Com. v. Robinson

Decision Date10 April 1985
Citation507 Pa. 522,491 A.2d 107
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Douglas ROBINSON, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

John W. Packel, Donald S. Bronstein, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Robert B. Lawler, Ann C. Lebowitz, Asst. Dist. Attys., for appellee.



ZAPPALA, Justice.

Appellant, Douglas Robinson, was convicted in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia of burglary, criminal trespass, and conspiracy and sentenced to two years on probation. The Superior Court affirmed. 321 Pa.Super. 617, 468 A.2d 853. We granted a petition for allowance of appeal.

Appellant and his co-defendant, Rubeana Coleman, lived together in the second floor apartment of a duplex owned by complainant, Debra Carolina, and her husband. Their relationship with Ms. Carolina was at one time friendly but later deteriorated. They became involved in a dispute, in the course of which they withheld payment of rent. They claimed to have been justified in doing so because of a lack of utility service. As a result of the dispute, they moved out of the apartment in April, 1980.

Debra Carolina was the only witness for the Commonwealth. She testified that on April 3, 1980 at about 7:45 p.m. she went to the duplex as a result of a call she received from her cousin. Upon arriving at the duplex, she found the door to the unoccupied first floor apartment where she had previously resided and kept personal property, open. Appellant, Coleman and an unidentified person were coming from the duplex with a couch, gold recliner and tailor-made drapes all belonging to her. Seeing what was occurring, she immediately sought out a police officer whom she found approximately one block from the duplex. After she informed the police officer that a burglary was in progress, the officer told her to go to a certain police station and report it to the detective division. She did so and then returned to the duplex with a detective and two other officers. On returning to the premises, Ms. Carolina found various items in the first floor apartment missing or destroyed.

The defense gave a different version of events. One defense witness was Purvis Wright, who testified that he and another man helped Appellant and Coleman move out of their apartment in April, 1980. He could not recall the exact date. They began moving at about noon and continued into the evening. The entire job was done in one day. Wright testified that no one went into the first floor apartment and nothing was taken from it. Coleman also testified for the defense and denied that the first floor apartment was entered or that anything was taken from it. She said that all of the moving was done on April 1, 1980 and she was not on the premises on April 3, the date Ms. Carolina claimed the crime occurred.

The Commonwealth's case depended solely on Ms. Carolina's testimony. Her story was pitted against a contradictory version given by defense witnesses. The case had to be decided on the basis of the credibility of the witnesses. Appellant considered Ms. Carolina's testimony incredible in that it was not likely that a police officer, on being told that a burglary was in progress one block away, would tell her to go to the police station. The police officers who allegedly did go to the scene should have appeared to corroborate Ms. Carolina's testimony. Ms. Carolina was asked the name of the detective. She said she did not know it. That kept the defense from checking her story by inquiring of the police. Ms. Carolina's credibility was further weakened by a discrepancy in her testimony concerning the couch that was allegedly taken. On direct examination, she testified that she saw the couch being taken from the apartment on her arrival at the scene. On cross-examination, she testified that when she went into the apartment with the police, the couch was inside. Appellant wished to impeach Ms. Carolina's credibility still further by bringing out certain facts on cross-examination to establish a motive for fabricating the charge. Appellant wished to establish that he and Coleman had accused Ms. Carolina of stealing from them, that Ms. Carolina had shut off the utilities, and that Ms. Carolina was serving a prison sentence after being convicted of aggravated assault for throwing lye on Coleman. The court would not allow cross-examination in any of these areas. Appellant claims that this limitation of cross-examination was improper and on that basis seeks reversal of his conviction.

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to confront witnesses against them, which includes the right to cross-examine, Smith v. Illinois, 390 U.S. 129, 88 S.Ct. 748, 19 L.Ed.2d 956 (1968). Cross-examination may be employed to test a witness' story, to impeach credibility, and to establish the witness' motive for testifying, Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 94 S.Ct. 1105, 39 L.Ed.2d 347 (1974). In that case the court held that the defendant in a grand larceny and burglary case was entitled to cross-examine a key prosecution witness to show that he was on probation due to an adjudication of juvenile delinquency. The purpose was to establish that the witness was biased because of his vulnerable status.

Our own cases establish a right to cross-examine a witness to show a motive for fabricating testimony. Commonwealth v. Cheatham, 429 Pa. 198, 239 A.2d 293 (1968), was a murder case where a key prosecution witness was at the scene of the crime, had the opportunity to kill decedent, and was therefore a potential suspect. The defense wished to cross-examine the witness to show that he entered into a homosexual relationship with another man, that the relationship was interrupted when decedent entered into a similar relationship with the same man, and that the witness resumed the relationship after the murder. The proposed cross-examination was proper to show that the witness had a motive to dispatch the decedent and implicate the defendant. It would have been combined...

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28 cases
  • Com. v. Lemanski
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • July 20, 1987
    ...of challenging evidence against him by testing recollection and probing the conscience of an adverse witness. Commonwealth v. Robinson, 507 Pa. 522, 525, 491 A.2d 107, 109 (1985). Undoubtedly, if a party testifies in his own behalf and incriminates his co-defendant, the latter should be ext......
  • Com. v. Buksa
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • March 7, 1995 test a witness' story, to impeach credibility, and to establish the witness' motive for testifying." Commonwealth v. Robinson, 507 Pa. 522, 526, 491 A.2d 107, 109 (1985), citing Smith v. Illinois, 390 U.S. 129, 88 S.Ct. 748, 19 L.Ed.2d 956 (1968) and Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 94 S.C......
  • Com. v. Chmiel
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • December 29, 2005 employed to test a witness' story, to impeach credibility, and to establish a witness' motive for testifying. Commonwealth v. Robinson, 507 Pa. 522, 491 A.2d 107 (1985). The "scope of cross-examination is a matter within the discretion of the trial court and will not be reversed absent a......
  • Com. v. Hanes
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • March 9, 1987
    ...evidentiary ruling permeates the verdict, and we have no choice but to reverse and remand for new trial. See Commonwealth v. Robinson, 507 Pa. 522, 491 A.2d 107 (1985) (improper restriction of cross-examination of Commonwealth witness required a new trial); Commonwealth v. Mason, 358 Pa.Sup......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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