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[U] Commonwealth v. Pugh

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 11, 2013



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence December 19, 2011 In the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-45-CR-0000303-2010




Appellant, Robert Micheal Pugh, appeals form the judgment of sentence entered December 19, 2011, by the Honorable Jennifer H. Sibum, Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County. After careful review, we affirm.[1]

The certified record in this appeal reveals the following factual and procedural history. On January 21, 2010, Pugh's sister, S.P., was taken to Pocono Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease ("STD"). S.P. was 13 years-old at the time. Because of her age and diagnosis, the hospital reported the incident to authorities.

In response, Trooper Patrick Finn of the Pennsylvania State Police interviewed S.P., at which time she stated that Pugh had drugged and raped her. Several days later, Trooper Finn contacted Pugh via telephone, and convinced Pugh to come to the police station to be interviewed. During his interview, Pugh admitted to, among other things, drugging and raping S.P. on multiple occasions. The interrogation and confession were not recorded, and Pugh was subsequently charged with several counts of rape and related offenses.

While incarcerated, Pugh soon recanted his confession, claiming that his confession had been coerced. Additionally, approximately one month after Pugh's arrest, his step-sister, M.Z., informed authorities that she had been diagnosed with the same STD as S.P. Ultimately, medical testing found that Pugh was not suffering from this STD. M.Z. stated that she believed that she had contracted the disease from her husband. When presented with these circumstances, S.P. did not initially recant her accusations against Pugh; she stated that M.Z.'s husband had also assaulted her. M.Z.'s husband subsequently pled guilty to statutory sexual assault and unlawful contact with a minor pursuant to S.P.'s allegations.

Approximately one month after that, S.P. wrote a letter to authorities, recanting her allegations against Pugh. Two months after her letter, S.P. underwent a third interview by the State Police. S.P. told the State Police that her mother and sister pressured her to recant her allegations against Pugh. Both women subsequently pled guilty to obstructing justice based upon their conduct towards S.P.

Pugh's first trial commenced on March 24, 2011. After the jury was unable to reach a verdict, the trial court declared a mistrial, and scheduled a new trial. Before the new trial could be held, Pugh notified the Commonwealth that he intended to present expert testimony on the phenomenon of false confessions. The Commonwealth responded by filing a motion in limine, seeking to exclude, amongst others, the expert's testimony on false confessions. Shortly thereafter, the Commonwealth supplemented its motion in limine seeking to exclude expert testimony regarding false confessions, and furthermore requested a Frye[2] hearing to determine the admissibility of such testimony.

The trial court held a Frye hearing and accepted supplemental briefing on the issue. On the eve of trial, the court entered an order that in relevant part granted the Commonwealth's motion in limine. At the conclusion of the second trial, the jury found Pugh guilty of rape of an unconscious victim, [3]rape of a substantially impaired person, [4] sexual assault, [5] unlawful contact with a minor (sexual offenses), [6] aggravated indecent assault without consent, [7] aggravated indecent assault (complainant is unconscious or unaware), [8] aggravated indecent assault (persons impairs complainant), [9] and incest.[10] The trial court subsequently sentenced Pugh, and this timely appeal followed.

On appeal, Pugh raises the following issues for our review:

A. Does the Constitutional right to present a defense include the right to offer proven science bearing on custodial interrogation techniques through an expert, lay witnesses who can demonstrate the motive, interest or bias of a complainant, and also jury instructions which meaningfully shed light on the theory of defense?
B. Should a mistrial be granted where the prosecutor sandbags expert discovery until rebuttal resulting in irremediable prejudice to defendant?

Appellant's Brief, at 7.

Pugh's first purported issue actually raises three distinct issues under the umbrella of the right to present a defense. First, he contends that the trial court erred in excluding his expert's testimony on the issue of false confessions. Next, Pugh argues that the trial court erred in denying him the right to call M.Z.'s husband as a witness. Third, he asserts that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury explicitly on the State Police's failure to record the interview and confession. We will address these issues in order.

Pugh first argues that the trial court erred in granting the Commonwealth's motion in limine to exclude the testimony of his expert on the issue of false confessions. In evaluating the denial or grant of a motion in limine, our standard of review is the same as that utilized to analyze an evidentiary challenge. Commonwealth v. Minich, 4 A.3d 1063, 1068 (Pa. Super. 2010). Pursuant to that standard, we have held that:

The admission of evidence is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court, and a trial court's ruling regarding the admission of evidence will not be disturbed on appeal unless that ruling reflects manifest unreasonableness, or partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will, or such lack of support to be clearly erroneous.

