Burglary Sentence of 7.5-15 Years Vacated and New Trial Awarded under Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)
Defendant was accused of perpetrating a distraction burglary wherein an accomplice preoccupied the homeowner at the front door asking for help with car trouble while the Defendant entered the rear of the house and ran off with a television. Defendant and the accomplice were promptly charged with Burglary, 18 Pa.C.S.A.§ 3502(a) and Criminal Conspiracy, 18 Pa.C.S.A.§ 901(a)(1), both felonies, as well as two misdemeanors, Theft by Unlawful Taking, 18 Pa.C.S.A.§ 3921(a) and Receiving Stolen Property, 18 Pa.C.S.A.§ 3925(a).
Defendant took his case to trial though the accomplice was tried separately. At trial the Commonwealth called the accomplice to the stand to testify. The accomplice’s attorney made the assistant district attorney and judge aware she would exercise her rights against self-incrimination if asked any questions related to the burglary. The Defendant’s attorney, however, did not object. The Commonwealth was thus able to call the accomplice in front of the jury and ask about her participation in the burglary, to which she pled the Fifth.
Defendant was convicted of all counts and sentenced to an aggregate term of 7.5-15 years imprisonment. After direct appeals were exhausted with his first attorney, appellate attorney Steven P. Trialonas filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition raising ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Specifically, attorney Trialonas claimed the Defendant was denied a fair trial when his attorney failed to object to the Commonwealth calling an accomplice to the stand as a witness in front of the jury once they are made aware that witness intends to invoke their privileges guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. The logic of this argument is as follows: The jury likely assumed if the witness was worried about incriminating herself she must have done something wrong, and if she did something wrong the defendant also must have done something wrong since they were accomplices. The Court agreed with defense attorney Trialonas and granted the relief requested – throwing out the 7.5-15 year sentence, overturning the convictions, and awarding the Defendant a new trial. A copy of the Opinion is here.