Philadelphia criminal appeals lawyer Lloyd Long discusses details surrounding the Pennsylvania’s Superior Court’s decision in the Chapman case. The Supreme Court reversed the appellant’s death sentence in this case. As a statutory aggravator, the Commonwealth submitted the appellant’s prior convictions for aggravated assault in New Jersey.
NJ does not differentiate between misdemeanors and felonies; instead, they have “degrees” of crimes. The appellant’s convictions were of the fourth degree, which is the lowest, and punishable by imprisonment of up to 18 months.
The trial court determined that it is the conduct which determines whether an out-of-state crime is a felony; that is, if the definition of the crime is a felony under PA law, it is a felony for the statutory aggravator. It subsequently ruled that if a crime was a felony under common law, it was a felony for the statutory death penalty aggravator.
The Court relied on section 106 of the Crimes Code, which states that crimes not otherwise identified as felonies or misdemeanors are to be classified as such based on the maximum term of imprisonment: 5 years or less is a misdemeanor, more than 5 years is a felony. The NJ statute at issue was not defined as a misdemeanor or felony, but carried a maximum term of 18 months imprisonment. It was, therefore, a misdemeanor under Pennsylvania law and statutorily ineligible as a death penalty aggravator. The sentence of death was vacated and the case remanded for a sentence of life imprisonment.
The Court did find error during the guilt phase. Numerous references were made to the appellant’s failure to voluntarily provide a DNA sample. Though DNA is non-testimonial, the Court noted “admission of evidence of a refusal to consent to a warrantless search to demonstrate consciousness of guilt is problematic, as most jurisdictions hold (outside the context of implied-consent scenario) that such admission unacceptably burdens an accused’s right to refuse consent.”
This error was determined to be harmless both because the evidence was quite overwhelming and because a cautionary instruction was given in one instance and offered (but refused) in another.