Commonwealth v. Willis

Decision Date30 May 2012
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Michael WILLIS, Appellee.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court


Hugh J. Burns, Jr., Philadelphia, Peter Carr, Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Mitchell S. Strutin, Strutin & Smarro, for Michael Willis.



Justice TODD.

In this appeal by allowance, the Commonwealth asks us to consider whether the materiality requirement of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), is satisfied where the evidence not disclosed by the Commonwealth would itself not have been admissible at trial. The Commonwealth further requests that we reconsider, based on more recent decisions by this Court and the United States Supreme Court, our holding in Commonwealth v. Green, 536 Pa. 599, 640 A.2d 1242 (1994), wherein we held that evidence that is not admissible at trial may, nevertheless, be deemed material. After careful consideration, we hold that nondisclosed favorable evidence which is inadmissible at trial may be considered material for purposes of Brady, as long as there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Mere speculation by a defendant, however, will not be sufficient to meet this standard; rather, he must identify specific evidence or information that would have been uncovered, and explain how that evidence or information would have changed the result of the proceeding. Notwithstanding our holding, because we find that Appellee herein did not establish there was a reasonable probability that, had the evidence withheld by the Commonwealth been disclosed, there would have been a different outcome at trial, we reverse the order of the Superior Court remanding for a new trial, and reinstate Appellee's judgment of sentence.


The relevant facts of the instant case are as follows: At approximately 2:15 a.m. on April 29, 2005, David Thomas was walking along 6th Street in Philadelphia when two men approached him and pushed him. One of the men pulled a gun from his pocket and pointed it at Thomas' face, telling Thomas “give us your money or we'll blow your head off.” N.T. Trial, 10/31/06, at 46–47. Thomas gave the gunman approximately $40, and his assailants then fled. Although it was dark at the time of the incident, Thomas was able to see his assailants by the light of the streetlamps. Id. at 45–46, 68.

Approximately one hour later, after returning home, Thomas called the police to report what had happened. When the police arrived at Thomas' home, he initially told them he would be unable to identify the men who robbed him because he was nervous and overwhelmed. Eventually, however, he gave police a description, describing the man with the gun as between 5'9? and 6' tall, with dark skin and a goatee, and wearing a puffy black coat. Thomas described the other man as light-skinned, clean-shaven, and wearing tan pants and a hockey jersey. At approximately 4:15 am., Thomas accompanied the officers to the police station, where he gave a formal statement and description.

Nearly two weeks later, on May 12, 2005, police again went to Thomas' house and showed him a photo array of eight individuals. From the photo array, Thomas identified Michael Willis, Appellee herein, as the gunman who had robbed him. Thereafter, Willis and his accomplice, Richard Peoples, were arrested and charged with robbery 1 and possession of an instrument of crime. 2 On August 17, 2005, Thomas picked Willis out of a line-up, again identifying Willis as one of his attackers. Thomas also identified Willis as the gunman both at his preliminary hearing on August 18, 2005, and at trial.

On November 1, 2006, Willis was convicted by a jury of the aforementioned charges. Prior to sentencing, Willis filed a motion challenging the verdict as against the weight and sufficiency of the evidence. Willis also filed a motion for a new trial on the basis of an alleged Brady violation by the Commonwealth. Specifically, Willis alleged that Peoples had made a deal with the Commonwealth prior to trial, whereby he agreed to plead guilty to certain unrelated charges in exchange for the Commonwealth's nolle pros of certain other charges, including the robbery of Thomas. Willis averred that, in the course of his discussions with police, Peoples indicated that he committed the Thomas robbery with someone other than Willis, namely, a man named Robert Richardson a/k/a Woodard (hereinafter “Woodard”). The statement was inadvertently omitted from documents produced by the Commonwealth prior to trial, and was discovered by the prosecutor in her file following trial. The statement was brought to the trial court's attention, and the court offered to allow the victim to view another photo array containing a photo of Woodard, but Willis' counsel refused.

