PA Superior Court: Mental Health Issues Do Not Automatically Toll Deadline for Filing PCRA Petition

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Shaw, finding that bare assertions of mental health issues do not automatically toll the deadline for filing a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition. 

Do mental health issues justify a delay in filing a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition?

In Shaw, the defendant was convicted of third-degree murder and related charges. The trial court sentenced him to 36 to 72 years’ incarceration. The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which affirmed, and he also filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Supreme Court denied allowance of appeal. 

The defendant failed to file a timely PCRA Petition. Instead, he waited nearly seven years before filing a pro se Petition seeking a new trial. In most circumstances, PCRA Petitions must be filed within a year of the date on which the defendant’s sentence became final. When the defendant appeals to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the defendant has one year and three months from the date on which the Court denies the appeal to file a PCRA Petition. Because the defendant waited more than a year and three months to file, the trial court dismissed the Petition as untimely. 

The defendant appealed after the trial court dismissed the Petition as untimely. The defendant argued that he was mentally incapacitated throughout the period during which he could have filed a timely PCRA Petition. He claimed that he had presented extensive testimony at trial relating to his mental health problems and that his mental disorders affected his capacity to initiate and participate in PCRA litigation. He claimed that he suffered from a diagnosed psychotic disorder and paranoia, and that he had previously been committed to Norristown State Hospital prior to trial. He therefore argued that the Court should have held an evidentiary hearing on whether he was completely mentally incompetent during the one year and three-month period for filing a timely PCRA such that the delay should be excused.  

What are the exceptions to the PCRA’s deadlines?

The Superior Court rejected the defendant’s arguments. The Court noted that there are three statutory exceptions to the one-year deadline for filing a PCRA. In order to qualify for an exception, a petitioner must show: 

(i) the failure to raise a claim previously was the result of interference by government officials with the presentation of the claim in violation of the Constitution or laws of this Commonwealth or the Constitution or laws of the United States; 

(ii) the facts upon which the claim is predicated were unknown to the petitioner and could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence; or 

(iii) the right asserted is a constitutional right that was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States or the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania after the time period provided in this section and has been held by that court to apply retroactively. 

Further, under current law, a petitioner asserting a timeliness exception must file the petition within sixty days of when the claim could first have been presented.

The Superior Court’s Decision

In general, broad claims of mental illness do not satisfy an exception to the PCRA time-bar. However, in Commonwealth v. Cruz, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that although the PCRA does not include an exception for mental incapacity, there are some circumstances in which a PCRA Petitioner’s mental incompetence may qualify under the statutory newly-discovered fact exception. The general rule, however, remains that mental illness or psychological condition, without more, is not enough to get around the time bar.

Therefore, the Court rejected the PCRA Petition. It agreed with the trial court that unlike the defendant in Cruz, who had been effectively lobotomized, the defendant here had shown nothing more than a history of mental illness and a learning disability. This did not rise to the same level as the issues in Cruz, and therefore, the petition was properly dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. If the defendant had shown that his mental health problems got worse while in custody, then he may have been entitled to relief, but he was unable to do that.

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