Friday, April 25, 2008

Exhibit "A": Com. v. Johnson: Opinion (1)

Nigro, Justice.

Appellant Calvin Johnson contends that the trial court erred in removing his counsel from this case after counsel violated a court order related to the discovery of mental health records. In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Superior Court ruled that an order removing counsel is immediately appealable. As discussed below, we hold that an order disqualifying counsel is interlocutory and is not immediately appealable. Thus, we reverse the Superior Court’s decision and remand for the entry of an order quashing the appeal.

Appellant was arrested in 1998 for the 1981 murder of Elvira Hayes. Elvira Hayes was strangled in her home. When her body was discovered, Elvira Hayes' two year old son, L.P., was sleeping on top of her on the floor. Appellant was a boyfriend of Elvia Hayes and while questioned after the murder, he was not arrested. Elvira Hayes’ sister and her husband adopted L.P. after the murder. He underwent counselling and psychiatric care at several institutions in the following years.

In 1993, L.P., then 15 years old, provided a statement to the police that led to Appellant’s arrest L.P. said that he remembered seeing Appellant lying on top of his mother where her body was found. Appellant was charged with the murder and the court appointed the Public Defender Association to represent him. In preparing for trial, Appellant’s counsel sought discovery of L.P.’s mental health records. Because L did not disclose his memory of the murder for over a decade, counsel maintained that they needed the records to prepare a defense.

At a hearing, defense counsel told the court that it needed a court order to get the psychiatric records because of their confidentiality. The trial court decided that the proper course was to order that the records be produced to the court for review to determine their relevance and whether they should be released to counsel. The court then ordered the Eastern Pennsylvania ‘Psychiatric Institute (EPPI) to produce in court its records related to LP. EPPI’s records, however, were hand delivered to defense counsel and counsel read them. These documents contained records from other institutions where LP. was treated.

The court learned that defense counsel received EPPI’s records at a subsequent bearing. Counsel gave them to the court which reviewed them as originally intended for discoverable material While the court initially found no relevant documents, it undertook another review at the request of defense counsel who believed there were relevant documents based upon their review. The court then found relevant documents and gave them to both parties.

Based upon these records, Appellant moved to re-open the preliminary hearing to further question L.P. He also petitioned to obtain all of the medical records. The trial court realized at this time that defense counsel had digested all of the records and decided that the only way to proceed fairly was to give all of the records to both sides.

The Commonwealth did not review the records but consulted the Support Center for Child Advocates about L.P.’s rights. It then asked the court to appoint a child advocate to protect L.P. The court did an and the advocate maintained that L.P.’s records were absolutely privileged and suggested that the best recourse was to remove defense counsel. The Commonwealth agreed that the removal of defense counsel would protect L.P.’s rights and ensure that Appellant received a fair trial.