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Commonwealth v. Weiss

December 29, 2009

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLANT
v.
RONALD LEE WEISS, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Opinion and Order of the Indiana County Court of Common Pleas, dated July 31, 2007, granting relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice McCAFFERY

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, GREENSPAN, JJ.

SUBMITTED: March 12, 2008

OPINION

In this appeal we decide whether the award of a new trial to Ronald Lee Weiss ("Appellee") by the Indiana County Court of Common Pleas ("PCRA court") is supported by the record and is free of legal error. Specifically, we determine whether the PCRA court properly granted Appellee a new trial on the basis that the prosecutor withheld information that could have been used to impeach the credibility of two Commonwealth witnesses, in violation of Brady v. Maryland.*fn1 Additionally, we determine whether a conflict of interest claim raised in Appellee's PCRA petition has been waived because Appellee failed to raise the issue on direct appeal. Upon careful review, we conclude the conflict of interest issue has been waived, and that the court's conclusions with respect to the Brady issue lack sufficient factual and legal analysis. Accordingly, we vacate the order of the PCRA court, and remand for preparation of an opinion containing a more searching analysis not inconsistent with this opinion.

The pertinent facts, as gleaned from the record, reveal that Barbara Bruzda, a sixteen-year-old girl, was last seen alive on October 23, 1978. Her badly decomposed body was discovered wrapped in a quilt lying in a remote roadside ditch on March 20, 1979. On February 19,1997, Appellee was arrested and charged with Ms. Bruzda's murder.

The trial court appointed Public Defender Donald Marsh, Esquire, Assistant Public Defender Robert S. Dougherty, Esquire, and Donald L. McKee, Esquire, to represent Appellee. These attorneys subsequently filed a motion for the appointment of new counsel, which averred, in pertinent part:

4. [Appellee] requests that your Honorable Court appoint new counsel to replace Public Defender Donald R. Marsh, in that Public Defender Donald R. Marsh has formerly represented a tentative Commonwealth witness, Kermeth Wright, in his capacity of Public Defender.

5. [Appellee] requests that your Honorable Court appoint counsel to replace Assistant Public Defender Robert S. Dougherty, in that he is under the supervision of Chief Public Defender Marsh and therefor[e] believes a conflict of interest exists.

6. [Appellee] requests that your Honorable Court appoint counsel to replace Donald L. McKee, Esquire, as Attorney McKee is the law partner of Robert S. Dougherty; and because of Attorney Dougherty's association with the Public Defender's Office, Mr. McKee has a conflict of interest.

Motion for Appointment of Counsel, filed 4/4/97 (emphasis added). The trial court denied the motion on April 4, 1997, without a hearing.

During pre-trial discovery, the Commonwealth identified the existence of jailhouse informants, Kermeth Wright and Samuel Tribuiani, as potential witnesses. The Commonwealth averred that there were no "deals" with these witnesses, and stated on the record that the witnesses had not been promised anything in exchange for their cooperation and anticipated testimony. The Commonwealth informed the trial court and Appellee's counsel that it did intend to take reasonable steps to protect the safety of the witnesses, and would also accurately report the nature and extent of the witnesses' cooperation if asked by the witnesses' confining authorities. At no time during the discovery process prior to trial, however, did the Commonwealth provide Appellee's counsel with copies of letters it had written to the Department of Corrections and Parole Board, among others, asking these authorities to consider the witnesses' cooperation when deciding whether to grant them parole or other early release.

At trial, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of twenty-six witnesses. Sharon Pearson, Appellee's common-law wife at the time of Ms. Bruzda's disappearance, testified that on the morning of October 24, 1978, she cleaned a large quantity of smeared and spattered blood from the back seat of the vehicle Appellee had been driving the night before and she noticed, at that time, that a quilt was missing from the back seat of the vehicle. She testified that when she asked Appellee where all the blood had come from, he showed her a small abrasion on his knuckle. She further testified that the quilt in which Ms. Bruzda's body was found was the quilt missing from the back seat of the vehicle. A number of witnesses testified that they saw Appellee with Ms. Bruzda on the evening of October 23, 1978. It was established that Ms. Bruzda had been killed by repeated blows to the skull with a blunt object. Evidence was presented that Appellee had borrowed a tire iron from a friend on the evening of October 23, 1978, and that he never returned it. Kermeth Wright testified that during the time he and Appellee were incarcerated in the same facility, Appellee admitted he murdered Ms. Bruzda. Samuel Tribuiani testified that during the time he and Appellee were incarcerated in the same facility, Appellee admitted his involvement with another person in the bludgeoning murder of a young girl. Both Wright and Tribuiani testified at trial that they had received no special treatment in exchange for their testimony.

Appellee testified in his own defense. His testimony revealed he had been questioned by police regarding the murder of Ms. Bruzda shortly after her body was found. He originally told police that on the evening of October 23, 1978, he gave Ms. Bruzda and an unknown hitchhiker a ride, and never saw either of them again after he dropped them off together. At trial, he admitted this version of events was a lie. He testified that, in actuality, Ms. Bruzda had been a passenger in his car on a remote road when two vehicles forced his vehicle to stop. He testified that he had been dragged from the vehicle and beaten about the head with a club by Sharon Pearson's brothers, who left him unconscious in a ditch by the side of the road. When he regained consciousness, Ms. Bruzda was gone. Appellee explained he had never previously revealed the truth because the morning after the beating, the brothers accosted him in the parking lot of a mall and told him that if he revealed what had happened the previous night, they would kill him and his family.

A jury convicted Appellee of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to death. Trial counsel continued to represent Appellee on direct appeal. On direct appeal from the judgment of sentence, Appellee did not challenge the trial court's disposition of his pre-trial petition to appoint new counsel. This Court affirmed the judgment of sentence. See Commonwealth v. Weiss, 776 A.2d 958 (Pa. 2001).

Following this Court's disposition of his direct appeal, Appellee sought post-conviction relief. Appellee was represented by counsel from the Defender Association of Philadelphia during post-conviction proceedings, and on May 15, 2003, a counseled PCRA petition was filed, 190 pages in length, raising 19 separate claims of entitlement to relief. The first claim alleged that trial counsel had labored under conflicts of interest that had adversely affected their representation of Appellee at trial. The second claim alleged that the Commonwealth had violated its ...


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