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Third Circuit Grants Habeas Relief to Prisoner Convicted of First-Degree Murder Without Evidence of Specific Intent to Kill

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit granted a Pennsylvania state prisoner conditional habeas corpus relief because the jury instructions used to convict him of first-degree murder did not require a finding that he had the specific intent to kill. The March 26, 2018, opinion rejected a lower federal court’s ruling and sent the case back to the state court for further proceedings.

Tony L. Bennett was the wheel man in the organized robbery of a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, jewelry store in 1990. During the robbery, fellow conspirator Michael Mayo used Bennett’s handgun to shoot and kill salesperson Ju Yang Lee. Bennett was arrested and charged with murder, criminal conspiracy, robbery, and possession of an instrument of crime. He was charged capitally, and the trial judge gave jury instructions on first-, second-, and third-degree murder. Bennett was found guilty of all charges, including first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole on the murder charge.

In 1995, Bennett initiated the post-conviction relief proceedings that ultimately landed in federal court 23 years later. He argued that the trial court violated his due process right by improperly instructing the jury that he could be convicted of first-degree murder without finding the specific intent to kill. He also argued that his counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the jury instructions, though by the time his case reached the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, that argument had been abandoned.

The crux of Bennett’s complaint was that the jury instructions relieved the Commonwealth of its burden of proving every element of first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. The instructions specifically and unequivocally allowed the jury to find that Bennett committed first-degree murder even if he did not have the specific intent to kill, as long as the shooter did.

Bennett argued, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, that Pennsylvania law does not allow an accomplice or conspirator to be convicted of first degree murder based on the specific intent to kill of the principal. Because the instructions were “deficient, or at the least ambiguous and inconsistent,” the Court found a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied the instructions “in a way that relieved the State of proving the specific intent to kill.”

“As to jury instructions on the specific intent to kill, our Court is troubled by the likelihood that the instructions as a whole could lead a jury to believe that an accomplice or conspirator to one crime is guilty of first degree murder despite having no specific intent to kill,” wrote the Court. “Indeed, we have repeatedly identified due process violations for this very reason.”

The Commonwealth argued that even if the jury instructions did violate Bennett’s due process rights, the trial court’s error was harmless. In addition to determining that the Commonwealth waived the harmless error defense by failing to assert it on appeal, the Court found the argument unavailing. This was due, in no small part, to the actions of the prosecutors, who argued at trial that Bennett could be found guilty of first-degree murder based on Mayo’s specific intent to kill.

The Court pointed out that the Commonwealth “[h]aving repeatedly urged the jury to base its verdict on a theory predicated on a fundamental constitutional error. . . . cannot now seriously contend that the error had no ‘substantial and injurious effect or influence’ on the verdict.”

Accordingly, the Third Circuit reversed the district court’s order denying habeas corpus relief and remanded with instructions to grant conditional habeas relief with respect to the first degree murder. The Court’s ruling means that the Commonwealth will have to either retry Bennett on the murder charge or dismiss that count. See: Bennett v. Superintendent Graterford State Corr. Inst., 886 F.3d 268 (3d Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Bennett v. Superintendent Graterford State Corr. Inst.



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