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Commonwealth v. Woeber

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

November 9, 2017


         Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence April 15, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Criminal Division at No: CP-02-009746-2015

         Appeal from the Order July 22, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Criminal Division at No: CP-02-0009746-2015

          BEFORE: STABILE, J., SOLANO, J., and FITZGERALD, J. [*]


          STABILE, J.

         Appellant, John David Woeber, appeals from the judgment of sentence imposed on April 15, 2016, in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County following his convictions of rape, sexual assault, and related crimes, [1] all stemming from events involving A.R. when she was between 12 and 14 years old. Appellant also appeals from the order entered on July 22, 2016, adjudicating him a sexually violent predator ("SVP"). By order entered on December 16, 2016, we consolidated the appeals.[2] For the reasons stated herein, we vacate the judgment of sentence and remand for further proceedings. Appellant asks us to consider four issues, which we have reordered for ease of discussion:

I. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred by excluding highly exculpatory and contradictory testimony from the accuser in this case, where the case turned on the accuser's credibility and where the exclusion of such testimony ran afoul of [Appellant's] right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against him.[3]
II. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred in concluding that [Appellant] qualified as a sexually violent predator where the court relied upon contradictory evidence in finding that [Appellant] suffered from a specific mental abnormality.
III. Whether the prosecutor's improper vouching for the accuser in this case so prejudiced [Appellant] that thejury was unable to render a fair and impartial verdict in this case.
IV. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt abused its discretion by denying [Appellant's] request for a new trial, or, in the alternative, in ruling on the request without an evidentiary hearing.

Appellant's Brief at 4.

         In his first issue, Appellant presents a challenge to the trial court's ruling on admissibility of evidence. As our Supreme Court has explained, "[t]he admissibility of evidence is a matter solely within the discretion of the trial court. This Court will reverse an evidentiary ruling only where a clear abuse of discretion occurs." Commonwealth v. Johnson, 638 A.2d 940, 942 (Pa. 1994) (citation omitted)). "Generally, an appellate court's standard of review of a trial court's evidentiary rulings is whether the trial court abused its discretion; however, where the evidentiary ruling turns on a question of law our review is plenary." Buckman v. Verazin, 54 A.3d 956, 960 (Pa. Super. 2012) (citations omitted).

         In order to examine the propriety of the trial court's evidentiary ruling, we must consider the factual background of this case. Having reviewed the record, we find the trial court fairly summarized the trial testimony as follows:

At trial, the victim in this case, fifteen year old [A.R.] testified that in 2013, while she was twelve years old, she was friends with [La. and Li.] Woeber, two daughters of Appellant, John Woeber.[4] [A.R.] testified that she went to [Li.'s] birthday party in the spring of 2013. She testified that Appellant had sexual intercourse with her against her will at the party. She stated that she was invited over for salmon ([Li.'s] favorite meal) and cake. After dinner, others present were drinking alcohol but [A.R.] was not until [Li.] gave [A.R.] a drink that [A.R.] did not know contained alcohol. Shortly after drinking the one cup that [Li.] gave [A.R.], [A.R.] was accosted in Appellant's residence by a group of boys. The boys tried to pull her clothes off. Appellant interceded and stopped the boys from doing anything further to [A.R.]. The boys left the apartment, along with [La. and Li.], leaving Appellant and [A.R.] alone in Appellant's apartment. [A.R.] fell asleep on the couch, and was awoken by Appellant, who told her to go to his bedroom to process what had happened to her. She was able to walk to his bedroom but "felt like everything was a little bit blurry." Once she reached Appellant's bedroom, Appellant got on top of her and tried to take her clothes off. [A.R.] stated that she told him no and he left for a minute or two into the bathroom. When Appellant came back into the room, wearing only boxers, he got on top [of] her again, removed her shorts and underwear and his boxers, and had sexual intercourse with her. [A.R.] stated that she does not remember what happened after that, until she awoke the next morning on Appellant's bed wearing only her tank top.
[A.R.] further testified to a prior incident in the Woeber home. She stated that she was hanging out with [La. and Li.] at their house. In the middle of the night, Appellant came into the bathroom while [A.R.] was washing her hands. She testified that he pushed her up against the vanity, touched her breasts and groped her. She did not tell anyone about this incident because she felt scared and in disbelief.
After the second incident, Appellant, [La. and Li.] moved back to Alaska for approximately six months.[5] Upon their return, [A.R.] resumed her friendship with [La. and Li.] and again frequented the Woeber residence. [A.R.] testified that she attended a party there when she was thirteen years old. [A.R.] stated that Appellant supplied her and other underage attendees with alcohol and had sexual intercourse with her on the couch that night. He undressed her and penetrated her vagina with his penis. She didn't tell anyone what happened because she didn't want to answer questions about why she returned to the Woeber household. She testified that she had returned to the home because she was told Appellant would not be in the home and she wanted to remain friends with [Li. and La.]. After the third incident, [A.R.] experienced panic attacks and struggled academically. [A.R.] disclosed the abuse to her school guidance counselor in the spring of 2015.
[Li. and La.] both testified on behalf of their father. [Li.] denied any underage drinking and said she never saw or heard any inappropriate sexual contact between Appellant and [A.R.]. [La.] also denied underage drinking at [Li.'s] party. She testified that nothing unusual happened that night. She further testified that the second party testified to by [A.R.], where [A.R.] said Appellant raped her a second time, simply never happened.
Lastly, Appellant denied ever touching [A.R.] inappropriately. He also denied ever having permitted boys into his home or providing alcohol to minors.

Rule 1925(a) Opinion, 11/15/16, at 4-5 (references to Notes of Testimony omitted).

         The alleged prior inconsistent and exculpatory statement attributed to A.R. is her statement to La. that "two other boys" raped her at Li's birthday party. N.T. Trial, 1/13/16, at 78. On direct examination, the prosecutor asked A.R. if she ever spoke with La. or Li. about the parties. Id. at 52. A.R. responded, "Yeah. They had said that they didn't remember any party happening." Id.

         On cross-examination, the following exchange took place between Appellant's counsel and A.R.:

Q. So you were asking [La.] about, you say, the party that happened at their house, and she said, "What party?" Right?
A. Yeah. She denied it.
Q. You didn't tell her that something happened at that party where her father had raped you, did you?
A. No.
Q. Did you tell her, in fact, that other boys had raped you at that party?
A. No.
Q. You don't remember saying that ...

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