Today a Magisterial District Judge held all charges for trial against Bill Cosby on the strength of nothing more than hearsay testimony. The victim did not even have to show up to Court.
Last year, in the case of Commonwealth v. Ricker, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that a prima facie case may be proven by the Commonwealth through hearsay evidence alone. In doing so, the Court relied in large part on Rule 542(E) of the Rules of Criminal Procedure which states, in relevant part, that “[h]earsay evidence shall be sufficient to establish any element of an offense.” Using this, the Court held that “[i]f hearsay evidence is sufficient to establish one or more elements of the crime, it follows that, under the rule, it is sufficient to meet all of the elements. Accordingly [they found] that the rule does allow hearsay evidence alone to establish a prima facie case.”
The Court also explained that Rule 542(E) does not violate Pennsylvania precedent although several cases, such as Com. ex. rel. Buchanan v. Verbonitz, explain that fundamental due process requires that no adjudication be based solely on hearsay evidence. Instead, Verbonitz and another case, Com. v. Branch, explain that hearsay evidence can be admissible, but that the case cannot be based entirely on hearsay evidence.
The Official Comment to Rule 542(E) explains that the law was amended in 2013 to reiterate that courts have traditionally not applied the law of evidence in its full rigor to proceedings such as preliminary hearings, especially with regard to the use of hearsay to establish the elements of a prima facie case. Because of this, either oral or written hearsay may establish the elements of any offense, and the presence of witnesses is not required to establish these elements at a preliminary hearing. However, in a contradiction, the Official Comment also acknowledges that Verbonitz did not allow the court to rely on hearsay testimony as the sole basis for establishing a prima facie case.
While the Court in Ricker relied on Rule 543(E) in reaching its holding, the Defendant filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which was granted on April 18th, 2016. Thus, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Superior Court erred in holding that Ricker had no constitutional right to confront the witness against him at a preliminary hearing, and if the Superior Court erred by holding that a prima facie case can be established through hearsay evidence alone. Finally, regardless of the holding in Ricker, since no Due Process argument was raised in that case, future cases can still raise this same issue, so long as couched in the context of a Due Process argument, and Ricker will not be binding precedent.
What do you think about the Superior Court’s holding in Ricker? Let us know in the comment section below.