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Commonwealth v. Urwin

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

September 10, 2019

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
ROBERT WILLIAM URWIN, JR. Appellant

          Appeal from the PCRA Order September 29, 2017 In the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-63-CR-0001212-2010

          BEFORE: PANELLA, P.J., LAZARUS, J., and STRASSBURGER, J. [*]

          OPINION

          PANELLA, P.J.

         Appellant, Robert William Urwin, Jr., challenges the order entered in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas, denying his petition filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 9541-9546. We affirm.

         A sixteen year old victim's nude body was discovered in a field in Washington County in February 1977. She died from blunt force trauma to the head. Investigators located her clothing scattered nearby, and sealed it as evidence. Though witnesses at the time stated they had last seen the victim with Appellant and David Davoli, charges against Davoli were dismissed at a preliminary hearing. Appellant was not charged at that time.

         The case remained unsolved for several decades, until the victim's clothing was submitted for DNA testing in 2009. Investigators found that a DNA mixture on the victim's underwear contained the profiles of the paternal bloodlines for both Appellant and Davoli. When questioned by police, Davoli waived his Miranda rights and confessed his and Appellant's involvement in the victim's death.

         Appellant proceeded to a bench trial. At trial, Davoli testified that he and Appellant each had sex with the victim, before Appellant dragged her from the vehicle and beat her with a car tool. The court convicted Appellant of third-degree murder, and sentenced him to 10-20 years' incarceration. This Court affirmed Appellant's judgment of sentence, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allowance of appeal on April 2, 2014.

         Appellant then filed a timely PCRA petition on March 31, 2015. In it, he raised eleven separate claims, many premised on trial counsel's alleged errors. He also asserted that while his case was on appeal, Paul Pozonsky, the judge who presided over his trial, had been convicted of theft of cocaine from an evidence locker and disbarred. Appellant claimed the judge had been using cocaine during the trial, and that such an incompetent tribunal violated Appellant's right to due process. The PCRA court, helmed by a different judge, ordered a hearing at which Appellant's counsel and other witnesses testified. Ultimately, the court denied PCRA relief. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal, and this case is now properly before us.

         Appellant raises three issues on appeal. He first claims his right to due process was violated by the court's alleged cocaine use during trial.

         "Our standard of review for issues arising from the denial of PCRA relief is well-settled. We must determine whether the PCRA court's ruling is supported by the record and free of legal error." Commonwealth v. Presley, 193 A.3d 436, 442 (Pa. Super. 2018) (citation omitted). In doing so, we read the record in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. See Commonwealth v. Ford, 44 A.3d 1190, 1194 (Pa. Super. 2012). If this review reveals support for the PCRA court's credibility determinations and other factual findings, we may not disturb them. See id. We, however, afford no deference to the PCRA court's legal conclusions. See id.

         Appellant theorized in his PCRA petition that Judge Pozonsky was under the influence of drugs at the time of Appellant's trial. His basis for this hypothesis was the discovery that Pozonsky engaged in cocaine theft while a jurist. Pozonsky directed police officers to deposit cocaine, which had been entered into evidence in cases he presided over, in an evidence locker in his courtroom. See Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Pozonsky, 177 A.3d 830, 832 (Pa. 2018). Pozonsky then surreptitiously removed cocaine from the locker for his personal use. See id. Shortly after his conduct was discovered, Pozonsky resigned from the bench. See id., at 833. He was arrested and convicted of crimes relating to his theft. See id., at 834. Pozonsky was also disbarred by order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. See id., at 832.

         As support for his proposition that Pozonsky was under the influence of cocaine while performing his courtroom duties, including Appellant's trial - a premise unsupported by the Supreme Court's lengthy opinion ordering disbarment - Appellant presented testimony at the PCRA hearing regarding Pozonsky's demeanor at trial. Specifically, Appellant called his sister, Ruth Urwin, who testified that Pozonsky appeared to be "acting funny" and not paying attention to the proceedings. N.T. Hearing, 2/22/17, at 52. Ruth testified that she voiced her concerns to Appellant's attorney, Joseph Francis, after the trial. See id. Ruth conceded she had never interacted with Pozonsky before the trial. See id., at 55.

         Attorney Francis also testified. He stated that while he recalled Ruth questioned Pozonsky's demeanor, he dismissed these "because [Pozonsky] always appeared that way." Id., at 18. Francis explained that he had previously been one of Pozonsky's law clerks, and that after his clerkship Francis appeared in Pozonsky's courtroom "at least five or six times each month for a period of ten years." Id., at 16. While Francis agreed Pozonsky appeared "animated" and interjected several times during Appellant's trial, he averred that in his experience, it was Pozonsky's regular practice to ask witnesses questions and that Pozonsky always liked to keep the pace of his courtroom moving quickly. Id., at 16-17. Francis stated Pozonsky had acted that way in his courtroom from the time Francis first met him. See id., at 16.

         The Commonwealth likewise presented testimony at the evidentiary hearing about then-Judge Pozonsky's behavior. Paul Schneider, who was counsel for the Commonwealth at Appellant's trial, testified that he appeared in front of Pozonsky almost every day for three years for various proceedings. See id., at 62. Schneider stated that Pozonsky's behavior during Appellant's trial was "consistent" with the other experiences Schneider had with Pozonsky over the years. Id. Schneider stated nothing about Pozonsky's demeanor at ...


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