Commonwealth v. Dixon

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a relatively short (14 pgs.) but dense opinion analyzing the propriety of a jury instruction for intimidation of a witness. At the defendant’s trial, the Commonwealth sought a conviction of the first-degree felony version of the offense. The trial court said to the jury, “I instruct you that the crime is a felony of the first degree.” The defendant argued the court impermissibly relieved the Commonwealth of its burden to prove that he was guilty of a first-degree felony pursuant to paragraph 4952(b)(2) of the statute. The issue was complicated because the Commonwealth charged the defendant with intimidating a witness on someone else’s case. Thus, the Commonwealth had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it charged a first-degree felony or murder in the first or second degree in that other case. But the jury did not make a specific finding about that other case. The Supreme Court ruled that the judge’s instruction was erroneous. However, the Court concluded that the jury found the defendant’s conduct encompassed one or more aggravating factors in paragraph 4952(b)(1). This is because, before stating that the crime is a felony of the first degree, the trial court told the jury that, to return a guilty verdict, it would have to find one of the (b)(1) aggravators. Therefore, “the verdict, when purged of the taint stemming from the erroneous instruction, established guilt on the witness-intimidation charge at the third-degree felony level.”

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