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Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Failure to Disclosure Mental Health Report Showing Key Witness Was a Sociopath Constitutes Brady Violation That Prejudiced Defendant

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upheld the ruling of a lower court granting a writ of habeas corpus upon finding that the Commonwealth committed a Brady violation when it failed to disclose a mental health report that concluded the only witness for the prosecution was a sociopath.

Kathleen Harbison was with her friend at Cousins Restaurant and Bar in Wayne County on the evening of December 20, 1990. She was seen in the company of Michael Conforti and James Bellman before disappearing in the early morning hours later that night. Her body was discovered in the woods with her hands and legs bound by cuffs and a dozen stab wounds. Conforti and Bellman were both arrested, though Bellman made incriminating statements while Conforti maintained his innocence.

The men were tried separately, but after planned testimony and before closing arguments, Bellman agreed to testify against Conforti. Having previously told police where to find the murder weapon, Bellman proceeded to testify that it was Conforti’s idea to bind and murder Harbison and that Bellman had only helped bind and move her.

Both men were convicted, but Bellman’s testimony resulted in an agreement for him to get life in prison instead of the death penalty.

Conforti’s appeals were denied, so he then filed a timely Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) motion in 1995. After multiple amended petitions, reassignments to several senior judges, and transfer of the case from the Wayne County prosecutor’s office to the Commonwealth’s Attorney General, the PCRA court found in Conforti’s favor in December of 2021.

Though many issues were raised by Conforti before the PCRA court, review by the Commonwealth’s Supreme Court focused on one issue: the violation under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).

Specifically, the Wayne County prosecutor’s office turned over Conforti’s case file to the Attorney General’s office when responsibility for the case was transferred. On November 5, 2021, the Attorney General’s office notified Conforti’s council that it located a report in the case file pertaining to a mental health evaluation conducted as part of a criminal proceeding against Bellman in 1979. In it, two psychiatrists diagnosed Bellman as a “sociopath,” and a concurring psychologist “found Bellman’s prominent traits appeared to be sociopathic, narcissistic, and paranoid behavioral patterns.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has summarized the application of Brady as follows: “the United States Supreme Court held that the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution. The Supreme Court subsequently held that the duty to disclose such evidence is applicable even if there has been no request by the accused, and that the duty may encompass impeachment evidence as well as directly exculpatory evidence. Furthermore, the prosecution’s Brady obligation extends to exculpatory evidence in the files of police agencies of the same government bringing the prosecution.” Commonwealth v. Lambert, 884 A.2d 848 (Pa. 2005).

The Court noted “there are three necessary components that demonstrate a violation of the Brady strictures: the evidence was favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory or because it impeaches; the evidence was suppressed by the prosecution, either willfully or inadvertently; and prejudice ensued.” Id.

The Commonwealth argued the report could not have been used at trial, because only mental health disabilities that “impair a witness’s ability to observe, recall, or report events are relevant and admissible to impeach credibility.” See Commonwealth v. Davido, 106 A.3d 611 (Pa. 2014). According to the Commonwealth, sociopathy does not interfere with a person’s ability to observe, recall, or report events, and thus, the diagnosis bore no relevance to the case.

The Court, however, noted that the opinion from Davido relied on by the Commonwealth contained the following sentence: “The evidence can be said to affect credibility when it shows that the witness’s mental disorganization impaired his or her capacity to observe an event at the time of its occurrence, to maintain a clear recollection of it, or to communicate the observation accurately and truthfully at trial.”

It agreed with Conforti’s assessment that “Bellman’s status as a sociopath, including his compulsion to blame others for his actions, his attempts to deceive the evaluators, and his inability to feel guilt, made his testimony against Mr. Conforti unreliable as it impacted his ability to perceive events and to truthfully relate the facts to which he testified at trial.”

The PCRA court found that, in addition to constituting impeachment evidence, the report was in possession of the Commonwealth prior to Conforti’s trial. It referenced a motion by the Commonwealth in Bellman’s 1980 case in which it mentioned having received the report on June 23, 1980. Also, the prosecutor involved in Conforti’s prosecution in 1991 was involved in Bellman’s 1980 case, which meant that he knew that the reports existed and that its contents could be used to impeach his testimony, the Court explained.

The third Brady prong relates to prejudice, and occurs when a defendant shows a “reasonable probability that had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the preceding would have been different.” The Court concluded that, apart from “Bellman’s testimony, the Commonwealth’s case against Conforti was entirely circumstantial.” During PCRA testimony, both original prosecutors testified to the importance of Bellman’s testimony. Other than Harbison’s friend who saw her spending time with Conforti and Bellman prior to her disappearance, the only evidence connecting Conforti to the crime was Bellman’s testimony.

Further, Conforti offered testimony that directly contradicted Bellman’s, placing culpability squarely on Bellman and denying that Conforti was even aware that a crime had been committed. Thus, the Court concluded that had the report been “properly disclosed there is a reasonable probability the result of Conforti’s trial would have been different, as it could have led the jury to discredit Bellman’s testimony and give more credit to Conforti’s testimony that he was not involved in Harbison’s murder.”

Accordingly, having found that the Commonwealth committed a Brady violation, the Court vacated Conforti’s judgment of sentence. See: Commonwealth v. Conforti, 303 A.3d 715 (Pa. 2023).  

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