Criminal Law • Sexual Abuse • Double Jeopardy

Commonwealth v. Minnis, PICS Case No. 14-0054 (Pa. Super. Jan. 9, 2014) Donohue, J. (11 pages).

Where the prospect of prosecutorial misconduct exists, a criminal defendant may still be entitled to double jeopardy protection even if granted a new trial on his or her motion. Reversed and remanded.

In 2008, defendant James Minnis was found guilty of sexually abusing his girlfriend’s minor daughter, T.K. Part of the Commonwealth’s evidence against Minnis was the testimony of Rhonda Henderson, R.N., a forensic nurse examiner who had examined T.K. and testified to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that T.K. had suffered both vaginal and rectal injuries. In 2010, the Erie County District Attorney found reason to believe that a number of Henderson’s examinations and testimony were unreliable.

Minnis filed a petition seeking dismissal of charges, or in the alternative, a new trial. Minnis was granted a new trial; however, he subsequently began discovery to establish support for a claim of double jeopardy based upon prosecutorial misconduct. The trial court denied Minnis’ double jeopardy claim, without hearing simply on the basis of the precedent set in Commonwealth v. Constant, which held that a defendant that secured a new trial on his or her own motion could not plead double jeopardy on the second trial.

In the instant case, the court overruled Constant and remanded back to the trial court to proceed on the substantive merits of Minnis’ double jeopardy claim. The court noted that where a sentence is subject to appeal by the defendant or the commonwealth, there is not yet finality and double jeopardy does not attach. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Commonwealth v. Martorano that under Art. 1, §10 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, double jeopardy protection still applies where the prosecution engages in conduct undertaken in bad faith to prejudice or harass the defendant.

The instant court found that the Constant court was incorrect in relying on Commonwealth v. Melton, which was decided prior to the application of the federal double jeopardy clause and the modern Pennsylvania double jeopardy rule in Martorano. The Constant court also relied on Commonwealth v. Thomas; however, Thomas was distinguishable on the basis that nothing in Thomas indicated that the prosecution was aware of or complicit in their expert’s dishonesty, or that prosecutorial misconduct was the basis of the defendant’s double jeopardy argument. Therefore, Constant could not be reconciled with the development of the law in Martorano, and should be overturned.