The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has upheld the decision that Pennsylvania Innocence Project client Larry Trent Roberts is entitled to a new trial. Roberts was originally granted a retrial in his murder case on June 30, 2017. The prosecution appealed this decision, but on October 10, the Superior Court denied that appeal and agreed Roberts deserves a new trial.
Roberts was implicated in the murder of a man named Duwan Stern, who was shot in his car during a drug deal gone wrong, and convicted of the murder on November 14, 2007. A Post Conviction Relief Act petition was originally filed for Roberts in 2011 and denied by the trial court. However, in 2013, the Superior Court decided that there was a “genuine issue of material fact” regarding Roberts’ location during the crime. It sent the case back for a hearing about whether Roberts’ trial lawyer was ineffective for failing to present evidence about Roberts’ alibi to the jury. The petition was amended twice before a hearing was held in April of 2016, after which the trial court granted Roberts the new trial.
Roberts could not have murdered Stern, based on analysis of cell phone tower data reflecting the location of Roberts’ phone. The prosecution agreed, on the condition that Roberts was in possession of his cell phone that night– a point Roberts’ trial lawyer did not prove to the jury.
At the April 2016 hearing, the Project presented evidence– including testimony from Roberts, his friend Bernard Lyde, and his fiancee at the time of the crime Tyisha Williams– showing that he did in fact have his cell phone with him at all times on the day and night of Stern’s death. This testimony was corroborated by detailed cell phone call records and a receipt corroborating Williams’ testimony that she and Roberts went to Target together that night.
The hearing also exposed due process violations by the Commonwealth based on emails it did not disclose before trial. These emails indicated that its key eyewitness testified against Roberts in exchange for favorable treatment on criminal charges he was facing in the case, as well as showed the investigating detective’s doubts about Roberts’ guilt based on the cell phone data.
Finally, the only prosecution witness to claim Roberts had a motive for murdering Stern recanted his testimony. At the hearing, witness Layton Potter admitted he was seeking help with his own charges when he testified against Roberts and had no personal knowledge about the crime. This testimony was corroborated by the woman he was dating at the time of the trial.
After Roberts was granted a retrial on all of these grounds, the prosecution appealed.
The Superior Court later affirmed the trial court’s order last week, still finding Roberts’ trial lawyer ineffective for failing to present the alibi defense. Because it agreed with Roberts on this ground, it determined it did not need to reach the other issues. A concurring opinion clarified that trial counsel’s ineffectiveness may have been influenced by the prosecution’s non-disclosures, seeing as he did not have all available evidence.