A Pennsylvania man’s second-degree murder conviction may stand, even though the same jury that found him guilty of murder acquitted him of robbery, the predicate offense in his case, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
In reversing the state Superior Court’s decision to throw out Antoine Miller’s murder conviction, the justices decided the intermediate appellate court had erred by relying on precedent in which the court examined a different crime, ethnic intimidation, as requiring the commission of a predicate offense. Statutorily defined more broadly, the crime of second-degree murder did not, the court decided.
The ruling indicates that, while a jury’s returning an inconsistent verdict like the Delaware County jury did in Commonwealth v. Miller would indeed reflect “error,” courts should not view such as sufficient to constitute the reversal of an otherwise substantiated conviction.
“While recognizing that the jury’s verdict appears to be inconsistent, we refuse to inquire into or to speculate upon the nature of the jury’s deliberations or rationale behind the jury’s decision,” Justice Seamus P. McCaffery wrote for the majority in his 13-page opinion. “Whether the jury’s verdict was the result of mistake, compromise, lenity, or any other factor is not a question for this court to review.”
“We reaffirm that an acquittal cannot be interpreted as a specific finding in relation to some of the evidence, and that even where two verdicts are logically inconsistent, such inconsistency alone cannot be grounds for a new trial or for reversal,” McCaffery added.
In the case, police tied Miller to the murder of Wallace Bivens in 2006 after they stopped Miller while he was driving Bivens’ car. About two weeks later, a state constable was attempting to serve an eviction notice on Bivens when the constable found the man’s decaying body in a closet at his apartment.
Police found Bivens’ cellphone in the vehicle, which had been impounded, and traced physical evidence to Miller.
They charged Miller with first-, second- and third-degree murder, as well as robbery and a number of other lesser charges.
The jury came back with convictions on second-degree murder, theft by unlawful taking and attempting to elude an officer. The jury acquitted him of first-degree murder, several other charges, and, importantly, robbery.
McCaffery noted in the Jan. 20 decision that inconsistent verdicts have been allowed under state and federal law, so long as there is evidence to back up the convictions.
The state Supreme Court adopted long-standing federal precedent regarding inconsistent verdicts in its 1994 decision in Commonwealth v. Campbell .
The case set forth that a jury can be convinced of a defendant’s guilt on a compound offense, but “‘then through mistake, compromise, or lenity,’” inconsistently acquit the perpetrator on a lesser, predicate offense.
Since the state is barred from challenging acquittal on double jeopardy grounds, the high court in Campbell came down with the conclusion that inconsistent verdicts should not be reviewable, McCaffery said.
In 2005, the justices revisited the issue of inconsistent verdicts in Commonwealth v. Magliocco , which McCaffery said the Superior Court erroneously replied upon. In the case, the defendant was found guilty of ethnic intimidation but acquitted on charges of terroristic threats.
But, even in the Magliocco court’s words, the case was an “admittedly unusual” set of circumstances in which the crime of terroristic threats was a specific statutory element of ethnic intimidation, McCaffery pointed out.
Where the “commission” of terroristic threats was an element of ethnic intimidation, McCaffery said, such could not be said for the second-degree murder statute, spelling out that a defendant commits murder while in “perpetration of felony.” Perpetration of a felony, McCaffery added, has been defined “in a very broad manner” — including the “commission of, or an attempt to commit … robbery.’”
It was this distinction that led the Superior Court to incorrectly rely upon Magliocco in vacating Miller’s murder conviction.
And the case wasn’t the first time the intermediate appellate court had used the case to vacate a second-degree murder conviction because a jury had declined to return a guilty verdict on robbery charges.Nonetheless, in the Superior Court’s opinion in Commonwealth v. Austin , the court recognized that the state is not required to prove the accused actually committed the predicate offense. This apparent inconsistency was the subject of a two-page concurring opinion by Justice Thomas G. Saylor.
“The majority relies on a passage from Austin for the proposition that, in order to obtain a felony murder conviction, the commonwealth is not required to prove that the accused actually committed the predicate offense,” Saylor said. “Yet, the import of Austin ‘s rationale is that the commonwealth is, in fact, required to essentially establish the predicate offense when that offense is robbery.”
Saylor also pointed out that he saw consideration on both sides of the question of whether inconsistent verdicts should be — in the word chosen by the justice — tolerated.
But for the attorney representing the state, the language of the law was clear.
“Obviously, we’re very pleased with the court’s decision,” said Delaware County Assistant District Attorney Michelle Hutton. “We knew the evidence was sufficient to support the second-degree murder conviction.”
As for the inconsistent verdict: “We think the jury just made a mistake,” Hutton added.
William E. Ruane, of the Delaware County Public Defender’s Office, represented Miller and did not return a call requesting comment.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office filed an amicus brief in support of the state.
( Copies of the 15-page opinion in Commonwealth v. Miller, PICS No. 12-0195, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •