In an unprecedented finding, a federal judge has cited the pornographic email scandal that engulfed the Pennsylvania Supreme Court among his reasons for granting a South Philadelphia woman a shot to challenge her double-murder conviction.
Lawyers for Donetta Hill - a crack-addicted prostitute who was found guilty in 1992 of the claw-hammer killings of two of her johns - made no mention of the so-called Porngate scandal in their filings before U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh.
But in granting Hill a hearing on her claim that detectives coerced her confession by subjecting her to racist and sexist taunts, the judge noted that two of the Supreme Court justices who rejected that argument in 2011 were themselves exchanging pornographic, sexist, and racially insensitive emails while Hill's case was before the court.
"The fact that two Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices recreationally viewed - on state computers and on state time - numerous depictions of graphic sexual violence with captions degrading African Americans and endorsing abuse of women is cause for grave concern given [Hill's] background and its potential relevance to her claims for relief," McHugh wrote in a footnote to his opinion released late last week.
Whether or not Hill succeeds in her appeal, legal experts say McHugh's opinion is significant for the extent to which it underlines the scandals that have plagued the state's judiciary over the last two years and the corrosive effect they have had on the public's confidence in the courts.
"On the one hand, I don't want to read too much into a footnote," said Maida Milone, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. "On the other, [McHugh] has really taken this opportunity to highlight those scandals and suggest there is potentially an impact - and he didn't have to do that."
Since former Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane exposed the small network of judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials trading pornographic and racially offensive material over state email servers two years ago, more than a half-dozen people have been forced from their jobs, including Supreme Court Justices Seamus McCaffery and J. Michael Eakin.
And lawyers across the state have seized upon the scandal to ask courts to reevaluate decisions ranging from criminal convictions to civil judgments and even death sentences.
They argue that the insensitive correspondence - much of which contains jokes about rape, photos mocking African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities, and insulting comments about gays, the obese, and the disabled - exposed hidden biases and an inappropriate chumminess between the judges and prosecutors who already wield great power over the state's court system.
McHugh's opinion is believed to be the first to directly cite those concerns in siding with a defendant.
Hill, who has spent the last 25 years in a state prison in Crawford County, appears at first glance to be an unlikely candidate for such a break.
A Philadelphia jury sentenced Hill to death in 1992 for fatally beating Nghia Quy Lu, 72, and Nairobi Dupont, 21, with the back end of a hammer after the men purportedly tried to shortchange her on her fees for sexual services. As guards led her from the courtroom after the verdict, she spit on the jury forewoman.
Though her sentence was scaled back on appeal to life without parole, Hill, now 50, is seeking a new trial, claiming she was wrongly convicted.
Not only did her lawyers not raise the Porngate scandal in their filings, the crux of McHugh's decision rests on unrelated issues specific to Hill's case.
Her lawyers - federal public defenders Ayanna Williams and Cristi Charpentier - did not return calls for comment this week.
But in legal briefs they have argued that Hill's trial lawyer failed to investigate her history of mental-illness impairment or her claims that her confession had been coerced.
As Hill describes it, homicide detective Thomas Augustine handcuffed her to a chair and verbally abused her with racist and sexist invective for hours until she agreed to confess.
In deciding last week to grant Hill a new hearing, McHugh noted that studies suggest that mentally disabled defendants are more likely to give false confessions and that Augustine, who is now retired, has come under scrutiny in recent years amid repeated allegations that he coerced or forged confessions and witness testimony in other cases.
Most recently, the former detective was accused of manufacturing sworn statements against Anthony Wright, a Philadelphia man who was exonerated this year after spending 25 years in prison for a 1991 rape and murder he did not commit.
Yet in his footnote, McHugh suggested that even if the state Supreme Court had considered Hill's arguments regarding Augustine, the pornographic email traffic of McCaffery and Eakin would have cast doubt on whether the justices could fairly consider her claims of racist and sexist treatment.
Hill, McHugh wrote, "is an admitted thief, addict and prostitute. She has, however, persistently denied that she is also a murderer. . . . There is sufficient cause for concern that she should at least be given the opportunity to be heard."