Pennsylvania Superior Court Clarifies Witness Intimidation

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ August 21, 2013

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania issued its decision on Commonwealth v. Lynch, where it analyzed what exactly constitutes witness intimidation. The Court ruled that if an appellant offers the victim promises of a “better life” for her and her children in exchange for the victim not testifying and dropping charges, then he has committed the crime of witness intimidation, graded as a felony.

The case began in 2009 when appellant Calvin Lynch beat his girlfriend with a baseball bat and choked her, for which he was arrested. A few days later, Lynch called his girlfriend from prison, begging her to drop the charges and to not testify. He promised that, in exchange for her doing so, he would provide for a better life for her and their children. Because of this, he was charged with witness intimidation. Under the witness intimidation statute, the crime is graded as a felony if “the actor offers any pecuniary or other benefit to the witness or victim”.

At trial, Lynch was found guilty of the felony version of this offense. Lynch appealed, arguing that he did not intimidate the victim, and even if he did, he did not do so with an offer of pecuniary benefit. Because he did not make any verbal or physical threats, Lynch contends that he did not intimidate the victim as required by the statute.

The Superior Court found his argument unconvincing. The Court relied heavily on Commonwealth v. Brachbill (1989), which squarely addresses the issue presented in Lynch. Brachbill held that “a violation of the witness intimidation statute is made upon any offers of benefit with the intent to obstruct, impede, impair, prevent or interfere with the administration of criminal justice.” Following this precedent, the Court had to answer two questions: 1) Did Lynch offer anything to the victim, and 2) Was the offer made to compel her to drop charges or not testify? The Court found that the answer to both of these questions was “Yes”, and affirmed the judgment of sentence of the lower court.

Judge Bender wrote a fervent dissent, disagreeing with both the role that the majority took on and its conclusion. He asserts, “the Majority only [reached] its conclusion by sitting as fact-finder, a role we are not permitted to undertake.” Bender also believes that the majority’s decision “expands the scope of Pennsylvania’s witness intimidation statute well beyond any interpretation previously applied to it by the courts of this Commonwealth.” He asserts that the decision “criminalizes efforts at atonement”, maintaining that Lynch was merely attempting to reconcile, not intimidate the victim.

What do you think? Was Lynch attempting to reconcile or was he intimidating the victim? Let us know in the comments.

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