Commonwealth v. Reid

Decision Date18 August 2020
Docket NumberNo. 752 CAP,752 CAP
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Anthony REID, Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

235 A.3d 1124

COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee
Anthony REID, Appellant

No. 752 CAP

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Decided: August 18, 2020
Submitted: February 4, 2019



This is one of several similarly situated capital appeals pending in this Court involving former Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille's role as the elected District Attorney of Philadelphia. On June 22, 2017, the Honorable Leon W. Tucker, Supervising Judge of the Criminal Division, Philadelphia

235 A.3d 1131

Court of Common Pleas ("PCRA court"), granted appellant Anthony Reid relief under the Post-Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541 - 9546, in the form of nunc pro tunc reinstatement of his right to appeal the order denying his first timely PCRA petition. This Court previously affirmed the order denying appellant's first PCRA petition; however, the PCRA court concluded we must reconsider appellant's PCRA appeal anew — this time without the participation of Chief Justice Castille — pursuant to Williams v. Pennsylvania , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1899, 195 L.Ed.2d 132 (2016) (holding Chief Justice Castille's failure to recuse where he earlier had significant, personal involvement as District Attorney in a critical decision regarding the defendant's case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias under the Due Process Clause and constituted structural error). While we agree Chief Justice Castille's participation in appellant's prior PCRA appeal implicates the same due process concerns at issue in Williams , we conclude the lower court lacked jurisdiction under the PCRA to reinstate appellant's nunc pro tunc right to appeal. Consequently, we also lack jurisdiction, and must quash this serial appeal as untimely.

I. Background

The facts underlying appellant's murder conviction and resulting death sentence, which we fully discussed in our May 24, 1994 opinion affirming appellant's judgment of sentence on direct appeal, are not relevant to our disposition. See Commonwealth v. Reid , 537 Pa. 167, 642 A.2d 453, 456-57 (1994) (" Reid I "), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 904, 115 S.Ct. 268, 130 L.Ed.2d 186 (1994). Furthermore, we set forth the pertinent history concerning appellant's first PCRA petition in Commonwealth v. Reid , 627 Pa. 78, 99 A.3d 427, 434-35 (2014) (" Reid II "), wherein we affirmed the November 19, 2007 order denying PCRA relief.2 Significantly, Chief Justice Castille participated in and joined the majority opinion in Reid II , which was decided on August 20, 2014.

a. The Williams Decision

Nearly two years later, on June 9, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Williams . The petitioner in that case, Terrance Williams , was convicted of the 1985 murder of Amos Norwood and sentenced to death. Williams , 136 S.Ct. at 1903. Prior to trial, then-District Attorney Castille approved the trial prosecutor's request to seek the death penalty against Williams. Id . Over the next 26 years, Williams's conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal, post-conviction review, and federal habeas review. Id . at 1904.

In 2012, Williams filed his fourth PCRA petition, claiming the trial prosecutor had obtained false testimony from his co-defendant and suppressed material, exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland , 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). Id . In the course of litigating that petition, the PCRA court ordered the Commonwealth to produce previously undisclosed files of the prosecution and police. Included within those files was the trial prosecutor's memorandum requesting approval to seek the death penalty, which was approved by District Attorney Castille. Id . Following an evidentiary hearing, the PCRA court granted Williams's PCRA petition, stayed his execution,

235 A.3d 1132

and granted him a new penalty phase trial. Id .

The Commonwealth filed an emergency petition in this Court seeking to vacate the stay of execution. Id . Williams responded to the Commonwealth's petition; he also filed a motion asking Chief Justice Castille to recuse himself based on the discovery of his prior involvement in approving the trial prosecutor's request to seek the death penalty. Id . Chief Justice Castille denied the motion for recusal without explanation, and also declined Williams's request to refer the motion to the full court for decision. Id . Thereafter, the Court, including Chief Justice Castille, considered the Commonwealth's appeal upon full briefing, vacated the PCRA court's order, dismissed the PCRA petition, and reinstated Williams's sentence of death. See Commonwealth v. Williams , 629 Pa. 533, 105 A.3d 1234 (2014). Two weeks later, Chief Justice Castille retired from the bench.

The United States Supreme Court subsequently granted Williams's petition for a writ of certiorari to consider whether Chief Justice Castille's failure to recuse violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and, if so, whether that due process violation was harmless. Williams , 136 S.Ct. at 1903, 1909. At the outset, the Court recognized its precedents did not set forth a specific test governing recusal in situations where a judge had prior involvement in a case as a prosecutor. Id . at 1905. Nevertheless, the Court explained "the principles on which [its] precedents rest dictate the rule that must control[,]" and held "that under the Due Process Clause there is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant's case." Id .

The Court continued to consider whether District Attorney Castille's authorization to seek the death penalty against Williams constituted "significant, personal involvement in a critical trial decision." Id . at 1907. Recognizing the decision to pursue the death penalty is a critical choice in the adversarial process, the Court focused its examination on whether District Attorney Castille had a significant role in making that decision with respect to Williams. Id . The Court concluded he did, observing the decision to seek the death penalty "and the profound consequences it carries make it evident that a responsible prosecutor would deem it to be a most significant exercise of his or her official discretion and professional judgment." Id . In so concluding, the Court rejected the Commonwealth's portrayal of District Attorney Castille's approval of his subordinates’ requests to seek the death penalty as "brief administrative act[s] limited to the time it takes to read a one-and-a-half-page memo." Id . (internal quotation and citation omitted). The Court remarked the Commonwealth's characterization "cannot be credited" and stated it would not assume District Attorney Castille "treated so major a decision as a perfunctory task requiring little time, judgment, or reflection on his part." Id . In support, the Court noted that then-candidate Castille's "own comments while running for judicial office refute the Commonwealth's claim that he played a mere ministerial role in capital sentencing decisions[,]" because he repeatedly stated during his campaign that he sent 45 people to death row as District Attorney. Id . at 1907-08 (citation omitted).

Having determined the decision to seek the death penalty amounts to significant, personal involvement in a critical decision and thereby gives rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias, the Court proceeded to resolve whether Williams was entitled to relief. Id . at 1909. The Court explained it had not previously considered whether a due process violation arising from a jurist's failure to recuse amounts to harmless error

235 A.3d 1133

if the jurist is on a multimember court and the jurist's vote was not decisive. Id . However, the Court had "little trouble concluding that a due process violation arising from the participation of an interested judge is a defect not amenable to harmless-error review, regardless of whether the judge's vote was dispositive." Id . (internal quotation and citation omitted); see also id . ("an unconstitutional failure to recuse constitutes structural error even if the judge in question did not cast a deciding vote"). Accordingly, the Court held Chief Justice Castille's participation in the appeal from the order granting Williams PCRA relief "was an error that affected [this Court's] whole adjudicatory framework[,]" and it vacated this Court's decision and remanded so that Williams could present his claims to the Court without Chief Justice Castille's involvement. Id . at 1910.3

b. Appellant's Second PCRA Petition

Exactly sixty days after the Williams decision issued, appellant, now represented by the Federal Community Defender Office ("FCDO"), filed a second PCRA petition in which he sought a new appeal from the denial of his first PCRA petition. See PCRA Petition, 8/8/2016, at 2 (contending he was "entitled to relief in the form of a new PCRA appeal to an unbiased tribunal"). Appellant argued Chief Justice Castille's participation in Reid II violated due process since, as in Williams , he had previously "authorized the use of the death penalty against [appellant]." Id . at 14.


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