Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules That Spouse’s Testimony of Defendant’s Conduct is not Protected by the Spousal-Communication Privilege

by | Dec 19, 2013

The following story was originally published in the December 2013 edition of Upon Further Review, a publication of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Re-printed here with permission of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules Spouse’s Testimony of Defendant’s Conduct is Not Privileged Spousal Communication

Brad V. Shuttleworth, Esq. on 12/17/2013

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently handed down the opinion in Commonwealth v. Mattison, A.3d __ (Pa. 2013), 2013 WL 6124318, holding, in part, that a spouse´s testimony of a defendant´s conduct does not fall within the spousal-communication privilege embodied  in 42 Pa.C.S. § 5914.  The opinion was authored by Mr. Justice Baer. To read Mattison, download a PDF copy here.

The facts in Mattison are straight forward.  The defendant, Kevin Edward Mattison, was convicted in the York County Court of Common Pleas of first-degree murder, robbery and burglary, and he was aggregately sentenced to death, plus a consecutive sentence of 30 – 60 years imprisonment.  He appealed from judgment of sentence.  The evidence at trial was that he drove two women to the victim´s home, one of which was the victim´s girlfriend, so that the girlfriend could try to catch the victim in the act of cheating.  Mattison´s wife and young child were in the car for the ride.  Once there, Mattison helped the two women gain entry into the victim´s apartment to confront him.  During the chaos, Mattison, aware that the victim was a drug dealer, found it to be an opportune time to rob the victim of drugs.  He entered the apartment with his gun drawn, pointed it at the victim, and ordered him and others to the floor.  Mattison repeatedly asked the victim where the drugs were located, and the victim ultimately pointed to where it was.  After obtaining the drugs, Mattison walked to the door to exit the apartment, turned around and fired a single fatal shot into the victim´s head as he was lying defenseless on the floor.  Mattison fled the apartment, returned to his car, where the two women he drove there were then located, along with his wife and child.

Mattison´s appeal was on several grounds.  The one germane to this writing was his challenge to the Commonwealth´s presentation of his wife´s testimony based on the spousal-communication privilege of 42 Pa.C.S. § 5914.  She testified about how Mattison took the women to the victim´s apartment, and that she stayed in the car with the child during the entire incident.  She further testified that when Mattison returned to the car after the incident, he was carrying a Timberland shoe box that he previously did not possess (which presumably contained the items stolen).  In addition, she testified that Mattison left their home later that evening wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and returned wearing a different sweatshirt.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected Mattison´s claim that the trial court erred in permitting the aforementioned testimony of his wife, as it was not a privileged marital communication under 42 Pa.C.S. § 5914.  Specifically, it reads: “Except as otherwise provided in this subchapter, in a criminal proceeding neither husband nor wife shall be competent or permitted to testify to confidential communications made by one to the other, unless this privilege is waived upon the trial.”  The court noted the common-law roots of the spousal-communications privilege, and that it “is based upon considerations of public policy, as in the case of husband and wife to preserve the peace, harmony and confidence in their relations,” that the communication must have been made in confidence, and that the communication must have been made during the marital relationship.  In this case, the evidence to which Mattison objected was not a communication, but rather observations of conduct, and that conduct did not convey any confidential message or meaning that could be construed as a communication. 

After rejecting Mattison´s other claims, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed judgment of sentence.

Thanks for reading this post. If you enjoyed reading this article, check out this post on a case that fought to overturn a conviction.

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