*** SPOTLIGHT CASE is where The Solutionist analyzes a registered Club Member’s criminal case in an effort to bring clarity and public attention to that Club Member’s unlawfully obtained conviction or sentence. Please note that all cases featured in this option of our website are also featured in our Quarterly Newsletter Issues.***

Case: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania  vs.  Benjamin Aaron Wright (Defendant)

Docket #: CP-02-CR-0000629-1995 and CP-02-CR-0003083-1995

OTN#: C8599441 and C9090082

Defendant’s Trial Counsel: William Brennan   and   Lisa Middleman

Commonwealth Trial Counsel: Christopher Conrad (Assistant District Attorney)

Defendant’s Appellate Counsel: Robert E. Stewart, D. Scott Lautner, and Joseph Luvara

County of Jurisdiction: Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

Trial Judge: Jeffrey A. Manning




Summary Of The Case: On December 21, 1994, Defendant was arrested for crimes committed on December 20, 1994. On April 13, 1995, two (2) Criminal Informations were filed against the Defendant. The Criminal Information at CC No. 9500629 charged the Defendant with one improperly cited count of Criminal Homicide; while the Criminal Information at CC No. 9503083 charged the Defendant with improperly cited counts of Robbery (1 Count), Burglary (1 Count), Receiving Stolen Property (1 Count), VUFA (1 Count), and Aggravated Assault (4 Counts).

            On October 12, 1995, Defendant’s pre-trial counsel William Brennan of the Public Defendder's Office, filed a notice of insanity defense on the Defendant’s behalf.

            On January 5, 1996, Defendant’s pre-trial counsel, William Brennan filed a Motion To Bar The Death Penalty.  [*** This procedural fact is extremely bizarre because at this point, the Commonwealth had never formally filed the Pa.R.Crim.P. 352 Notice of Aggravating Circumstances which was needed to seek the Death Penalty in 1996. ***]

            On May 2, 1996, despite the fact that no Notice of Aggravating Circumstances had ever been filed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a CAPITAL murder trial commenced in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania – Criminal Division, and was presided over by Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.

            On May 6, 1996, after Judge Jeffrey A. Manning charged the jury specifically on first degree murder instructions (among numerous other offenses), the jury found the Defendant Guilty of 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2502(a). Murder in the first degree, 18 Pa.C.S. Section 3502. Burglary, 18 Pa.C.S. Section 3701. Robbery, and 2 counts of 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2702. Aggravated assault.

            Then, on May 7, 1996 a “Penalty Phase” hearing was conducted at the request of Judge Jeffery A. Manning, to determine whether the Defendant would be sentenced to the death penalty or life imprisonment. And even though no Notice of Aggravating Circumstances had ever been filed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against the Defendant, Judge Jeffrey A. Manning still allowed the jury to deliberate between aggravating and mitigating circumstances!!! After deliberations were complete, the jury chose a penalty of life imprisonment for the Defendant.

            On July 1, 1996, at Defendant’s Sentencing Hearing, judge Jeffrey A. Manning imposed the following sentence upon the Defendant: at CC No. 9500629, one (1) term of life imprisonment for First Degree Murder; and at CC No. 9503083, one (1) consecutive term of 10-20 years imprisonment for Robbery, one (1) consecutive term of 10-20 years imprisonment for Burglary, and two (2) consecutive terms of 10-20 years imprisonment for 2 counts of Aggravated Assault. Defendant’s aggregate sentence totaled: life imprisonment with a consecutive 40-80 years imprisonment.

            After the Defendant’s penalty phase hearing on May 7, 1996 and before the Defendant’s sentencing hearing was held on July 1, 1996, Defendant had informed his counsels, William Brennan and Lisa Middleman, through verbal and written communications, that the Defendant wanted them to appeal on his behalf. However, each time the Defendant made his request known, the attorneys scared the Defendant into believing he could receive the death penalty if he chose to file an appeal. As a result, both William Brennan and Lisa Middleman refused to file any post-sentence motions or a timely Notice of Appeal on Defendant’s behalf.

            On March 13, 1997, Defendant filed a Pro Se PCRA petition, seeking to have his Direct Appeal rights reinstated.

            On March 6, 2000, Defendant’s Direct Appeal rights were reinstated, after newly – appointed counsel, Robert E. Stewart, filed an amended PCRA petition on Defendant’s behalf.

            On November 14, 2001, the Pennsylvania Superior Court dismissed the Defendant’s Direct Appeal due to Robert E. Stewart’s failure to file a Direct Appeal brief.

            On June 24, 2002, Defendant filed another PCRA Petition seeking yet again to have his Direct Appeal rights reinstated.

            On June 9, 2003, The Defendant’s Direct Appeal rights were once again reinstated and attorney, D. Scott Lautner, was appointed to represent the Defendant.

            On July 27, 2004, Defendant’s Direct Appeal was denied by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

On April 3, 2006, Defendant contacted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court inquiring the status of his Petition For Allowance of Appeal, and on April 13, 2006, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court informed the Defendant that no such Petition For Allowance of Appeal had ever been filed on his behalf.

