U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Convicted Rapist Gets Hearing on Bias Based on Old Email

A convicted rapist will get a hearing to see if his case was improperly transferred due to bias, a state appeals court said.

Tito Rivera was sentenced to 80 to 160 years in prison for robbing five men and raping a woman in 2008. But in Rivera v. Sci, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said he deserves another hearing.

The appeals panel said a trial judge erred by not allowing Rivera to present evidence of bias. According to reports, the rape victim's uncle requested the transfer to the sentencing judge.

Potential Conflict

Judge Donna Jo McDaniel presided over the trial. She was aware of a potential conflict at the time.

"I have spoken to both counsel and told them that the alleged victim in this case is a relative of George Matta, who was Clerk of Courts who I worked with," McDaniel said before trial commenced. "They both said they saw no conflict nor do I feel any prejudice."

After Rivera was convicted, however, a newspaper published a story about Matta sending an email to a court administrator to transfer the case. Matta said he sent the email because McDaniel handled rape cases and the assigned judge handled drunk-driving cases.

Rivera claimed Matta wanted a harsher judge. The trial court denied Rivera's request for a hearing on the issue, so he appealed.

No Due Process

Rivera -- found guilty of rape, burglary, indecent assault, six robberies and six counts of terrorist threats and two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse -- claimed his due process rights were violated. The Third Circuit sent the case back to the trial court for hearing on the issue.

"Because we will remand for a hearing, we will not now reach the question of whether Rivera's due process rights were in fact violated by Matta's e-mail about the judicial assignment," the panel said.

However, the judges noted that Rivera made a prima facie showing of "intolerable interference" by the victim's uncle which "could have caused" actual bias.

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