Writ of Habeas Corpus • Evidence of Prima Facie Case • Prior Evidentiary Rulings

Commonwealth v. Hilliard, PICS Case No. 17-1403 (Pa. Super. Aug. 31, 2017) Dubow, J.; Fitzgerald, J., concurring (16 pages).

The trial court erred in granting defendant’s petition for writ of habeas corpus based on a potential evidentiary challenge to a hearsay statement offered at defendant’s preliminary hearing since the court was bound to consider such evidence in determining whether the Commonwealth established a prima facie case. The court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

As Anthony Baltimore was walking to work in Pittsburgh on Aug. 22, 2015, a car pulled up beside him. Someone in the vehicle wearing a hoodie shot Baltimore nine times. Pittsburgh Police Homicide Detective Edward Fallert went to the emergency room where Baltimore was treated. Medical professionals were preparing Baltimore, who was losing a lot of blood, for emergency surgery. Fallert believed that Baltimore “wasn’t going to make it.” As Baltimore was being moved to an operating room, Fallert asked him who shot him. Baltimore replied that defendant, Giant Hilliard, shot him. Baltimore was then rushed to surgery. He survived the incident. The Commonwealth charged defendant with criminal attempt – homicide, aggravated assault and carrying a firearm without a license. Both Baltimore and Fallert testified at a preliminary hearing. Baltimore did not identify defendant as the shooter. He said there was a hoodie over the shooter’s head and that he really could not see who was in the vehicle. Fallert testified about Baltimore’s statement at the hospital. The court admitted Fallert’s testimony about Baltimore’s identification of defendant as the shooter as an excited utterance and held the case for trial. Defendant then petitioned for writ of habeas corpus based solely on the issue of Baltimore’s statements. He argued that the Commonwealth failed to establish a prima facie case because Baltimore testified at the hearing that he did not see who shot him. The trial court granted the petition and dismissed all the charges. On appeal, the Commonwealth challenged the trial court’s authority to revisit the evidentiary ruling given the narrow standard and scope of review of a petition for writ of habeas corpus when considering the sufficiency of the evidence presented at a preliminary hearing. The appellate court noted that at the pre-trial stage of a criminal prosecution, the Commonwealth need not prove a defendant’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A prima facia case exists when the Commonwealth produces evidence of each of the material elements of the crime charged and establishes probable cause to warrant the belief that the accused committed the offense. The court had criticized the grant of a petition for writ of habeas corpus where the reviewing court concluded that evidence produced at the preliminary hearing might be subject to exclusion at trial and, therefore, disregarded the evidence in assessing the sufficiency of the evidence produced. “Hearsay as provided by law shall be considered by the issuing authority in determining whether a prima facie case has been established. Hearsay evidence shall be sufficient to establish any element of an offense,” the court said, citing Pa.R.Crim.P. 542(E). In ruling on the petition for writ of habeas corpus, the trial court was bound to consider the evidence offered by the Commonwealth at the preliminary hearing in determining if the Commonwealth met its prima facie burden. “The failure to do so constituted a misapplication of the scope of review and relevant legal standards,” the court stated.