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


Session Schedule

The House meets on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then recesses until December 9.  The Senate meets on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then recesses until December 3.

House Judiciary Committee conducts hearing on DNA databases

From Crisci Associates PA Capitol Digest

The House Judiciary Committee, led by Majority Chair Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), hosted a hearing Tuesday to obtain testimony from various individuals and groups regarding Senate Bill 150 (R-Pileggi).

The bill would make changes to Pennsylvania’s DNA database for use during criminal investigations.

“The testimony we gathered during this hearing was invaluable. There is no doubt that DNA is one of the most critical pieces of evidence in a conviction. Our goal today was to find out how to increase the usage of DNA on a more regular basis within the parameters of our state’s budget,” said Rep. Marsico. “We have been researching this legislation for years now and realize the immense effect it could have on our judicial system.”

Senate Bill 150 would require collection of a DNA sample for persons arrested for criminal homicide, a felony sex offense and other specified offenses. It would also require the collection of DNA samples from inmates accepted from another state or the federal government under an interstate agreement.

“Since the General Assembly authorized the Pennsylvania state law enforcement DNA database in 1995, there have been great strides in the use of DNA evidence to bring dangerous criminals to justice,” said Marsico. “In recent years, many other states and the federal government have improved their DNA collection and testing policies to reflect the increased capability of forensic science and the reliability of DNA testing.

“While Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies currently make effective use of DNA evidence in obtaining convictions, this legislation is intended to modernize those practices and bring Pennsylvania into the 21st century with regard to its use of DNA technology to fight crime,” said Marsico. “The bill would expand the use of DNA to identify and stop violent offenders.”

Among those offering testimony were Cumberland County District Attorney and President of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association David J. Freed; Senior Counsel to the Pennsylvania Attorney General Bruce Beemer; Jayann Sepich, DNA Saves; Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape Legal Director Diane Moyer; ACLU Pennsylvania Chapter Legislative Director Andy Hoover; Pennsylvania State Police Deputy Commissioner of Staff Lt. Col. Scott Snyder; Pennsylvania State Police Director of the Bureau of Forensic Sciences Maj. Mark Schau; Pennsylvania State Police Director of the Forensic DNA Division Beth Ann Marne; and Philadelphia Police Department’s Office of Forensic Science CODIS Administrator Brian Pleegor.

During the hearing, many examples were given of instances where multiple rapes and murders occurred and could have been prevented if a DNA sample had been provided upon the first arrest of the defendant.

Additionally, thousands of dollars could be saved in criminal cases by not having to continually defend the same defendants who are freed due to not having the proper DNA evidence necessary to convict them. Lastly, the rate of error could be reduced in convicting the wrong person with the use of DNA samples.

Compelling testimony was received from Jayann Sepich, the mother of a murder victim. After her daughter was murdered, she found out that it was illegal in her home state to take DNA from someone who was arrested and she decided to change that. She was able to get “Katie’s Law” passed in New Mexico in 2006, which is a law that requires DNA be taken upon a felony arrest.

During her quest for passage of Katie’s Law, she came across a case in California of a man who was arrested 21 times over a period of 15 years. He was finally convicted of rape and his DNA was taken. It ended up matching the crime scene DNA found on 12 rapes and murdered women. The first murder occurred two months after his first felony arrest.

Currently, 28 other states have implemented laws to collect DNA upon arrest for certain crimes.

“The bottom line is that, with this legislation, heinous crimes can be prevented, cold cases can be solved and countless lives can be saved,” said Rep. Marsico. “I firmly believe that Pennsylvanians deserve the very best when it comes to leading safe lives our great Commonwealth. If I can make our state safer and save Pennsylvanians money, I am going to do that. I look forward to working with my colleagues to advance this legislation.”

Senate Bill 150 is currently in the House Judiciary Committee.

Supreme Court adopts new appellate rules under Pennsylvania Code of Military Justice

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Bi-partisan bill for Merit Selection of Statewide Judges

From Crisci Associates PA Capitol Digest

Reps. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) Tuesday introduced legislation to establish a merit-based system for appointing statewide judges.

Rep. Cutler said, “I believe that it is time to have a conversation about how we select our judges. I personally believe that the integrity of our justice system requires that we select judges based on more than voter turnout, name ID, or fundraising ability. I believe we should be looking for the members of the bar with the highest qualifications, not just the best political skills.”

