By Burt Rose
Click to download Opinion C. v. Molina
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania en banc has decided the case of COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Michael MOLINA, Appellant, 2011 WL 5392739, 2011 PA Super 237, No. 1948 WDA 2007 (Nov. 9, 2011), an appeal from a Judgment of Sentence imposed by Judge David Cashman in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Criminal Division at Nos. CP–02–CR–0007403–2004, CP–02–CR–0009547–2004. The judges were STEVENS, FORD ELLIOTT, MUSMANNO, BENDER, GANTMAN, DONOHUE, ALLEN, LAZARUS, and OLSON. The Opinion was written by Judge FORD ELLIOTT.
Molina was charged with criminal homicide for the beating death of Melissa Snodgrass. A detective testified that she asked Molina, who was a prime suspect and had given inconsistent statements, to come down to police headquarters so she could further interview him and he refused. At closing argument, counsel for the Commonwealth stated the following:
Look also at what happened in terms of the police investigation in this matter. Three days after Snodgrass goes missing, detectives are already knocking on Molina’s door because of something they heard, maybe he was holding this person against her will, and he calls the police back and is very defensive. I mean, before a question’s even asked, he denied any knowledge or any involvement with this young lady. He makes contradictory statements to the police about when’s the last time that he saw her. First he says, “I saw her a year and a half ago.” Then he says, “I saw her three months ago.” But most telling, I think, is the fact that the detective invited him. “Well, come on down and talk to us. We want to ask you some more questions about this incident, your knowledge of this young lady,” especially because he made these contradictory statements. And what happens? Nothing happens. He refuses to cooperate with the Missing Persons detectives. And why?
Defense counsel objected, arguing that the prosecutor’s commentary was improper. The trial court overruled Molina’s objection and refused his request for a curative instruction to the jury. The Commonwealth then resumed and argued to the jury: “Factor that in when you’re making an important decision in this case as well.”
Molina appealed his murder conviction and asked the Superior Court to determine whether the Commonwealth can urge the jury to use a defendant’s pre-arrest, pre-Miranda silence as substantive evidence of his guilt where the defendant did not testify. The issue of whether a defendant’s pre- Miranda silence may be used during the prosecution’s case-in-chief during opening and closing arguments and direct examination of witnesses has not yet been addressed by the United States Supreme Court or the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
By a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled against the prosecution and held that the Commonwealth cannot use a non-testifying defendant’s pre-arrest silence to support its contention that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged as such use infringes on a defendant’s right to be free from self-incrimination. It is of no moment whether the silence occurred before or after the arrest or before or after Miranda warnings were administered. The Court noted that Molina did not testify in his own defense, so his credibility was not at issue, nor did Molina raise the inadequacy of the police investigation as a defense.
This error was not harmless and the conviction was reversed.
President Judge STEVENS filed a Dissenting Opinion which was joined by Judges BENDER, GANTMAN, and ALLEN.
The attorney for the Appellant was Thomas Farrell, Esq. of Farrell & Kozlowski of Pittsburgh, PA.
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