 On November 22, 2009, Defendant filed another Pro Se PCRA petition. Shortly thereafter, on October 1, 2010, Defendant’s PCRA petition was dismissed


LEGAL ANALYSIS: Upon concluding an in-depth analysis of this case, it is my finding that COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA vs. BENJAMIN AARON WRIGHT, CC Nos. 9500629 and 9503083, is a criminal case of incredibly unbelievable procedural history. I have literally studied hundreds of criminal cases, many of which were cases involving Criminal Homicide, however, I can honestly say that I have yet to review a case quite like this.

            The constitutional violations of the Defendant’s Due Process rights are numerous in amount, while the severe misapplications of the law are shocking to the senses. Any person with even a minimal about of education concerning the Laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, will come to realize that the Defendant’s conviction for First degree murder, at minimal, cannot stand under scrutiny of governing statutory provisions.

            First and foremost, let it be duly noted that between the dates of the Defendant’s arrest (December 21, 1994) and the commencement of the Defendant’s jury trial (May 2, 1996), the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania never actually filed a “Notice of Aggravating Circumstances” document, pursuant to Pa.R.Crim.P. 352. [ *** As of today, that rule has been renumbered as Pa.R.Crim.P. 802.***]     For those of you whom do not understand the importance and necessity of this document, the “Notice of Aggravating Circumstances” must be filed by the Commonwealth before the commencement of trial to give the Defendant due notice that the Commonwealth is seeking the death penalty. Without the filing of this document, the Commonwealth forfeits the right to seek the death penalty because the jury cannot deliberate any aggravating circumstances pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. Section 9711. [See: Com. v. Buck, 709 A.2d 892; 551 Pa. 184 (Pa. 1998).]

            However, despite the fact that the prosecutor in this case (Christopher Conrad) never filed the necessary “Notice of Aggravating Circumstances”, judge Jeffrey A. Manning still presided over a “Penalty Phase” hearing, in which he instructed jurors to deliberate aggravating factors that had never even been filed! It simply equated to the Defendant receiving a capital conviction and facing capital punishment (the death penalty), following a homicide trial that was non-capital in nature! There is also evidence that proves the Defendant’s pre-trial counsel, William Brennan, assisted the judge and the prosecutor with his unlawful scheme before the commencement of trial. Such evidence can be found within William Brennan’s pre-trial filing on the Defendant’s behalf, entitled “Notice of Insanity Defense”. Within such filing, William Brennan actually admits to the fact that the filing is being submitted “in anticipation of the Commonwealth filing a notice to seek the death penalty.” Furthermore, within William Brennan’s subsequent filing on the Defendant’s behalf, entitled “Motion To Bar The Death Penalty”, William Brennan never once made reference to any “Notice of Aggravating Circumstances” filed by the prosecutor, nor did William Brennan ever attach a photocopied Exhibit of such a document to stand as cause for the filing of the “Motion To Bar The Death Penalty”. Needless to say, all this evidence influenced to begin assisting the Defendant to complete a thorough search of the contents contained within the Defendant’s criminal case file. After we were repeatedly informed by the Clerk of the Department of Court Records of Allegheny County that no “Notice of Aggravating Circumstances” had ever been docketed into the Defendant’s criminal case file, we continued searching and investigating the Defendant’s case and what we discovered was utterly shocking…

            To be convicted of first Degree Murder in Pennsylvania, a person must be found Guilty of 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2502(a), which states: “A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the first degree when it is committed by an intentional killing.” Consequently, it is fair to surmise that a person must commit an intentional killing, and thus, be capable of developing such intent, in order to be Guilty of Pennsylvania’s legislative definition of First Degree Murder. However, after examining the “Penalty Phase” transcripts of Defendant’s case, it became quite clear that the Defendant, Benjamin Aaron Wright, is mentally incapable of developing the intent needed for a First Degree Murder conviction in Pennsylvania. Evidence of this fact is found within the Direct Examination of expert witness, Lawson Frederick Bernstein, a forensic psychiatrist. Such direct examination established in pertinent part: [Questioning by Defendant’s Counsel, Lisa Middleman.]


Q: Would you tell the jury your name, please, Doctor, and spell your last name for the court reporter.

A: My full name is Lawson Frederick Bernstein, Jr., B-E-R-N-S-T-E-I-N.

Q: And, Dr. Bernstein, what do you do for a living?

A: I am a forensic psychiatrist with an expertise in neurologic disease, primarily head injury.

Q: Let me go through that for the jury, perhaps, As a psychiatrist, you are a doctor, is that right?

A: Yes, I’m an M.D.

[The direct examination continues as Dr. Bernstein confirms his long and impressive history of medical schooling, certification, and other accomplishments associated with Hunter College, Cornell University, New York Hospital, American Board of Psychiatry, Harmarville Rehabilitation Center, Western Psych, Presbyterian Hospital, Allegheny County Jail, and SCI Pittsburgh. Then, the following line of questioning takes place…]

Q: Do you have a special area of interest in head trauma?

A: My area of interest is in the role of head trauma as it pertains to aggressive, violent, unpredictable behaviors. 


