The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments over whether H. William DeWeese’s conviction should be overturned because his trial counsel failed to preserve for appeal what DeWeese said was exculpatory testimony by 14 “mantra” witnesses who were barred from testifying at trial.
DeWeese, the former speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, was convicted on conflict of interest charges in the Bonusgate scandal.
He was sentenced to serve 30 to 60 months’ incarceration and to pay more than $116,000 in restitution. In August 2013, the Superior Court affirmed DeWeese’s sentence, and the state Supreme Court denied his petition for allocatur in November that year.
But after DeWeese filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act appeal, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court ruled to vacate the restitution portion of his sentence. The unanimous decision cited the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Commonwealth v. Veon, which held that a restitution order directing payment to the state as the victim of a crime constitutes an illegal sentence.
But the Superior Court rejected DeWeese’s claims that he had ineffective assistance of trial counsel in the case.
The primary issue DeWeese raised regarding his alleged ineffective trial attorney concerned the trial court’s decision not to allow several “mantra” witnesses expected to testify about how they were told to use leave slips if using campaign time. DeWeese contended that his trial attorney failed to properly preserve the issue for appeal. But the PCRA court found that DeWeese failed to show prejudice because the excluded testimony was cumulative to the defense testimony that was allowed in at trial.
The Superior Court agreed.
“Given the cumulative nature of the proposed testimony of the excluded mantra witnesses, even if trial counsel had proffered their testimony (or adequately preserved the issue for review on direct appeal) there is no reasonable probability that there would have been a different result,” Senior Judge John Musmanno said.
But in a one-page order issued Nov. 7, the Supreme Court agreed to review the lower courts’ rulings with regard to the mantra witnesses.
The issue, as phrased on appeal by DeWeese, asked: “Did the Superior Court err in denying PCRA relief where [petitioner's] trial counsel failed to preserve for direct appeal the testimony of 14 witnesses who were prevented by the trial court from offering exculpatory testimony that was crucial to the defense and that would have directly contradicted the commonwealth’s primary witnesses at trial?”
DeWeese’s attorney, Gaetan J. Alfano of Pietragallo Gordon, Alfano Bosick & Raspanti in Philadelphia, said, “My client is pleased that the court has decided to hear the issue on the merits.”
Christopher Schmidt and Amy Zapp of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General prosecuted the case.
A spokesman for the OAG said in an email, “No comment but we will respond as part of the court proceedings.”