Changes to the Post-Conviction Relief Act Which Could Help You
The Pennsylvania Legislature recently enacted a number of important changes to Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The PCRA is a statute which provides some criminal defendants who have been convicted of a crime and who are still serving a sentence of probation or incarceration with a mechanism by which to challenge their convictions even after an unsuccessful direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court or Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The PCRA is a very technical statute, and there are a number of procedural bars which limit the type of relief which could potentially be available to a petitioner. The recent changes in the law attempt to relax some of the more unfair restrictions and allow a small number of additional petitioners to litigate a PCRA on the merits.
On October 27, 2018, Governor Wolf signed Senate Bill 915, now Act 146 of 2018, into law. Act 146 changed the Post-Conviction Relief Act in three important ways which serve to make it more fair:
First, the law extends the deadline for filing a Petition based on newly discovered evidence to one year following the discovery of the evidence. Under the previous statute, petitioners had sixty days from the day on which they uncovered new evidence to file a PCRA challenging a conviction. Many PCRA petitioners are incarcerated in state prisons, and so filing a Petition within sixty days is difficult if not impossible for many petitioners. The new statute provides for one year in which to file a PCRA Petition after discovering new evidence, thereby ensuring that petitioners who uncover evidence after their trial which could have changed the result had it been admitted into evidence at the time will have a more reasonable period in which to file a petition.
Second, the law provides that petitioners who file petitions based on new DNA testing no longer need to be on probation or in prison at the time that the petition is filed and/or decided. Previously, the PCRA required that a petitioner be serving a sentence of probation or incarceration not only when he or she filed the petition but also when the petition was ruled on by the court. This new change eliminates that requirement for petitioners who file a PCRA based on new DNA evidence. Unfortunately, it does not make the same change for petitioners who file a PCRA that is not based on DNA testing.
Third, the changes in the law allow for DNA testing in some cases even where the defendant pleaded guilty at the time of the original criminal trial. Previously, a defendant who pleaded guilty could not later seek DNA testing even if that DNA testing would exonerate them. The new changes in the law eliminate this bar to seeking DNA testing in the hopes of overturning a wrongful conviction. This is a common sense reform which reflects the unfortunate reality that many innocent people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid the risk of a longer sentence of incarceration.
Although the PCRA still contains a number of procedural bars that prevent innocent defendants and defendants who received ineffective legal assistance from challenging their convictions, these changes in the law eliminate some of the most egregious and unfair problems with the statute.
Background on Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act
Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act allows petitioners to challenge a conviction or seek DNA testing of evidence for a limited number of reasons. Generally, PCRAs take place at the conclusion of a direct appeal if the direct appeal has been unsuccessful. The most common reasons for filing a PCRA include retroactive changes in constitutional law, the ineffective assistance of counsel at trial or in deciding to plead guilty, and the discovery of new evidence which would have changed the outcome at trial or the decision to enter into a plea deal. The PCRA is a complicated statute which still contains a number of procedural bars to successfully litigating a petition, so it is important that you speak with an experienced criminal appeals attorney if you are considering filing a PCRA petition. Importantly, the analysis in this article is general and may not apply in your situation. There are strict deadlines for filing a petition, so it is always important that you speak with an attorney right away.
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