Pennsylvania Not Required To Defend Corporal In Civil Case

In September 1970, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania police discovered the body of 13-year-old John Mitchell in a detached garage owned by the family of 14-year-old Stephen Crawford. It was determined that the cause of Mitchell’s death was blunt force trauma to his head.

Parked inside the garage and adjacent to Mitchell’s body was a Pontiac station wagon owned by the Crawford family. During the course of the investigation, police discovered what appeared to be blood spattered on the left rear door of the Pontiac. Police investigators processed this portion of the vehicle and were able to lift seven latent fingerprints and/or palm prints. Three partial palm prints matched impressions obtained from Crawford.

Corporal John Balshy of the Pennsylvania State Police was one of the investigators on the case. Janice Roadcap was a chemist and serologist employed by the State Police. Roadcap analyzed the palm prints taken from the Mitchell crime scene at the request of Balshy. When Crawford was eventually arrested for the murder, Balshy and Roadcap became key witnesses for the prosecution.

An important piece of evidence dealt with the presence of blood on the “ridges” of a palm print. Roadcap testified that there was blood exclusively on the ridges of the print, evidence that supported the conclusion that Crawford was at the scene at the time of the murder. On the other hand, the presence of blood in both the “ridges” and “valleys” could have supported the conclusion the blood was transferred onto the print in another fashion and Crawford’s print was not necessarily applied during the course of the murder.

Crawford was found guilty of homicide and sentenced to serve life in prison. An appeal resulted in the overturning of Crawford’s conviction, and he underwent a second trial. When that trial resulted in a murder conviction, Crawford again appealed, his conviction was again overturned, and he underwent a third trial. Once again, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2001, approximately 23 years after Crawford’s third conviction, some children randomly came across a briefcase placed for garbage collection out in front of the home of a former sergeant of the State Police. Inside the briefcase was evidence that strongly suggested that Balshy and Roadcap had conspired to alter notes so that potentially exculpatory evidence would be hidden. The evidence established that Roadcap initially found the presence of blood both on the “ridges” and “valleys” of the palm print.

Crawford promptly filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which resulted in a decision by the district attorney to discharge Crawford because of stale evidence, deceased witnesses, an unwillingness of the victim’s family to engage in a fourth trial, and general difficulties with the case. Crawford then sued the State, Balshy, and Roadcap, alleging a conspiracy to violate his constitutional rights.

Balshy requested that the State defend and indemnify him in the civil suit. When the Office of General Counsel of the State refused to do so, Balshy hired an attorney and sought reimbursement from the State for his attorney fees. In the meantime, Crawford’s federal court suit was settled, leaving on the table only the matter of Balshy’s request for attorney fee reimbursement.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court upheld the denial of the request for reimbursement. The argument centered on an exception to the Pennsylvania attorney fee reimbursement statute. Under the exception, an employer is not obligated to reimburse an employee for attorney fees if the lawsuit is based upon the employee’s “bad faith or malicious conduct, or conduct outside the scope of employment.”

The Court found that there was substantial evidence that both Balshy and Roadcap “acted in bad faith by providing false or misleading testimony in the three Crawford criminal trials as to the existence of blood particles in the valleys of the palm print found on the scene. Balshy’s actions rose to the level of bad faith because he suggested that Roadcap change her test results to reflect no blood in the valleys of the palm print. Both Balshy and Roadcap acted in bad faith by failing to notify the district attorney and the defense of the original findings concerning the presence of blood in the valleys of the palm print.”

Balshy v. Pennsylvania State Police, 2010 WL 424433 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2010).

This article appears in the May 2010 issue