Commonwealth v. Spotz, PICS Case No. 14-0083 (W.D. Pa. January 17, 2014) Stevens, J. (44 pages).

SUPREME COURT

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CRIMINAL LAW

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel • Post-Conviction Relief Act

Commonwealth v. Spotz, PICS Case No. 14-0083 (W.D. Pa. January 17, 2014) Stevens, J. (44 pages).

Defendant was tried on first and third degree murder and voluntary manslaughter charges in connection with the death of his brother. Defendant claimed self-defense, and testified at the trial. On cross-examination, the prosecutor asked why defendant failed to render assistance to his brother and why he failed to tell police he was acting in self-defense. Such questioning regarding post-arrest silence has been construed as a violation of due process. Defense counsel failed to object to this cross-examination, as well as to a jury instruction relating to self-defense and justification.

Defendant filed a petition under the PCRA, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. His trial attorney testified at the hearing. The PCRA court determined the trial attorney's testimony was not credible and concluded the attorney strategically allowed the introduction without objection of defendant's statements on cross-examination as a means of seeking a new trial if the verdict was unfavorable to defendant. The Superior Court reversed. The Supreme Court held that reversal was in error.

To establish trial counsel's ineffectiveness, a petitioner must demonstrate: (1) the underlying claim had arguable merit; (2) counsel had no reasonable basis for the course of action chosen; and (3) counsel's action or inaction prejudiced the petitioner. If a petitioner fails to prove any one of these elements, the claim fails.

The Superior Court did not utilize the correct standard in concluding defendant was prejudiced by his trial counsel's failure to object to cross-examination. It applied the "harmless error" standard, but the more stringent standard of "actual prejudice" applies and the defendant must show trial counsel's conduct had an actual adverse effect on the outcome of the proceeding.

The appellate court's scope of review under the PCRA is limited to determining whether the PCRA court's findings are supported by the record and free of legal error. The court found there was no reasonable probability that an objection would have led to a more favorable outcome for defendant, because of the overwhelming strength of evidence in the record, including defendant's admissions. Under the circumstances, defendant could not meet his burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he suffered actual prejudice as the result of his trial counsel's failure to object to the cross-examination and jury instruction.

The Superior Court's order awarding defendant a new trial pursuant to PCRA due to his trial counsel's ineffectiveness was reversed.