SUBMITTED: December 2, 2016
from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas, Berks County,
Criminal Division dated July 6, 2015 at No.
CP-06-CR-0000118-1997, directing that a new trial be held.
SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY,
1997, Roderick Johnson was convicted on two counts of
first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death. Several years
later, Johnson discovered that the Commonwealth had concealed
certain documents that would have cast doubt upon the
credibility of a key prosecution witness. The court of common
pleas held that the Commonwealth's failure to disclose
this evidence violated Johnson's right to due process of
law, in accordance with Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S.
83, 87 (1963) (holding that the prosecution must disclose
evidence favorable to the accused that is material either to
guilt or to punishment). The court awarded Johnson a new
trial. We affirm.
December 7, 1996, in the city of Reading, cousins Damon and
Gregory Banks (collectively, "the Banks cousins")
robbed Madelyn Perez at gunpoint in her boyfriend's
apartment. The Banks cousins stated that they were looking
for drugs and money. They found neither. Instead, they took a
camcorder and a Sony PlayStation before fleeing.
told her boyfriend, Shawnfatee Bridges, about the robbery.
She told him that the robbers were wearing green masks and
green hoodies. This fact was significant, because Bridges
recalled seeing the Banks cousins wearing green hoodies
earlier that day. When Bridges met with co-defendants Johnson
and Richard Morales that same evening, he was angry about the
robbery. At one point, Bridges grabbed a shotgun and stated
that he wanted to go to the Banks cousins' house and kill
them. Bridges also showed Johnson and Morales a 9-mm Glock
pistol that he was carrying.
following day, Johnson, Bridges, and Morales went to a nearby
K-Mart and purchased shotgun shells. The trio then traveled
in a minivan to the Banks cousins' home. When they
arrived, Bridges pretended that he was interested in
recruiting the Banks cousins to oversee his drug-dealing
business while he was out of town. The Banks cousins,
apparently believing this pretext, got into the minivan.
that evening, police officers found the dead bodies of the
Banks cousins on a gravel driveway leading to a silt basin.
Around this time, police also received a report from a local
restaurant (located fewer than five miles from the silt
basin) that an unknown man had been shot. Upon arrival, the
police identified the wounded man as Johnson. He was
transported to a local hospital.
days later, while still hospitalized, Johnson gave a
statement to the police. He confessed to his participation in
the Banks cousins' murders. According to Johnson, his
role in the conspiracy was limited to driving the minivan.
Johnson told police that, after picking up the Banks cousins,
he drove Bridges, Morales, and the cousins to a dirt road
near a construction site. He recounted that Bridges and
Morales got out of the van and told the Banks cousins to
follow them, claiming that they would show the cousins where
Bridges' drugs were stashed. When the Banks cousins grew
suspicious and refused to comply, Bridges walked around to
the front of the minivan and started shooting. Johnson
claimed that, as he was exiting the van, Bridges shot him in
the torso. Johnson stated that, as he was attempting to flee,
he saw Bridges shoot into the van at the Banks cousins.
Johnson said he then walked to the restaurant, where the
police found him.
Commonwealth's scenario of the murders differed
substantially from Johnson's. At Johnson's capital
murder trial, a forensic pathologist testified that one of
the bullets recovered from the body of Damon Banks was a .38
caliber projectile. The Commonwealth presented evidence that
a .38 caliber handgun was recovered close to the murder
scene, and the Commonwealth's ballistics expert matched
that firearm with the bullet recovered during Damon
Banks' autopsy. In order to rebut Johnson's claim
that he was merely present at the scene of the murders, the
Commonwealth sought to prove that Johnson fired the .38
caliber bullet recovered from Damon Banks' body.
refute Johnson's version of events, the Commonwealth
called George Robles as a trial witness. Robles testified
that Johnson owned a .38 caliber handgun like the one found
near the crime scene. He also testified that he visited
Johnson in the hospital just after the murder, and that
Johnson confessed to taking the .38 caliber murder weapon
from the murder scene, wiping it off with his shirt, and then
throwing it on the side of the road about a quarter mile from
the construction site. At trial, Robles provided the crucial
link between Johnson and the murder weapon, and supplied the
testimony that countered Johnson's defense.
the importance of Robles' testimony, defense counsel
attempted to undercut his credibility on cross-examination by
showing that he was involved in ongoing criminal activities
and was an informant for the Reading Police Department. The
assistant district attorney objected to this line of
questioning, characterizing as "absurd" defense
counsel's belief that Robles was a drug dealer or an
informant, and emphasizing that Robles had never been
convicted of, or even arrested for, any crime. R.R. at 589a.
