Commonwealth v. Brown, 2016 PA Super 98

Posted in Admission of Evidence,Constitutional Challenges,PA Superior Court Cases,Statutory Interpretation on May 10, 2016

 

Brown and the decedent had a dispute (seemingly over the throwing of a tissue) at a tattoo party. Brown pulled a gun on a third party, whom the decedent claimed Brown would not shoot. Brown did not; he instead shot the decedent.

The Superior Court held that an autopsy report, prepared as a result of a death from other than natural causes, is testimonial in nature under the Sixth Amendment; it is therefore inadmissible unless the medical examiner/coroner (medical examiner in Philadelphia, coroner is most other counties) who prepared the report testifies. At trial, the medical examiner did not testify; another expert did, who testified to the conclusions in the autopsy report.

Under Crawford, documents that are testimonial in nature cannot be introduced unless the preparer testifies and is subject to cross- examination (or is unavailable but there was a prior opportunity for cross-examination). A document is testimonial if its primary purpose is to establish/prove past events that may be relevant to a subsequent prosecution. Courts ask whether the document or statement was created or made under circumstances that would lead an objective witness reasonably to believe that the document or statement would be available for use at a later trial.

The autopsy revealed that the decedent was killed by gunshots and that the method of death was homicide. The report’s primary purpose, therefore, was to establish a past event. Additionally, the statutory language creating the position of medical examiner supported the conclusion that an autopsy report is testimonial because of the manner in which the statute contemplates joint effort between the medical examiner and the district attorney.

Introduction of the conclusions in the autopsy report was a violation of Brown’s right to confrontation. But the error was harmless. Pa.R.E. 703 allows an expert to rely on certain documents when forming an opinion, including otherwise inadmissible evidence like the autopsy report here. The expert testified that although his conclusion was the same as the non-testifying medical examiner’s, his was independent.

Because the wrongly admitted testimony was cumulative of proper evidence, and because the manner of death was not at issue — there was no serious doubt that the decedent was killed by gunshots — the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Judge Olson’s opinion can be found here.