendered the Pennsylvania designer drug statute unconstitutionally vague. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, finding the common pleas court did not account for the difference between the concepts of analogue and substantial similarity, the latter of which is more readily apprehensible to the lay citizen in the context of comparing chemical structures; nor did it recognize that, unlike the controlled-substance provision, the designer drug provision included a narrowing scienter specification. Moreover, the Court found in this case that there were “considerable similarities” as between the two molecules based on their two-dimensional diagrams. View "Pennsylvania v. Herman" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed appellant Marcel Johnson’s convictions and his sentence of death for the 2013 murder of Ebony Talley, her unborn child, and her four-year-old daughter, R.R. In this automatic direct appeal, Johnson raised nine issues for review. After thorough consideration of these issues, the Court affirmed his convictions and the imposition of the death sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Trial courts must identify the circumstances that make it reasonable to infer that the property owner had actual knowledge of the illegal use of the property or consented to the underlying criminal activity before allowing a civil in rem forfeiture of that property. The proper constitutional construct in determining whether an in rem forfeiture violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment requires an initial determination regarding the relationship between the forfeited property and the underlying offense (the instrumentality prong). If this threshold prong is satisfied, the next step of the analysis is a proportionality inquiry in which the value of the property sought to be forfeited is compared to the gravity of the underlying offense to determine whether the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense. A 71-year-old grandmother who owned the house in which she lived, and owned a 1997 Chevrolet minivan, suffered from blood clots in her lungs, was hospitalized, and released, ordered to bed rest. Her adult son and two grandchildren also lived in the house. The son sold drugs from the house and the van, without his mother’s knowledge. The Commonwealth filed a petition for forfeiture of the house and minivan, with the trial court determining there was a nexus between the seized house and violations of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (Drug Act). The trial court rejected the grandmother’s statutory innocent owner defense afforded by the Forfeiture Act because, after the police notified her of her son’s drug activities (through service of search warrants and personally informing her of the activities) she “refused to take any proactive measures or steps to demonstrate her lack of consent to this illegal activity. The Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court, concluding that the lower tribunal applied an erroneous standard for determining whether the forfeiture violated the Eighth Amendment, and that it failed to consider all relevant circumstances in rejecting the innocent owner defense. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the Commonwealth Court. View "Pennsylvania v. 1997 Chevrolet, etc." on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Supreme Court’s review in this case centered on whether the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (the “Board”) abused its discretion if it fails to consider whether to grant a convicted parole violator (“CPV”) credit for time spent at liberty on parole. Also for consideration was whether the Board had to provide a contemporaneous statement explaining the rationale behind its decision to grant or deny credit to a CPV. In 2010, following his guilty plea to possession with intent to deliver (“PWID”), Appellant was sentenced to two to four years of imprisonment, with a maximum sentence date of December 9, 2013. On December 12, 2011, the Board released Appellant on parole. In 2013, while still on parole, Appellant was arrested and charged with various criminal offenses. He ultimately pled guilty to PWID and was sentenced to one to three years of imprisonment. Appellant subsequently waived his right to a parole revocation hearing and admitted that he violated his parole by committing a crime. The Board accepted Appellant’s admission and recommitted him in accord with his original 2011 sentence. The Supreme Court held that the Board abuses its discretion in failing to consider whether to grant CPVs credit for time spent at liberty on parole under the plain language of Subsection 6138(a)(2.1) of the Parole Code, 61 Pa.C.S. sec. 6138(a)(2.1). Additionally, in order to effectuate the intent of the General Assembly in enacting Subsection 6138(a)(2.1), the Court held that the Board must provide a contemporaneous statement explaining its rationale for denying a CPV credit for time spent at liberty on parole. In this case, because the Board’s decision to deny Appellant such credit was based upon its erroneous belief that Appellant was automatically precluded from receiving credit under Subsection 6138(a)(2.1), the Board abused its discretion. View "Pittman v. PA Board of Prob. & Parole" on Justia Law

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Appellant Raghunandan Yandamuri, acting pro se, appealed the two death sentences he received after a jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder and related offenses for the kidnapping of a ten-month-old baby and the murders of the baby and her grandmother. After reviewing the trial court record, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the sentence imposed was not the product of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor, but rather was based on the evidence presented at trial. Furthermore, the Court concluded the evidence supported at least one aggravating circumstance for each of the murders committed. The judgment of sentence was therefore affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Yandamuri" on Justia Law

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Appellant Charles Hicks was tried by jury and convicted of first-degree murder, tampering with evidence, and abuse of a corpse. For these convictions, he received the death penalty. He appealed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined there was sufficient evidence to sustain appellant’s conviction for first degree murder, and his claim regarding Rule 404(b) evidence did not warrant relief. "Our careful review of the record reveals the sentence was not the product of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor. To the contrary, the sentence was based on properly admitted evidence showing appellant intentionally killed the victim by cutting her throat with a knife. We further conclude the evidence was sufficient to support the aggravating circumstance of killing by means of torture as the Commonwealth expert witnesses testified the victim was severely beaten and strangled before being decapitated while she was still alive. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of sentence." View "Pennsylvania v. Hicks" on Justia Law

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In a discretionary appeal by the Commonwealth, the issue presented for the Supreme Court’s review was whether the presumption that information of public record could not be considered “unknown” for purposes of proving newly-discovered facts exception to the time requirements of the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), applied to pro se petitioners who were incarcerated. The Supreme Court held that the presumption did not apply to pro se prisoner petitioners, and so it affirmed the Superior Court’s order remanding the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Pennsylvania v. Burton" on Justia Law