Id. (citations omitted). Rule 702 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence governs the admissibility of expert testimony on scientific knowledge:

If scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge beyond that possessed by a layperson will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

Pa.R.E. 702.

The trial court held a Frye hearing in response to the Commonwealth's motion in limine, and its analysis refers to the Frye analysis. However, our review of the trial court's opinion reveals that it relied directly upon Rule 702 in excluding the testimony of Pugh's expert. The trial court concluded that the testimony was not based upon an understanding outside the realm of common knowledge. The trial court therefore held that the proposed testimony did not meet the test set forth in Rule 702. See Trial Court Opinion, 3/13/2012, at 14. In reaching this conclusion, the trial court noted that the expert himself testified that an average person could understand the importance of the factors that have been found to lead to false confessions. See, N.T., Hearing, 8/24/2011, at 28-31. Based upon this testimony, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the expert's testimony.

Furthermore, the trial court's decision is correct pursuant to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's long-standing policy of protecting the jury's duty to determine credibility from the undue influence that accompanies expert testimony on the credibility of witnesses. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Seese, 512 Pa. 439, 517 A.2d 920 (1986) (Expert testimony that pre-pubertal children do not fabricate stories of sexual abuse not admissible); Commonwealth v. Davis, 518 Pa. 204, 542 A.2d 997 (1988) (Expert testimony that victim was not dissembling was not admissible); Commonwealth v. Gallager, 519 Pa. 291, 547 A.2d 355 (1988) (Testimony regarding Rape Trauma Syndrome was not admissible); Commonwealth v. Dunkle, 529 Pa. 168, 602 A.2d 830 (1992) (Expert testimony on the ability of children to recall events of abuse not admissible); Commonwealth v. Spence, 534 Pa. 233, 627 A.2d 1176 (1993) (Expert testimony on the effect of stress on eyewitness testimony not admissible); Commonwealth v. Delbridge, 578 Pa. 641, 855 A.2d 27 (2003) ("[E]xpert testimony will not be permitted when it attempts in any way to reach the issue of credibility"). This Court has also consistently upheld the exclusion of expert evidence that intrudes upon the duty of the jury to determine credibility of witnesses. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Boromack, 827 A.2d 503 (Pa. Super. 2003) (Expert testimony on the issue of false identifications not admissible); Commonwealth v. D.J.A., 800 A.2d 965 (Pa. Super. 2002) (Expert testimony on credibility of child's testimony based upon suggestive interview technique inadmissible). Thus, we must conclude that the trial court's decision to exclude the expert testimony at issue in this appeal was consonant with existing caselaw. We therefore conclude that Pugh's first issue on appeal merits no relief.

In his second issue on appeal, Pugh argues that the trial court erred in precluding from questioning M.Z.'s husband on issues such as her sexual history and S.P.'s motive to fabricate allegations against Pugh. The trial court states that it precluded this testimony based upon, inter alia, the Pennsylvania Rape Shield statute. Pursuant to Pennsylvania's Rape Shield statute:

Evidence of specific instances of the alleged victim's past sexual conduct, opinion evidence of the alleged victim's past sexual conduct, and reputation evidence of the alleged victim's past sexual conduct shall not be admissible in prosecutions under this chapter except evidence of the alleged victim's past sexual conduct with the defendant where consent of the alleged victim is at issue and such evidence is otherwise admissible pursuant to the rules of evidence.

18 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § 3104(a).

Specifically, Pugh argues that he wished to inquire "at trial only in the issue of veracity with respect to the [Victim's] representation at the medical center that she was a virgin when that representation could not have been true under any circumstances then existing, and was actively false based upon the allegations made either against [Appellant]or subsequently against [Mr. Alverio]." Appellant's Brief at 39. Pugh contends that "[s]uch an inquiry will have probative value regarding veracity of the [Victim] which is exculpatory to [Appellant]." Id. We disagree.

In the present case, it is uncontested that at trial, M.Z.'s husband was permitted to testify that he had engaged in sexual intercourse with S.P. Consequently, the jury was presented with ample evidence establishing that, at the medical center, S.P. falsely claimed to be a virgin. We agree with the trial court that any additional details regarding the sexual encounters between M.Z.'s husband and S.P. were unnecessary and would have violated the Rape ...

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