The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to review an appellate court ruling that overturned the convictions of three men accused of sexually assaulting a West Chester University student nearly three years ago.
In a decision issued a week ago, the high court granted an appeal by the Chester County District Attorney's Office of a Superior Court ruling that surprised the legal community when it was handed down in May 201l.
At that time, Chester County District Attorney Joseph W. Carroll called the decision "the worst legal reasoning I have ever seen in an appellate court opinion."
A three-judge panel took the unusual step of concluding that the evidence in the case did not support the convictions of Jason S. Claybrook, 22, of Willow Grove, and Rashid Lewis, 23, and Jamel K. Clay, 22, both of Philadelphia. Typically, appeals courts focus on points of law.
Deputy District Attorney Nicholas J. Casenta Jr. said today that the District Attorney's Office was pleased that the high court decided to hear the case.
"We look forward to arguing that the Superior Court should not have reversed Judge MacElree," he said.
After reviewing the court record, the Superior Court panel found it was "manifestly unreasonable" to assume that the alleged female victim, an 18-year-old freshman, had not given her consent to the men's sexual advances in her Sanderson Hall dorm room about 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 7, 2009. She is not being identified by The Inquirer because of the nature of the offenses.
The three co-defendants remain under court supervision and will likely have to return to prison and reapply for parole if the Supreme Court overturns the appellate ruling, Casenta said. The men had served more than the minimum of their two- to four-year sentences when they were released on bail in June.
If the Superior Court decision is affirmed, the defendants will be entitled to a new trial, but Casenta said it was premature to comment on whether another prosecution would be pursued.
Although judging credibility is considered the domain of a jury - or a judge in a nonjury trial - the law in Pennsylvania and many other states, permits appellate courts to overturn cases where a jury's decision appears to have convicted an innocent person. Defense attorneys have argued that is what happened in this case.
According to testimony at the October 2009 trial, the victim, who had met the men hours earlier through a dorm mate, agreed to let them stay in her room but did not consent to the sexual activity, which occurred for more than an hour.
A Chester County Court jury convicted the men of sexual and indecent assaults and false imprisonment. They were acquitted of rape. On appeal, the Superior Court panel took issue with Judge James P. MacElree's decision to deny a defense motion for a new trial after the verdict.
"Unlike Judge MacElree, when we assess the central question in this case . . . we find it manifestly unreasonable to view the evidence" and conclude that the woman did not consent, the panel said, ordering a new trial.
The ruling pointed out that "other than her contention that she initially said no to Lewis' attempt to kiss her, during an hour of sexual activity," she did not cry for help or try to escape. It also pointed out that she invited the men to stay in her room and that her "physical injuries were minor."
The victim "was being held down and raped by three, larger, male assailants" and unable "to talk or move," the District Attorney's Office contended in its Superior Court petition. It also questioned the fairness of second-guessing the jury, which had the benefit of seeing "the faces and demeanors" of witnesses.
Carroll said the panel concluded that "a sexual-assault victim is not to be believed unless her injuries are severe enough to meet some Stone Age standard of proof of resistance ... That's ridiculous."
In granting the District Attorney's appeal, the state Supreme Court said among the issues under review were whether the Superior Court usurped "the discretion of the trial court judge" and invaded "the province of the jury." Casenta said he did not know when argument would be scheduled.
Mark Rassman, who represents Clay, said the case has been a perplexing one.
"Right now it's a wait-and-see situation," he said today. "You never know what the Supreme Court is thinking."