Q: Were you asked to consult in this particular case of Benjamin Wright?

A: Yes.

Q: And as a result of that, did you interview him back in October of 1995?

A: Yes, I did.

Q: … As a result of your interview with him, did you order any other testing?

A: Yes, I did.

Q: What testing was that?

A: I ordered a battery of neuropsychological tests be performed to assess his IQ and to assess certain brain functions which control planning and aggressive behaviors…

Q: And based on that data, did you make a diagnosis?

A: Yes…

Q: Doctor, can an individual fake results to a test?

A: Not these test…

Q: What is your opinion regarding the diagnosis to a reasonable degree of medical certainty?

A: My opinion is that Mr. Wright suffers from mental retardation based on the results of his IQ test and has a specific disorder effect, being the frontal lobes of his brain, that that particular area of his brain functions very, very poorly.

Q: Well, let me go through it in order then. Mental Retardation, what does being mentally retarded mean?

A: Mentally retarded means having IQ scores below a certain range indicative of the fact that compared to the general population, this person’s intelligence is below normal.

Q: Does it affect a person’s ability to understand?

A: Yes.

Q: Does it affect a person’s ability to communicate?

A: Yes.

Q: Does it affect a person’s ability to reason?

A: Yes.

Q: Does it affect a person’s ability to control his behavior?

A: Yes.

Q: Does it affect a person’s ability to understand cause and effect; in other words, this action causes this effect?

A: That is correct.

Q: Can you tell just by looking at someone if they are retarded?

A: No.

Q: Can you be retarded and look normal, look like everybody else?

A: Yes.

Q: Doctor, does being retarded mean you are just a little bit slow.


A: It’s a little more serious than that. That would be an incorrect assumption you can be a little bit slow and have a normal IQ


Q: So this would be a significant mental impairment in order to be diagnosed as mentally retarded?


A: Correct… Mr. Wright has a specific deficit in the ability of his frontal lobes, which is the area of the brain just behind your forehead to work appropriately. In fact, that area of his brain is fairly profoundly impaired. It doesn’t work right.


Q: What does that part of the brain not working right do to his ability to function?


A: Well, the frontal lobes are the primary area of the brain that involves the planning and thinking-out behaviors… the frontal lobes are involved in planning behaviors and impulse control as they pertain to aggressive acts… on a specific test that involves frontal lobe functioning, he functions at approximately the fifth percentile; meaning that 95 percent of the population has better frontal lobe function than he does…


Q: If a person with frontal lobe damage is confronted with a situation in which a decision is required or someone is out of self-control and a decision is required, what happens to them?


A: They lack the neurological ability to go through those series of reasoning events which will either make them decide not to do the activity or to do it. Basically there is no sensory mechanism. They have a thought. It results in an action. There is no reasoning process that takes place…


Q: Can you tell us where, perhaps, this frontal lobe damage could come from?


A: Well, probably from a variety of factors… He was the child of a mother who is mentally retarded. He was exposed to medications; namely, Dilantin and Phenobarbital, which are known to cause brain damage to children, to fetuses that are exposed to those medications when they are in the womb. He suffered two head injuries at the age of 11 months. He suffered a second significant head injury at the age of 11-years old…


[See: Penalty Phase, Trial Transcripts, pages 60-75.]

CONCLUSION:    After reading the above-provided transcript excerpts, it becomes quite obvious that the Defendant was mentally incapable of developing the necessary “intent” required to establish a First Degree Murder conviction pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2502(a). A substantial question that remains unanswered is: Why would the Defendant’s counsel wait to bring forth Dr. Bernstein at the “Penalty Phase” of the Defendant’s trial? Wouldn’t it make more sense to examine him before a conviction was reached? The record will actually show that the Defendant’s trial counsel had been aware of Dr. Bernstein’s examination of the Defendant since October 1995, (a full 7 months before Defendant’s trial started).

   is well aware of the fact that someone has died as a result of the criminal episode that occurred on December 20, 1994. As a result, sends the sincerest condolences to the victim’s family members and any of the surviving victims. However, must also assert the fact that, if the Defendant caused the killing, then the killing was not intentional in nature, and thus, not deserving of a First Degree Murder conviction.

            From the time of the Defendant’s arrest, all the way to the improper handling of Defendant’s third Direct Appeal, the criminal case of COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA vs. BENJAMIN AARON WRIGHT, CC Nos. 9500629 and 9503083, has been laden with blatant acts of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, Judicial Misconduct, Prosecutorial Misconduct, Due Process violations, violations of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, and violations of the Laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and simply put, this case represents the epitome of a miscarriage of justice. That is why it has been chosen to be a “SPOTLIGHT CASE".

            If you are a licensed attorney, an employee at an Innocence Institute, or just a genuinely concerned person who wishes to offer assistance of some kind concerning this case, please contact either of the following addresses:         -Or-        Benjamin Wright # DA 7008                         

 P.O. Box 98157                           SCI Graterford

 Pittsburgh, PA 15227                    P.O. Box 244

 (412) 253-5593                             Collegeville, PA 19426