Pa. Expands Use Of Prior Convictions

Posted: July 11, 1987

In a significant departure from previous rulings, the state Supreme Court has greatly expanded the power of prosecutors to present a defendant's past

criminal record to juries at trial.

The high court split 5-2 in favor of adopting a new rule allowing prosecutors to inform a jury of any criminal conviction, as long as the verdict was obtained within the previous 10 years or the defendant had been released from prison for the offense within the previous 10 years.

The ruling, filed Thursday, swept away more than 15 years of holdings by the high court, in which prior convictions were deemed admissible at trial only when the convictions involved "crimes involving dishonesty or false statement."

The trial judge was supposed to balance this consideration against the likelihood that the information could "smear the character of the defendant." The judge also was supposed to decide whether the prosecution had "alternative means of attacking the defendant's credibility," other than disclosing the defendant's criminal history.

Instead, Justice James T. McDermott, writing for the court's majority, established the 10-year time limit as the only criteria in determining whether to disclose the defendant's prior conviction. The old "criteria has proven less than exact, and has done more to engender appeals than to guide courts and litigants. Therefore, the time has come to revise (the law) in favor of more concrete guidelines for the admission of prior-conviction evidence."

McDermott's opinion was denounced yesterday by Benjamin Lerner, chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, who said that "it really demonstrates the lengths to which Justice McDermott and the current Supreme Court majority is willing to go to become a 'super-prosecutor' in the

criminal-law area."

Other criticism came in the form of a stinging dissent written by Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr., who called McDermott's reasoning "disturbing." Nix said McDermott's opinion invited the "absurd operation of the rule" in cases where "a defendant convicted at age 20 and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment is released at age 30 and 10 years later is tried for a new offense." In such cases, Nix wrote, a 20-year-old conviction could be used against the defendant, "in spite of its questionable remoteness."

In a second dissent, Justice Stephen A. Zappala attacked McDermott's assertion that the old law had given rise to too many new trials resulting

from appeals of trial judges' decisions allowing evidence of defendants' prior convictions.

To support his point, Zappala listed 40 appeals of such trial rulings, noting that in only eight of the cases, the state Superior Court had reversed the trial judges' decisions. In two of these cases, Zappala said, the Superior Court ordered new trials because the prior crime, rape, was held not to involve dishonesty or false statement.

In the other cases, Zappala said, the Superior Court had found that the judges had not properly balanced the factors to be weighed before allowing prior convictions to be disclosed to the juries.

The court's ruling came in the case of Edward Charles Randall, who in 1983 was convicted of third-degree murder for a 1981 shooting at a Reading social club. At trial, Randall had contended that the shooting was in self-defense. He was convicted after the prosecutor tried to impeach Randall's credibility by telling the jury that Randall had been convicted of burglary six years before the shooting.

In 1984, Randall's conviction was overturned in state Superior Court, on the ground that his prior burglary conviction should not have been admitted as evidence to rebut Randall's testimony.

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