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Commonwealth v. Lynn

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

June 28, 2018


          Appeal from the Order April 19, 2017 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-51-CR-0003530-2011



          PANELLA, J.

         Rule 404 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence prohibits the use of "a crime, wrong, or other act … to prove a person's character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character." Pa.R.E. 404(b)(1). After finding the admission of twenty-one instances of "other-acts" evidence unduly prejudiced the jury trial of Appellee, William J. Lynn, a panel of this Court granted Lynn a new trial.

         Prior to retrial, the Commonwealth attempted to secure the introduction of nine of these instances of other-acts evidence, for such evidence may be admissible when relevant to another purpose, such as "proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident." Pa.R.E. 404(b)(2). The trial court limited the Commonwealth to just three.

         The Commonwealth appeals, [1] alleging the introduction of additional other-acts evidence is necessary to prove its case. After concluding that the trial court's decision to limit the introduction of other-acts evidence was within its discretionary powers, we affirm.

         Because our Supreme Court has provided a detailed description of the facts underlying this matter in its prior opinion, Commonwealth v. Lynn, 114 A.3d 796, 798-808 (Pa. 2015) ("Lynn II"), we need not recite the entirety of this case's history here. See also Commonwealth v. Lynn, 83 A.3d 434, 437-445 (Pa. Super. 2013) ("Lynn I"), rev'd Lynn II (providing summary of facts and procedural history).

         Relevant to the current appeal, Lynn was appointed Associate Vicar in the Office of the Vicar for the Administration in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in January 1991. As part of his duties as Associate Vicar, Lynn assisted Monsignor James Malloy and served as the Secretary for Clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 until 2004. As part of his duties as secretary, Lynn was responsible for receiving and investigating allegations of sexual abuse by priests within the Archdiocese, as well as suggesting placements for, and supervising, priests previously accused of abuse.

         In 2011, following a grand jury investigation into claims of sexual abuse by priests and concealment of this abuse by the Archdiocese, Lynn was arrested and charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of children ("EWOC"), 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 4304, and two counts of conspiracy to commit EWOC, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 903. Lynn's charges arose from allegations that he, in his capacity as Secretary for Clergy, negligently supervised two priests, Reverend Edward V. Avery and Reverend James Brennan.[2] Due to previous complaints, Lynn knew that both Avery and Brennan had been accused of sexually abusing juvenile parishioners. Despite this knowledge, in 1993, Lynn recommended Avery live in the rectory at nearby St. Jerome's Church-a church with a grade school attached. Several years after Avery was placed at St. Jerome's rectory, D.G., a student at St. Jerome's grade school, alleged he had been sexually abused by Avery.[3]

         Lynn proceeded to trial on March 26, 2012.[4] As part of its case-in-chief, the Commonwealth introduced other-acts evidence of the Archdiocese's handling of abuse allegations raised against twenty-one other priests.[5] This evidence consumed twenty-five of the thirty-two days the Commonwealth devoted to its case-in-chief. After two months of testimony, the jury convicted Lynn of one count of EWOC, relating to his supervision of Avery.[6] On July 24, 2012, the trial court sentenced Lynn to a term of three to six years' imprisonment.

         Following a series of appeals, a panel of this Court vacated the judgment of sentence and granted Lynn a new trial upon concluding the trial court abused its discretion by admitting a "high volume of unfairly prejudicial other-acts evidence." Lynn III, No. 2171 EDA 2012, at 1, 2015 WL 9320082, at *1. Specifically, the Court found that

the probative value of the individual portions that made up the large quantity of other-acts evidence in this case differed greatly. A limited portion of that evidence was substantially relevant to, or probative of, permitted uses under Rule 404(b)(2), but far more was only marginally relevant for such purposes. The potential for this evidence to unfairly prejudice [Lynn] was high, both because it involved the sexually abusive acts of numerous priests committed against children over several decades, and because of the high volume of the evidence admitted. Therefore, we conclude that the probative value of that evidence, in toto, did not outweigh its potential for unfair prejudice….

Id., at 42-43, 2015 WL 9320082, at *20.

         Prior to retrial, Lynn filed an omnibus pretrial motion seeking, in part, to exclude all of the other-acts evidence the Commonwealth utilized in the first trial. Lynn maintained that evidence of sexual abuse by Archdiocesan priests, other than Avery, was neither probative nor relevant to proving Lynn's EWOC charge. As Lynn believed the evidence was irrelevant, he claimed that admission of this evidence would, again, unduly prejudice him if presented at trial.

         In response, the Commonwealth filed a motion in limine seeking the admission of nine[7] of the twenty-one instances of other-acts evidence introduced at Lynn's first trial. Specifically, the Commonwealth sought the admission of evidence related to accusations levied against nine priests within the Archdiocese, claiming the admission of all nine of the instances was necessary to demonstrate the general scheme Lynn created in which he concealed evidence of sexually abusive priests to protect the Archdiocese.

         Following a hearing on the matter, the trial court determined that, while the evidence of sexual abuse by these priests was relevant under Rule 404(b), the prejudicial effect of the admission of all nine proffered instances of other-acts evidence on the jury would substantially outweigh its probative value. However, the trial court found the appropriate balance between the probative value of this evidence and its prejudicial effect could be found by allowing the Commonwealth to present other-acts evidence related to sexual abuse claims against Father Robert Brennan, ...

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