Peoples was subpoenaed to testify at a hearing on Willis' Brady claim, but was not transported from state prison to court because, according to a statement made by the prosecutor to the trial judge at the hearing, Peoples' attorney told the prosecutor that he would advise Peoples to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to testify regarding the robbery. Willis' counsel did not object to the prosecutor'sstatement, nor did she request that Peoples be brought to court to confirm on the record that he would invoke the Fifth Amendment if asked to testify about the robbery.

In his opinion for the trial court, the Honorable Glenn B. Bronson acknowledged that Peoples' statement, which identified someone other than Willis as the person who robbed Thomas, “plainly was exculpatory and should have been provided to the defense.” Commonwealth v. Willis, CP–51–CR–1000571–2005, unpublished memorandum at 5 (Phila. Cty. filed Sept. 4, 2007). Nevertheless, the trial court concluded that Peoples' statement was not material within the meaning of Brady because disclosure of the statement could not have affected the outcome of the case. Specifically, the trial court reasoned that Peoples' out-of-court statement was inadmissible hearsay, and that, based on the prosecutor's statement that Peoples' attorney told her he would advise Peoples not to testify, Peoples' statement would never have been introduced to the jury. In addition, the trial court noted “the evidence at the hearing established that Woodard did not resemble [Willis], thereby making it improbable that the complaining witness confused [Willis] for Woodard and made a misidentification.” Id. at 6. Accordingly, on March 16, 2007, the trial court denied Willis' motion for a new trial based on the Commonwealth's alleged Brady violation, and sentenced Willis to an aggregate term of 10 to 20 years incarceration.

Following the denial of his post-trial motions, Willis appealed his judgment of sentence to the Superior Court. On May 14, 2008, the Superior Court vacated Willis' judgment of sentence and remanded for a new trial. Commonwealth v. Willis, 1024 EDA 2007, unpublished memorandum, 954 A.2d 44 (Pa.Super. filed May 14, 2008). In doing so, the Superior Court relied on this Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Green, supra, for the proposition that Brady does not require an analysis of the admissibility of evidence before such evidence can be deemed material. Specifically, the Superior Court noted that Peoples' statement “goes directly to the potential innocence of Willis;” that there was no proof that Peoples would have refused to testify; and that, “even if the statement were not admissible, it is not the Commonwealth's role to determine how defense counsel shall use such evidence.” Willis, 1024 EDA 2007, at 6.

On August 15, 2008, the Commonwealth filed a petition for allowance of appeal, and, on March 18, 2009, this Court granted the Commonwealth's petition with respect to the following issues:

(1) Whether the Superior Court erred in finding that the materiality requirement of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 [83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215] (1963), was satisfied where the omitted statement of a codefendant would not have been admissible at trial, and the defendant did not demonstrate that its production to the defense before trial would have led to the discovery of admissible evidence?

(2) Whether this Court should reconsider its holding in Commonwealth v. Green, 640 A.2d 1242 (Pa.1994), in light of subsequent decisions to the contrary of this Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Commonwealth v. Willis, 600 Pa. 499, 968 A.2d 224 (2009) (order). In addressing these issues on appeal, we specifically directed the parties to consider the following cases: Wood v. Bartholomew, 516 U.S. 1, 116 S.Ct. 7, 133 L.Ed.2d 1 (1995); Commonwealth v. Lambert, 584 Pa. 461, 884 A.2d 848 (2005); Commonwealth v. Mitchell, 576 Pa. 258, 839 A.2d 202 (2003); Madsen v. Dormire, 137 F.3d 602 (8th Cir.1998); and Wright v. Hopper, 169 F.3d 695 (11th Cir.1999).


We begin with a discussion of the United States Supreme Court's seminal decision in Brady. In that case arising in Maryland, the defendant, Brady, and his companion, Boblit, were tried and convicted at separate trials of first-degree murder. Brady was tried first, and, at trial, he took the stand and admitted his participation in the crime, but claimed that Boblit did the actual killing. After Brady was convicted, sentenced, and his conviction was affirmed on appeal, Brady discovered that, despite his counsel's pre-trial request to examine all of Boblit's extrajudicial statements, one of those statements, in which Boblit admitted to the actual homicide, was withheld by the prosecution. Brady's petition for post-conviction relief was dismissed by the trial court, but the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a retrial on the issue of punishment only. The United States Supreme Court...

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