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Media Alerts - Candice Staruh v. Superintendent Cambridge Springs SCI - Third Circuit
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July 22, 2016
  Candice Staruh v. Superintendent Cambridge Springs SCI - Third Circuit
Headline: Refusal to admit hearsay confession did not violate defendant's due process right to present a defense to charges she murdered her son.

Area of Law: Due Process

Issue(s) Presented: Did Pennsylvania Courts' refusals to admit a hearsay confession did violate defendant's due process right to present her defense where defendant's mother refused to confess under oath?

Brief Summary:

The day before Candice Staruh's homicide trial, for the killing of her three-year-old son, her mother Lois confessed to the crime to a defense investigator. However, she confessed under circumstances that did not subject her to criminal liability. The Pennsylvania trial court refused to admit Lois's hearsay confession at Candice's trial, as it concluded that it lacked the indicia of trustworthiness that is required under Pennsylvania's Rules of Evidence. The Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded that the trial court's refusal to admit the confession was a proper application of Pennsylvania's Rules of Evidence.

The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of Staruh's subsequent habeas petition, which had asserted that she was denied her due process right to present her defense. The Third Circuit held that Lois's statements had no credibility and she was merely attempting to prevent her daughter from going to jail while at the same time avoid criminal liability for herself.

Extended Summary:

Candice Staruh was charged with the death of her three year old child, Jordan. On October 27, 2003 emergency medical services found Staruh's son Jordan without a pulse. He had bruises all over his body, along with vomit on the floor and in his mouth, face and neck. Staruh claimed that the bruising was caused by prior falls from a stool and horseplay with Jordan's four year old brother Kamden.

A forensic pathologist concluded in an autopsy that the bruises were a mix of older and more recent injuries, and were too severe to have been caused by Kamden. He also found material consistent with duct tape on Jordan's back, and the pattern of bruising on the victim's abdomen and back was consistent with being bound by duct tape. He determined that Jordan's death was caused by blunt force trauma to the head and deemed the manner of death to be a homicide. The police also noted the deplorable hygienic state of the house where Staruh resided with her mother and her three children.

Staruh was arrested and charged with first and third degree murder, aggravated assault, and endangering the welfare of a child. Lois, Candice's mother, was also arrested and pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of children. At the plea agreement hearing, her attorney stated that Lois was not admit to causing any injury to Jordan, she had only violated her duty of care regarding the condition of her home.

On the eve of Candice's trial, her mother Lois confessed to the crime during an interview with a defense investigator. During this interview, Lois admitted to the investigator that she had abused Jordan by hitting him on the ribs with a metal sweeper pipe numerous times, throwing him against the wall where he would hit his head, and restraining him with duct tape to keep him from getting up during the night. Lois had denied responsibility for the crime for two and a half years. When she confessed she refused to do so under circumstances under which she would have been criminally liable, stating that if she was questioned in court, she intended to invoke her Fifth Amendment privilege. Lois was appointed counsel to represent her in her capacity as witness.

During trial Kamden and the three persons who he made statements to testified for the prosecution. Staruh's defense implied that it was Lois and not Candice who had killed Jordan. The defense elicited testimony from Kamden that he sometimes called Lois "mom" and from Candice's ex-sister-in-law who stated that Lois beat Jordan. Staruh also testified on her own behalf, claiming that Lois abused Jordan and had also abused her as a child. She claimed she was afraid of her mother and had recently been diagnosed with battered woman syndrome. Staruh also testified that on the day that Jordan died, he was on a stool watching cartoons; she laid down for a few seconds and got up when she head him fall. When she went to check on him, Jordan was throwing up and having trouble breathing. Although in her testimony Candice placed full blame for the bruises on her mother, she never identified her mother as the cause of Jordan's death. During trial, Lois stated that she was unwilling to testify and asserted her Fifth Amendment rights.

The trial court refused the defense's request for Lois to assert the Fifth Amendment in presence of the jury and to introduce the statements that Lois had made to the investigator as statements against her penal interests pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3). The trial court concluded that the statements lacked the indicia of trustworthiness required under the rule. The jury found Staruh guilty of third degree murder, aggravated assault, and endangering the welfare of a child and she was sentenced to 18 to 40 years imprisonment.

The Third Circuit upheld the denial of Staruh's habeas petition. It rejected Staruh's argument that hat the Supreme Court's decision in Chambers v. Mississippi, mandated reversal.
The Court compared the indicia in Chambers, which provided considerable assurance of reliability. Each confession in Chambers was made spontaneously to a close acquaintance shortly after the murder had occurred, each was corroborated by other evidence in the case, and each confession was self-incriminatory and against interest.

The Court found that there were no comparable assurances of reliability in Staruh's case. Lois never signed a written confession or indicated intent to be held liable for the murder. She also maintained her innocence for over two and a half years, including under oath at her guilty plea hearing.

It agreed with the Superior Court that Lois' statements had no indicia of credibility, as she was merely hoping to prevent that her daughter be convicted of murder while avoiding criminal liability herself. The Court therefore affirmed the denial of Staruh's habeas petition.



The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/151650p.pdf

Panel: Smith, Hardiman, and Nygaard, Circuit Judges

Argument Date:

Date of Issued Opinion: June 30, 2016

Docket Number: No. 15-1650

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Cynthia C. Pereira

Counsel: Frederick W. Ulrich, Counsel for Appellant; David J. Freed, Matthew P. Smith, Charles J. Volkert, Counsel for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Smith

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 07/22/2016 03:18 PM     3rd Circuit  

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