Monday, August 31, 2009

Habeas Relief Granted in Decision Construing Pennsylvania Law of Conspiracy

In Robertson v. Klem, No. 07-2581 (Aug. 28, 2009), the Court considers a state prosecution resulting in consecutive sentences of five to ten years’ imprisonment for each of two alleged conspiracies to commit murder. The Court grants habeas relief on the ground that the evidence was insufficient under Pennsylvania law to support conviction of more than one conspiracy.

In an opinion by Judge Sloviter, the Court explains that the evidence at the state trial sufficed to permit a reasonable jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had conspired with a second man in the shooting of two persons during a single visit to their home. Focusing on the fact that there were two victims, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld consecutive sentences for two conspiracies. The Third Circuit, however, finds that analysis insupportable under Section 903(c) of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, which provides that if "a person conspires to commit a number of crimes, he is guilty of only one conspiracy so long as such multiple crimes are the object of the same agreement or continuous conspiratorial relationship." Reviewing state law concerning how to determine whether there existed one or more than one conspiracy, the Court determines that "the Commonwealth failed to prove that the murders at issue, which involved the same conspirators, the same murder weapon, and occurred at the same time and place, were the result of separate agreements or conspiratorial relationships."

The Circuit finds the defendant stated a cognizable habeas claim: that he was denied his due process right "against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged." The Court then remands with directions that the district court fix a period of time within which state authorities must free Robertson unless he is resentenced on a single count of conspiracy.

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The District Court's indication of the sentence it would impose before the defendant allocuted was not reversible plain error.

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