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Friday, March 2, 2012

Commonwealth v. Burwell, 2012 Pa. Super. 55

Read the Full-Text of the Opinion.

Ronald Burwell appeals from his judgment of sentence imposed after a jury found him guilty of aggravated assault for twice striking the victim, a caretaker at the Erie County Amtrak station, in the face and wrist with an electric guitar.  The victim suffered a broken wrist and cracked eye socket; he required seven stitches as a result of the incident and suffered numbness on the left side of his face for two months following the assault. At the time of trial he was still suffering facial tenderness.

The Honorable Shad Connelly applied the deadly weapon enhancement and sentenced Burwell to a high-end standard-range sentence of 120-240 months’ imprisonment, with costs and restitution to the victim in the amount of $2,800 for lost wages.  Burwell filed a postsentence motion asking the court to reconsider/reduce his sentence. Burwell filed post-sentence motions which were denied on June 8, 2009, without a hearing or accompanying Rule 1925(a) opinion, by the trial court.

Burwell filed a notice of appeal, and trial counsel then filed a no-merit brief pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967).  Although the usual procedure in Pennsylvania is for the trial court to issue an opinion following receipt of a notice of appeal, it chose not to do so in this case.  The Superior Court took exception to this failure, and remanded the case for a trial court opinion.

Instead, the Public Defender petitioned the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for permission to withdraw from the matter without either merits briefing or a trial court opinion.  The Supreme Court denied the petition and the matter was remanded to the trial court, which issued a one-paragraph opinion.  The Superior Court found this insufficient, and remanded the matter for an additional opinion; the trial court then issued a second one-paragraph opinion adopting the previously filed no-merit brief.

In a published opinion, the Superior Court scolded the trial court for its failure:
Judge Connelly’s reliance, after our second remand, on the arguments set forth in counsel’s Anders brief suggests nothing less than an unacceptable shirking of his judicial obligations. The rules of appellate procedure do not direct trial courts to submit opinions simply as an exercise in expository writing. Rather, the trial court opinion is a necessary component of appellate review, providing the reviewing court with a reasoned basis for the lower court’s decisions and enabling it to engage in a thorough consideration of the issues raised by an appellant.
Ultimately, the Court found that two of the defendant's issues were not wholly frivolous, and—for a third time—remanded the matter for briefing.

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