The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Peterson. In Peterson, the Court held that where a Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) Petitioner’s lawyer files the petition late, thereby resulting in the dismissal of the petition for failure to comply with the Act’s procedural requirements, the Petitioner may file a second PCRA Petition even outside of the one-year deadline for filing a PCRA. This is a great decision by the Court. It recognizes that a criminal defendant should not lose the ability to file a PCRA solely because a defense attorney, without telling the defendant, provided the ineffective assistance of counsel in failing to file a PCRA Petition on time.
The Facts of Peterson
In Peterson, the defendant pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in 1993 and received two consecutive life sentences. In 1995, the General Assembly enacted major amendments to Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, including an amendment which required that all petitions be filed within one year of the date the judgment of sentence becomes final. The amendments included three exceptions to the one-year deadline. The relevant exception in this case provides: “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.”
These amendments gave Peterson the right to file a PCRA by January 16, 1997. Peterson’s family retained a private attorney to file a PCRA. The attorney drafted the PCRA but filed it one day late on January 17, 1997. The petition alleged that Peterson was not competent to plead guilty and therefore his plea was not a knowing, intentional, and voluntary waiver of his constitutional rights because Peterson had suffered a gunshot wound to his head that damaged the frontal lobes of his brain.
The trial court scheduled an evidentiary hearing and gave defense counsel time to obtain an expert to provide an opinion on Peterson’s mental competency at the time of the guilty plea. The court scheduled a hearing on November 5, 1997. The hearing apparently never took place on that date, and the docket does not indicate the reason why did it did not take place. Nothing happened for nearly fifteen years.
In September 2012, Peterson wrote a letter to the clerk of courts asking about the status of his case. The PCRA court then rescheduled the evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, a doctor testified that Peterson suffered brain damage prior to his plea and that he would not have had the ability to comprehend his position as one accused of murder. The doctor further opined that Peterson would not have been able to cooperate with his criminal defense lawyer and participate in his own defense.
Although not relevant to the disposition of the appeal, It is important to note that PCRA litigation often requires the defense to present actual evidence or expert testimony. It is not enough merely to allege in a Petition that a defense attorney should have retained the services of an expert witness. Instead, the defense attorney generally must retain, identify, and usually provide a report for the expert witness prior to filing the PCRA Petition or the defendant will not be entitled to an evidentiary hearing.
The Commonwealth did not hire its own expert. Instead, it called Peterson’s trial attorney and probation officer to testify. They both testified that they interviewed Peterson prior to the plea and he understood what was going on. The PCRA Court found the trial attorney and probation officer more credible and denied the Petition.
The Superior Court Appeal
Peterson appealed the denial of the PCRA Petition to the Superior Court. The Superior Court, acting sua sponte (meaning on its own), recognized that the first PCRA Petition had been filed one day beyond the relevant deadline. Therefore, the Superior Court quashed the appeal without reaching the merits of whether the PCRA Court properly denied the petition.
Peterson then filed a second PCRA Petition, asking the trial court to reinstate his appellate rights nunc pro tunc due to the ineffective assistance of counsel provided by the attorney who filed the first petition late. The trial court granted that second petition. It ruled that Peterson did not know of the deadline, did not know that his attorney had missed the deadline, and that Peterson could not have known these facts until he received the Superior Court’s opinion dismissing the direct appeal. Therefore, the trial court reinstated his appellate rights under the previously-mentioned exception to the one-year deadline.
With his appellate rights reinstated, Peterson again appealed the denial of the petition to the Superior Court. The Commonwealth also appealed, arguing that the trial court should not have reinstated Peterson’s right to appeal. The Superior Court agreed with the Commonwealth and again dismissed the appeal. The Court found that Peterson’s lawyer had not abandoned him but had simply filed a petition late. The Court held that while the PCRA timeliness requirements sometimes require harsh outcomes, the PCRA confers no authority to fashion ad hoc equitable exceptions to the PCRA time-bar.
The Petition for Allowance of Appeal
Peterson filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal and ultimately reversed the decision of the Superior Court.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized that the complete abandonment of a petitioner by counsel has previously qualified petitioners for the after-discovered evidence time bar. At the same time, the failure of a PCRA lawyer to raise the best possible claims has traditionally not provided petitioners with a basis for filling subsequent petitions beyond the one-year deadline. Thus, the Court recognized that there is a difference between a complete deprivation of a petitioner’s rights, in which the petitioner cannot have any issues addressed at all, and an allegation that a PCRA lawyer should have raised certain claims instead of others.
The Court found that this case resulted in a complete deprivation of rights due to the obvious ineffective assistance of counsel in filing the petition late. Therefore, the Court found that Peterson qualified for the after-discovered evidence exception. Peterson was completely deprived of any consideration of his PCRA Petition. His lawyer’s ineffectiveness was a newly discovered fact, and Peterson did not know of this fact and could not have known of this fact through the exercise of due diligence. He filed his second PCRA Petition within sixty days after he learned that the petition had been filed late. Therefore, the Superior Court erred in dismissing the appeal, and Peterson will be entitled to have the appeal heard on the merits.
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