APPELLATE LAW – CRIMINAL
Discovery • Documentary Evidence • Witnesses
Commonwealth of Pa. v. James T. Williams, PICS Case No. 14-0282 (Pa. Feb. 19, 2014) Castille, J. (33 pages).
In this capital case pending on collateral review, appellant Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appealed the order of the court of common pleas of Lehigh County granting the discovery motion of appellee James T. Williams in connection with his petition filed under the Post Conviction Relief Act. The appellate court vacated the discovery order and remanded for final resolution.
On May 29, 1995, Williams murdered Richard White, shooting him three times during a drug transaction-related robbery. Williams was charged with first-degree murder and related crimes; Williams represented himself at trial with standby counsel assisting. White challenged the credibility of prosecution witnesses, including the four co-conspirators. In August 2001, Williams was convicted by jury of first-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery; Williams was sentenced to death. The appellate court affirmed the judgment of sentence.
Williams filed a petition for post-conviction relief which the commonwealth motioned to dismiss. On discovery motion by Williams, the lower court directed the commonwealth to provide “all notes” prepared by the trial prosecutor “concerning interviews, witness preparation sessions, [and] witness examination outlines” for four of Williams’ co-conspirators who were also witnesses at trial. The commonwealth filed for reconsideration, arguing it did not have an opportunity to be heard, that the notes were protected under the work product doctrine and Williams lacked good cause for permitting discovery under Pa.R.Crim.P. 902(E)(2). Williams opposed, arguing the duty to disclose defeats the work product doctrine under the Brady rule. The motion for reconsideration was denied and the commonwealth appealed.
The appellate court first looked at whether it had jurisdiction to hear the appeal. The commonwealth argued the discovery order was a collateral order appealable under Appellate Rule 313 as the order was separable from the main cause of action, the right implicated was important, and the claim will be irreparably lost. The appellate court found the discovery order was collateral and met all three conditions; therefore the appellate court had jurisdiction to hear the appeal.
Next, the appellate court reviewed whether the lower court abused its discretion in granting Williams’ discovery request. The court noted that the Brady rule imposed an affirmative duty to disclose exculpatory information, but did not establish a specific right to allow a defendant to review the file for assessment. The court further noted that the lower court failed to establish a record which provided a rationale under the work product doctrine, good cause, or address the assistant district attorney’s testimony regarding her lack of notes prior to approving the discovery order. Accordingly, the appellate court vacated the discovery order citing the lower court abused its discretion given the discovery order was unsupported by the good cause requirement of Rule 902(E)(2).