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Commonwealth v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

December 19, 2017


          SUBMITTED: December 2, 2016

         Appeal 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.




         In 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.

         On 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.

         Perez 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.

         The 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.

         Later 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.

         A few 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.

         The 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.

         To 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.

         Given 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 591a.

         The 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.

         Ultimately, 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[1] (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).[2] This Court affirmed Johnson's death sentence. Id. The United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. Johnson v. Pennsylvania, 528 U.S. 1163 (2000).

         In April 2000, Johnson filed a petition for post-conviction relief, followed by a second petition in September 2003.[3] 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 (Pa. 2004).

         In 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).

         In 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 ...

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