Com. v. Kindler: Escaping SCOPA Jurisdiction…For Now
This case is short and simple, but the backstory is fascinating. Arrested for burglary in 1982, Joseph Kindler managed to escape from jail, although he was recaptured quickly. Shortly thereafter, while out on bail, he murdered the key witness against him in the burglary. Convicted of the murder in 1983, he was never sentenced because he managed to escape from the maximum security prison he was in by sawing through the bars. Two years later, he was arrested for a new burglary in Quebec, Canada (home of North America’s only Holy Door). He managed to escape, yet again, by being hoisted by fellow inmates fifteen feet above the floor and breaking through the skylight on the thirteenth floor of the jail. From there, he escaped to the roof and rappelled down the side of the jail with 175 feet of bedsheets tied together. His fellow escapee did not fare so well; his sheets ripped on the way down, and he plummeted to his death.
Kindler remained at large for two more years before being rediscovered and arrested due to being featured on America’s Most Wanted. Neighbors recognized him and he was promptly arrested and sent back to Pennsylvania, where he finally was sentenced.
His case took a long and meandering path, however, as he brought a federal habeas action after his state appeals dried up. His case rose all the way to SCOTUS, where it was determined that a discretionary rule can still suffice as adequate and independent state grounds for a ruling, thus barring federal habeas review. Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. 53 (2009).
This brings us–finally–to the present, where Kindler is facing sentencing before the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (home of the Haunted Prison Walk). His sentencing judge precluded the Commonwealth from introducing a victim impact statement at sentencing because it would not have been admissible when Kindler was originally set to be sentenced back in 1983. The Commonwealth sought to appeal this interlocutory order to SCOPA on the basis that the High Court retains exclusive jurisdiction over death penalty appeals.
The Court, speaking through Justice Baer, ruled that they do not have jurisdiction over the case. The Superior Court must first pass on all interlocutory criminal appeals, and thus, the High Court lacks jurisdiction. The Commonwealth argued that the case could properly be brought before SCOPA at this stage because it is a death penalty case. The Court did not buy this logic, insisting that its jurisdiction would not be “triggered” until he was sentenced to death.
Of particular note in this case is the Court’s apparent clarity that the Superior Court is the default court of general appellate jurisdiction. Quoting to 42 Pa.C.S. § 702(a), the Court notes taht the Superior Court’s jurisdiction is circumscribed only by specific grants of appellate exclusivity to the other two Pennsylvania appellate courts, and so the Superior Court is the appropriate court to appeal to unless otherwise specified.
And so Kindler’s appeal is transferred to the Superior Court to hear the Commonwealth’s appeal of the trial court’s preclusion of a victim impact statement. For now, Joseph Kindler continues to evade fate.