The PA Supreme Court, in the case of Commonwealth v. Johnson, No. 713 CAP (December 19, 2017), has affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant a new trial, holding that Johnson’s counsel may have been able to cast doubt upon the credibility of the key prosecution witness with a reasonable probability that Johnson would not have been convicted of first-degree murder, if his defense counsel been provided with several police reports that were in the possession of the Commonwealth at the time of trial. 

“In 1997, Roderick Johnson was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death. Several years later, Johnson discovered that the Commonwealth had concealed certain documents that would have cast doubt upon the credibility of a key prosecution witness. The court of common pleas held that the Commonwealth’s failure to disclose this evidence violated Johnson’s right to due process of law, in accordance with Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963) (holding that the prosecution must disclose evidence favorable to the accused that is material either to guilt or to punishment).”

“Robles’ testimony was the only evidence linking Johnson to the .38 caliber gun, and that gun was the only physical evidence linking Johnson to the Banks cousins’ murders. Without Robles’ testimony, the Commonwealth was left with Johnson’s account of the shootings, which fell short of proving the intent required for a first-degree murder conviction. Robles, in other words, was the Commonwealth’s keystone. He tied Johnson to the murder weapon, and he undermined Johnson’s defensive claim that he was not the gunman.”

“The problem was that defense counsel was flying blind; he had the court’s permission to inquire into Robles’ bias, self-interest, or motivation to lie, but he knew of nothing concrete to ask Robles. Defense counsel did the best that he could. He asked Robles if the Reading Police had ever paid him for information (Robles denied this). He asked whether Robles’ nickname was “Gambino” (Robles admitted this). And he asked if Robles was the leader of a gang (Robles denied this). To the extent that Robles’ answers did any harm to his credibility, the damage likely was repaired on redirect, when Robles reminded the jury that he had never been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of, any crime.”

“Without the police reports, Johnson’s counsel was limited severely in his cross examination of Robles. The most scandalous detail that counsel was able to elicit during his questioning was that Robles went by the nickname “Gambino.” Because of the Commonwealth’s nondisclosure, counsel was unable to explore—let alone establish—Robles’ motive for testifying against his former friend.”

The Commonwealth’s primary contention in arguing that the undisclosed police reports were not Brady material was because they would not have been admissible as substantive evidence at Johnson’s trial. However, this argument was rejected by the Supreme Court which stated that “[t]he Commonwealth violates Brady by failing to disclose exculpatory evidence as well as evidence that may be used to impeach a prosecution witness” and “[d]ocuments like the police reports at issue here—which would not have been admissible as substantive evidence at Johnson’s trial—may nevertheless contain information that can be used to impeach a witness.”

“[T]he United States Supreme Court has explained that evidence is “material” for Brady purposes ‘when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different.’ A reasonable probability does not mean that the defendant ‘would more likely than not have received a different verdict with the evidence’; it means only that the likelihood of a different result is great enough to ‘undermine[ ] confidence in the outcome of the trial.’”

Accordingly, the trial court’s ruling, which awarded Johnson a new trial, was affirmed.




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