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Media Alerts - Johnson v. Folino - Third Circuit
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January 17, 2013
  Johnson v. Folino - Third Circuit
Headline: In the context of post-conviction relief challenges, undisclosed evidence may be material if it would be admissible at trial or could lead to discovery of evidence admissible at trial.

Area of Law: Criminal Law/Habeas Corpus

Brief Summary: Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Despite asking for such information, he was not provided evidence regarding the criminal history of certain witnesses against him. Based on that nondisclosure he filed for post-conviction relief under Brady. The District Court denied his petition, primarily based on its determination that the evidence would not have been admissible at his trial, even if it were available, and thus did not meet the materiality requirement of Brady. The Third Circuit reversed and remanded for reconsideration, holding that inadmissibility alone does not determine materiality, and also faulting the District Court's admissibility analysis as erroneous.

Extended Summary: Roderick Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for a murder that occurred in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1996. His conviction was based primarily on testimony from his acquaintances George Robles, Luz Cintron, and Mylta Velazquez, who asserted that he had confessed committing the murder to them and relating other details gleaned from these confessions. The witnesses provided their statements only after repeatedly denying any knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the murder. There was no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony linking Johnson to the crime. Before Johnson's trial started his defense attorney asked the prosecution to disclose whether any of its witnesses had received any agreements or promises in exchange for their testimony, were on probation or parole, or had any pending criminal charges. The district attorney prosecuting the case stated that there were no agreements or promises made and there were no plea agreements or cases of any kind with regards to the prosecution witnesses. In reality, however, Robles had been targeted in a number of criminal investigations, including drug and weapons activities. Despite this information, which the prosecution was aware of, Robles had never been prosecuted or convicted of any of these crimes. The prosecution also had criminal activity information with regards to other witnesses which it never disclosed. Despite the fact that Johnson requested this information before his initial trial, it did not come to light until ten years later during his habeas corpus proceedings.

After the previously undisclosed information about the prosecution witnesses came to light, Johnson sought post-conviction relief under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), under the theory that the prosecution's failure to disclose the requested information at the time of trial prevented him from fully defending himself, and that he was therefore entitled to a new trial. The Pennsylvania courts denied Johnson's petition on the grounds that he did not file it in time, because it was filed more than one year after his sentence had become final and did not meet any of the exceptions to the time requirement. The Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreed with the Pennsylvania courts that Johnson's petition was not filed within the required time. It then considered whether the lack of timeliness could be excused under the Supreme Court's Brady precedent, by showing cause and prejudice. In this context, prejudice requires the defendant to show that the information which was withheld from him at trial - the criminal history of Robles and other witnesses - was "material." The District Court determined that the evidence in question was speculative, tangential to the issues in the case, and likely to confuse the jury, and therefore would not have been admissible at trial, even if known. Based on the determination that the evidence would not have been admissible, the court decided that the evidence was not material and thus denied Johnson's petition. Because the court determined that the evidence was not material, it did not give any significant attention to the issue of cause.

Based on the District Court's ruling, the question for the Third Circuit was whether the District Court was correct that Johnson did not prove that the withheld evidence was material. The Third Circuit first pointed out that the admissibility or not of evidence was not determinative of materiality. Evidence is material in the context of a Brady challenge if there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different if the evidence had been properly disclosed. When making a Brady determination, admissibility may be taken into account, but it is not determinative. Evidence may be material if it is admissible or could lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Thus, the Third Circuit overruled the District Court's analysis on the basis that it should not have looked at admissibility as the sole factor in the materiality determination.

The Court also found that the District Court was wrong in not considering the evidence item by item and cumulatively to determine its force and importance. When considering a Brady claim, courts must look at evidence item by item to determine its value and then consider the cumulative value of that evidence. This is important because even evidence that on its own may not seem capable of changing the outcome might do so when considered together. Finally, the Third Circuit faulted the District Court for not citing any precedent to support its determination that the evidence in question would have been inadmissible. When making an admissibility determination in the Brady context, a federal court must undergo its analysis on the basis of state law regarding admissibility. Therefore, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded to the District Court for reconsideration of the admissibility and materiality issues following the correct procedure.

The full opinion is available at

Panel: Circuit Judges Sloviter, Rendell, and Hardiman

Argument Date: 9/18/2012

Date of Issued Opinion: 01/16/2013

Docket Number: 11-3250

Decided: Reversed and Remanded

Case Alert Author: Michael Jervis

Counsel: Samuel J.B. Angell, Michael Gonzalez, David L. Zuckerman for Appellant; Andrea F. McKenna for Appellee Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Douglas L. Waltman for Appellee Bucks County District Attorney

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Rendell

Circuit: 3d Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Susan L. DeJarnatt

Edited: 01/18/2013 at 10:50 AM by Media Alerts Moderator

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 01/17/2013 12:09 PM     3rd Circuit  

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