A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

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By Burt Rose

Click for Opinion.

Click for Concurring Statement

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has issued a ruling in the matter of COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Sherdina WILLIAMS, Appellant,2862 EDA 2011, 2013 WL 3198409, 2013 PA Super 151 (June 24, 2013). This was a direct appeal  from a Judgment of Sentence imposed by Judge Chris Wogan of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. The Defender Association of Philadelphia represented the Appellant. The panel was composed of Judges BENDER, DONOHUE and COLVILLE. Judge Bender wrote the Opinion.

The Appellant appealed from a judgment of sentence of 290–580 months’ incarceration that was imposed for violations of multiple probations after subsequent convictions in unrelated matters. The Appellant challenged the discretionary aspects of her sentence as being disproportionate and therefore excessive. The Court agreed and vacated the judgment of sentence and remanded for resentencing.

To quote the Opinion:

Given the fundamental principle of proportionality and the severity of the sanction imposed in this case, we expect the conduct for which Appellant was being sanctioned to be proportionally severe. By any measure employed by civilized society, the severity of Appellant’s sentence was disproportional to her conduct. In the cases before us, Appellant entered and stole property from several Catholic institutions, and on two of seven occasions, she shoved those who caught her red-handed as she attempted to escape. We do not dispute the characterization of burglary and simple assault as being crimes of violence, but we must also recognize that not all crimes of violence are created equal. Burglary is not comparable to rape, nor is simple assault on par with murder. Yet here, the trial court has imposed a sentence that is comparable to the sanctions levied for such crimes by invocation of the common categorization applied to all such crimes as being ‘violent.’ This is error.

And:

Here, Appellant was convicted for stealing a few thousand dollars in cash and property over the course of a spree of seven burglaries. Appellant secured entry into the facilities that she burglarized in a non-violent manner. No evidence demonstrated that Appellant ever used or even possessed a weapon during these crimes. And although Appellant did use some physical force while fleeing on two occasions, she did not cause or seriously risk causing serious bodily injury. While not trivial, the gravity of Appellant’s crimes are simply not of the same order of magnitude as those reviewed in Commonwealth v. Walls, 592 Pa. 557, 926 A.2d 957 (2007), and yet Appellant was sentenced to a longer minimum term of incarceration. While we acknowledge that a direct comparative analysis to the sentence imposed in Walls is not controlling on our review of Appellant’s sentence, it is illustrative of its disproportionate nature. Appellant’s sentence does not reflect, by several orders of magnitude, the severity and nature of her offenses.

The Panel concluded that the trial court abused its discretion as the sentence imposed was unreasonable under the principle of proportionality and therefore was manifestly excessive.

In addition, Judge Bender noted that Judge Wogan’s statements at the sentencing hearing struck a tone of combative advocacy rather than dispassionate reflection. The accumulation of inappropriate remarks lead the Superior Court to conclude that the Appellant’s sentence was also tainted by the appearance of bias:

The trial court’s bias or partiality was demonstrated by its focus on repairing or correcting the perceived mistakes of prior judges with whom the trial judge disagreed and its excessive focus on the Appellant’s victimization of the Catholic Church and attribution of motives to Appellant that were unsupported by the record. Also demonstrative of bias or partiality was the use or misuse of pseudo-medical terminology to describe Appellant’s mental health that was unsupported by the record, and the improper consideration of Appellant’s gender and the court’s subjective comparison of Appellant to other members of Appellant’s gender that were sentenced in his courtroom. The factors, collectively and individually, demonstrate a strong appearance of bias and partiality. Accordingly, Appellant’s sentence constituted an abuse of discretion.

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