Admissibility of Video Evidence Showing Defendant in Prison Attire

Commonwealth v. Gallaway, 2021 WL 129718 (Pa. Super. 2021) (unreported), allocatur granted July 13, 2021, appeal docket 17 WAP 2021

Gallaway was arrested and charged with various crimes arising from his involvement in a robbery and murder at a motel. On the last day of trial, the Commonwealth sought to play a video of Gallaway during questioning by police, during which Gallaway was wearing prison attire. During the video-taped interview, Gallaway denied that he had family in the area, that he stayed at the motel, and that he rented a car around the time of the robbery and murder – statements, which were contradicted at trial.  Gallaway’s counsel objected to admission of the video as prejudicial because Gallaway was wearing a prison uniform. The trial court overruled the objection, stating: “This is not the only case where a defendant, a suspect is interviewed in their jail reds.” Slip op. at 5. The trial court offered to give the jury a cautionary instruction, which Gallaway’s counsel declined.  Gallaway was ultimately convicted by the jury for first degree murder, robbery, theft by unlawful taking, and tampering with physical evidence. Gallaway appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in permitting the video to be played for the jury because the video’s prejudicial effect on the jury greatly outweighed its probative value and should have been excluded under Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 403.

Superior Court acknowledged that in Commonwealth v. Keeler, 264 A.2d 407 (Pa. Super. 1970) (en banc), the court vacated a judgment of sentence because the defendant had been brought to jury selection wearing his prison uniform, reasoning that:

A defendant in prison garb gives the appearance of one whom the state regards as deserving to be so attired. It brands him as convicted in the state’s eyes. It insinuates that the defendant has been arrested not only on the charge being tried but also on other charges for which he is being incarcerated.

Slip op. at 8, quoting Keeler, 264 A.2d at 409. The Superior Court further recognized that the Supreme Court in Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 504–505 (1976) similarly observed that:

 “Courts have, with few exceptions, determined that an accused should not be compelled to go to trial in prison or jail clothing because of the possible impairment of the presumption so basic to the adversary system.” Id. at 504 (footnote omitted). Moreover, the prohibition of forcing a defendant to attend his trial in identifiable prison or jail clothing is based primarily upon the impact that the “constant reminder of the accused’s condition implicit in such distinctive, identifiable attire” might have upon the jury. Id. at 504–505.

Slip op. at 8-9. However, Superior Court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the video, reasoning that the probative value of the video far outweighed any prejudice to Gallaway because:

1) Appellant’s appearance in the video wearing prison grab was played on the last day of trial after the jury heard overwhelming evidence of Appellant’s guilt; 2) Appellant’s lies to the detectives during the video interview demonstrated a consciousness of guilt; and, 3) the jury could reasonably infer that Appellant was incarcerated at the time of the video in connection with the crimes committed on May 26, 2016[.]

Slip op. at 12.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider the following issue:

Whether the Superior Court’s holding that the probative value of video evidence displaying Mr. Gallaway in jail garb outweighed the prejudicial effect of that evidence and thus did not deprive Mr. Gallaway of a fair trial conflicted with its decision in Commonwealth v. Keeler, 264 A.2d 407 (Pa. Super. 1970) (en banc) and with the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501 (1976)?


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