“The people have shown year after year that most of them aren’t that attached to electing judges – the turnout in last week’s election was below 10 percent in some counties, and only an estimated 14 to 17 percent statewide. It’s time to remove partisan politics and campaign contributions from selecting our judiciary and implement a merit-based system for choosing Pennsylvania’s statewide judges,” Rep. Sims said. “As you can see from the folks backing this effort, merit selection transcends party lines and geographical divides and pursues just one, clear goal: placing the most qualified and competent jurists in the courtroom.”

“Changing the way we select judges is important for the integrity of the courts and is what the people of this state deserve,” former Gov. Tom Ridge said. “State lawmakers must do what is right for our judicial system. We can’t allow time to continue to slip by with a system that needs to be fixed.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said, “A merit selection system with citizen participation will elevate the justice system in Pennsylvania and take it out of the political and fundraising environment. I’ve been in favor of adopting this system since my days as District Attorney in 1978.”

Merit selection would be a hybrid elective-appointive system. A bipartisan citizens’ nominating commission of lawyers and non-lawyers selected by elected officials would review applicants’ qualifications and recommend a short list to the governor for nomination. After Senate confirmation, a judge sits for a short term before standing for a non-partisan retention election.

Merit selection would focus on qualifications: legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, honesty, fairness and good temperament. Judges could no longer be chosen according to their ballot position, campaign fundraising abilities, or other irrelevant factors.

The constitutional amendment would establish an Appellate Court Nominating Commission made up of 15 members: six appointed by the governor (no more than half from one party, each member from a different county, must include two retired judges); eight by the General Assembly (chosen by the majority and minority leaders of both houses); and one by the attorney general.

Registered lobbyists, elected or appointed officials, officers in any political party or organization, as well as staff and family members of the appointers would be prohibited from serving.

Since the bill is a proposed state constitutional amendment, it must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions and then go before the people in a public referendum. Additional implementing legislation with more details will be introduced in the future.

The legislators were joined at the news conference by other supporters of the bill, including Rep. Pamela DeLissio (D-Philadelphia).

“Change needs to be legislated in order to ensure integrity regarding how judges are selected. I support these reforms because they envision a bipartisan, citizen nominating commission as opposed to the current system of campaigning and the need to solicit campaign contributions,” Rep. DeLissio said.

Lynn Marks, executive director, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said, “Judges are different from officials in the legislative and executive branches so it makes sense to select them differently. Judges must decide cases solely on the facts and the law, not based on political considerations, platforms or constituencies. It just doesn’t make sense to have a totally partisan process for a nonpartisan job.  And the problem with money in judicial races is that most of the money comes from attorneys and special interests that often appear in state courts.”

“The League of Women Voters vigorously supports the merit selection system for selecting statewide, appellate judges,” said Susan Carty, president, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. “Pennsylvanians deserve to have their faith restored. They deserve to believe their judges are impartial, independent and unencumbered.”

Pennsylvania’s governors from the past 18 years, from both parties, support merit selection, including Pennsylvania’s current governor.

Public Hearings

November 19– House Children and Youth Committee meets to consider Senate Bill 1116 (Washington-D-Philadelphia) further providing for child abuse prevention services– summary.  Room 39 East Wing. 9:00.

November 19– NEW. House Judiciary Committee meets to consider Senate Bill 150 (Pileggi-R- Delaware) further providing for the collection and use of DNA, Senate Bill 681 (Greenleaf-R- Montgomery) providing for the protection of victims of sexual violence, Senate Bill 850 (Greenleaf-R-Montgomery) further providing for tissue donation– summary, House Bill 1201 (Barbin-   further providing for the deposition of witnesses in cases of abuse– summary,  House Resolution 537 (Grell-R-Cumberland) recognizing ChildFirst PA for its commitment to training child abuse investigative teams.  Room 205 Ryan.  10:00.

November 19– House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee holds a hearing on elder abuse.  Room 60 East Wing. 9:30.

November 19–  Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee meets to consider House Bill 431 (Gingrich-R-Lebanon) further providing for child protective services– summary House Fiscal Note.  Room 461. 12:30.

November 19– Senate Judiciary Committee meets to consider House Bill 1274 (Farry    further providing for criminal laboratory fees- summaryHouse Bill 1504 (Caltagirone-D-Berks) providing for the mental illness training for judicial and police officers– summary and House Fiscal Note.  Room 8E-B East Wing. 11:30.

Commission on Sentencing

December 4-5– Commission on Sentencing meeting. 4th- dinner at Harrisburg Hilton 6:00, 5th- Policy Committee 9:00, Commission meeting 1:00, Pennsylvania Judicial Center, 601 Commonwealth Ave., Harrisburg. (formal notice)


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