Defense counsel responded that his questioning "does go
to [Robles'] credibility." Id. at 590a. The
trial court sustained the prosecutor's objection in part,
but did not prevent the defense from "inquiring as to
any legitimate area of [Robles'] possible bias or
interest in the outcome" of the trial. Id. at
problem was that defense counsel was flying blind; he had the
court's permission to inquire into Robles' bias,
self-interest, or motivation to lie, but he knew of nothing
concrete to ask Robles. Defense counsel did the best that he
could. He asked Robles if the Reading Police had ever paid
him for information (Robles denied this). He asked whether
Robles' nickname was "Gambino" (Robles admitted
this). And he asked if Robles was the leader of a gang
(Robles denied this). To the extent that Robles' answers
did any harm to his credibility, the damage likely was
repaired on redirect, when Robles reminded the jury that he
had never been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of,
any crime. Id. at 593a.
Johnson was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder.
Following a penalty phase trial, the jury sentenced Johnson
to death. After his trial, Johnson obtained a letter that
Robles had sent to Reading Police Detective Angel Cabrera
while Robles was jailed as a material witness (after he failed
to appear in court to testify against Johnson). In the
letter, Robles stated that he would "do anything"
to get out of jail. On direct appeal, Johnson argued that
Robles' letter constituted material impeachment evidence
that the Commonwealth was required to disclose pursuant to
Brady. This Court rejected Johnson's argument,
finding that "the Commonwealth discharged its
Brady disclosure responsibilities by providing
[Johnson's] counsel with [a] police report that
referenced the Robles letter." Commonwealth v.
Johnson, 727 A.2d 1089, 1095 (Pa. 1999). This Court
affirmed Johnson's death sentence. Id. The
United States Supreme Court denied certiorari.
Johnson v. Pennsylvania, 528 U.S. 1163 (2000).
April 2000, Johnson filed a petition for post-conviction
relief, followed by a second petition in September
2003. The PCRA court denied the former and
dismissed the latter. This Court affirmed both of those
decisions. See Commonwealth v. Johnson, 815 A.2d 563
(Pa. 2002); Commonwealth v. Johnson, 863 A.2d 423
2005, Johnson filed the PCRA petition that led to this
appeal. While his petition was pending in the PCRA court,
Johnson also was pursuing federal habeas corpus
relief in connection with an unrelated homicide case. In that
unrelated case, much like in the first-degree murder
conviction underlying today's appeal, Johnson was found
guilty of the killing after the Commonwealth called Robles to
testify that Johnson had confessed to committing the killing.
During Johnson's federal habeas proceedings, the
United States District Court for the Eastern District of
Pennsylvania ordered the Commonwealth to disclose to Johnson
any evidence of a relationship between Robles and the Reading
Police Department and/or the Berks County District
Attorney's Office, "including any documents relevant
to Robles being a paid or unpaid informant or a cooperating
witness." See Johnson v. Folino, 671 F.Supp.2d
658, 664, n.4 (E.D. Pa. 2009), rev'd on other
grounds, 705 F.3d 117 (3d Cir. 2013).
response to the federal court's discovery order, the
Commonwealth produced five police reports, each of which
detailed distinct investigations into Robles' criminal
conduct. The first of these reports, dated February 27, 1996,
described an incident in which Robles approached two
individuals, threatened them at gunpoint, and discharged his
firearm into the air. When Detective Cabrera confronted
Robles about the incident, Robles attempted to avoid arrest
by offering to provide information about an unsolved ...