The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Montalvo, holding that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to object to improper jury instructions on the definition of reasonable doubt. Courts are required to properly instruct jurors on the relevant legal principles, and if they misstate the law, it can have disastrous consequences for the defendant. Improper jury instructions is one of the issues which is most likely to successfully lead to a new trial on appeal or in post-conviction litigation.
COMMONWEALTH V. MONTALVO
After the prosecution and the defense rested, the judge provided the jury with the instructions. During jury instructions, the trial court made two significant misstatements. First, while explaining reasonable doubt, she stated “so if the Commonwealth has not sustained its burden to that level, the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then your verdict must be guilty.” The defendant’s attorney did not object to this and would later testify during a PCRA hearing that “he did not recognize the mistake.” Then, a short time later, the judge stated “if you find that the defendant was not involved in this, you should find him guilty of all those charges.” This time, the defendant’s attorney corrected the trial court by saying “Not guilty, judge.” In response to this, the judge said “not guilty. Now that was a Freudian slip.”
After the trial, the defendant was convicted of first degree and second-degree murder. The jury came back with a recommendation of death and the trial court imposed the death sentence for him. The defendant then filed a timely appeal. His appeal was denied and then he filed a PCRA petition arguing that his attorney was ineffective in his representation of him. The defendant’s PCRA hearings lasted three days. At the conclusion of the hearing, the PCRA court granted the defendant a new trial based on trial counsel’s ineffectiveness for failing to object to the trial court’s error in instructing the jury on the issue of guilt. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal.
THE PENNSYLVANIA SUPREME COURT’S DECISION
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that it is the trial court’s sole responsibility to instruct the jury on the law as it pertains to the case before them. A The Court highlighted that shortly after this initial mistake, the trial court misstated the law again. To make matters worse, the trial court injected its opinion on the case by saying that it “was a Freudian slip” when she misstated the law. The Court found that the trial court had “conveyed to the jury her belief that [the defendant] was guilty.” This was unacceptable to the Court and held that the defendant had been prejudiced. Consequently, the defendant’s convictions are vacated and he will get a new trial. https://law.justia.com/cases/pennsylvania/supreme-court/2021/776-cap.html