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Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Failure to Object to Improper Jury Instruction and Curative Instruction by Court Containing ‘Freudian Slip’ Constitutes IAC

Noel Matos Montalvo was convicted, along with his brother Milton, of the murder of Miriam Ascenci, Milton’s common law wife, and another man in March 1998. After receiving a death sentence, Montalvo filed a pro se action under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541 et seq. It was denied, but the denial was overturned on appeal and assigned to a new judge after the first one retired.

The second PCRA court decided that Montalvo was entitled to both a new trial and sentencing after finding several errors. The Commonwealth then appealed this ruling.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed the circumstances of Montalvo’s trial that underpinned the PCRA court’s decision.

The Court summarized the evidence as follows. First, there was “no blood, hair, or fiber evidence that linked [Montalvo] to the scene of the murders.” The witness testimony which linked him to the murder was later undermined when the witness claimed to have been pressured by police to offer incriminating, but false, testimony. Second, when giving instructions to the jury, the trial judge stated, “So if the Commonwealth has not sustained it’s (sic) burden to that level, the burden of proving the Defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then your verdict must be guilty.”

This statement is a clear error, and during the PCRA hearings, Montalvo’s trial counsel admitted to failing to recognize the error. Further, the PCRA court concluded the trial court would have readily granted a curative instruction had counsel requested it.

In Commonwealth v. Pierce, 786 A.2d 203 (Pa. 2001), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the U.S. Supreme Court’s test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), for establishing ineffective assistance of counsel. According to the Court, Pierce requires the petitioner to prove that “(1) the underlying claim has arguable merit; (2) no reasonable basis existed for counsel’s action or failure to act; and (3) the petitioner suffered prejudice as a result of counsel’s error, with prejudice measured by whether there was a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

The Court determined that the testimony of Montalvo’s trial counsel easily established the first two prongs under Pierce.

The Commonwealth made various arguments to undermine the finding of prejudice, including a claim that the court stenographer had made an error with the transcript and that, because guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is a concept “most familiar to everyone,” this error would not have affected the jury’s decision. The Court noted that, had the Commonwealth genuinely believed a transcription error had occurred, it could have availed itself of Rule 1926 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure and have the transcript corrected. As it did not, the Court “reject[ed] its eleventh-hour assertion.”

Further, the Court stated that “the trial judge has the sole responsibility for instructing the jury on the law ... and the failure to fulfill this function deprives the defendant of a fair trial.” Commonwealth v. Bricker, 581 A.2d 147 (Pa. 1990). Thus, any misstatements are the responsibility of the trial judge.

After the faulty initial instruction, the trial judge provided a second, nearly identical faulty instruction to which defense counsel did object. The trial judge corrected her statement while commenting that the error was a “Freudian slip.”

The Court explained that this comment undermined the corrective instruction, resulting in prejudice, because “in characterizing her own erroneous instruction to the jury as a Freudian slip, the trial judge conveyed to the jury her belief that Noel was guilty.” This kind of statement is a clear indication of the trial judge’s opinion as to the defendant’s guilt, and such expressions “ha[ve] a tendency to take from one of the parties the right to a fair and impartial trial....” Commonwealth v. Archambault, 290 A.2d 72 (Pa. 1972). Thus, the Court ruled that Montalvo satisfied Pierce’s three-pronged test required to establish ineffective assistance of counsel.

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Montalvo



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