If you or a loved one have been wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to a period of imprisonment or parole, keep reading. You may still be able to get a new trial to fix the errors that led to the wrongful conviction.
In the American criminal justice system, there are a few main ways to challenge a conviction. One is the appeals process, which asks a higher court to review a given case; in some situations, it may also be appropriate for a defendant to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. A third possible method is to use the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA).
The PCRA only applies to defendants whose cases meet several criteria. An experienced PCRA lawyer can help you determine if you are eligible for legal relief under this Act.
Be aware that PCRAs are state laws, not federal ones; while all 50 U.S. states currently have some form of post-conviction relief, the specifics can vary widely from state to state. This article focuses on Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act.
It is important to note that there are strict time limits in which a defendant may file a PCRA petition. If you believe your conviction should be challenged, call the skilled criminal justice attorneys at Kenny, Burns & McGill today! You can also contact us here.
Pennsylvania’s PCRA establishes a procedure for a defendant to challenge their conviction or sentence in certain circumstances. The Act focuses on a narrow set of situations, and so it does not apply to all defendants.
The PCRA focuses on cases where people were convicted due to failures in the judicial system. It is not enough to claim or show that errors were simply made in the original trial; the defendant must prove that the error affected the case so deeply that it fundamentally undermined the truth-determining process.
If a convicted defendant is eligible to use the Act and successfully argues their case, they can be provided with legal relief.
In the legal world, there are many specific types of relief, which can also be known as legal remedies. Essentially, being given relief means that a court uses its powers to give compensation for the harm inflicted on an individual through a wrongful act.
In the context of the PCRA, the wrongful act would be a court delivering a wrongful conviction, so the compensation (or “relief”) after a successful PCRA petition is often a new, fair trial, where hopefully the errors that led to the initial wrongful conviction will not reoccur.
Ordering a new trial is a common outcome of PCRA petitions, but depending on the situation, it is also possible for the judge to vacate a sentence, overturn a conviction, or even dismiss the case outright.
In the text of the PCRA, there is a specific list of the situations that would allow someone to get relief under the Act. The most common of these is “ineffective assistance of counsel,” which basically means the defendant believes that they were convicted only because their lawyer did a bad job; this is discussed in detail below.
The complete list of applicable situations that would allow a defendant to use the PCRA is as follows:
In order to use the PCRA to get relief after a conviction, it must be proven that the case meets ALL FOUR of the following criteria:
Importantly, the level of proof required for a successful PCRA petition is lower than the proof required in other legal situations. While criminal convictions require the burden of proof to be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” or as certain as possible, PCRA petitions must only be proved “by a preponderance of the evidence.” This means that the defense simply has to show that it is more likely than not that the stated facts are true.
Winning post-conviction relief by showing ineffectiveness of counsel can be very difficult. Many judges are unlikely to say that an attorney made a case-changing mistake unless there is rock-solid evidence. If you believe you are going to need to file an appeal or a PCRA petition based on ineffectiveness of counsel, it is important to properly document your attorney’s actions and inactions in detail.
Three conditions must be met to have the best chance of proving ineffective assistance of counsel:
PCRA petitions are generally filed with trial courts; in Pennsylvania, this is the Court of Common Pleas. The petition is typically assigned to the same judge who presided over the original plea proceedings and/or trial.
This is important! There is a time limit when filing PCRA petitions – if a petition is not filed in a timely manner it will be dismissed outright, with only a few exceptions.
The defendant must file a PCRA petition within one year of the day the judgment of their sentence becomes final. This means that if the defendant chooses not to appeal, they have one year from the day they were sentenced to file a petition.
If the defendant does decide to appeal, and does not receive favorable results, they have one year to file a PCRA petition from the day of that final appellate verdict.
There are three circumstances that are considered exceptions to the rule that petitions must be filed within a year. The first situation is if a defendant could not file a petition due to interference from a government official, they will be allowed an extension. The second is that if new and exculpatory evidence is uncovered, the defendant may file a petition after the year is up. The final exception is somewhat rare – if a newly-recognized federal or state constitutional right applies to the defendant, and if the right is being applied retroactively, the defendant may file a petition for relief.
In Pennsylvania, once a PCRA petition is filed, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has 30 days to respond. The Commonwealth will often file a motion to dismiss the petition, in which case the defense must then submit a legal brief requesting the denial of the motion to dismiss.
Once the defense and the plaintiffs have filed their documents, the presiding judge has a decision to make; either decide the case based on those documents, or hold a hearing.
It is possible that the judge may decide to give the defendant relief based on just the initial petition and briefs. This is rare.
If the judge chooses to dismiss the petition at this point, the defense is notified and given another 20 days to file further legal briefs to persuade the judge that the defendant should receive relief. If the petition is dismissed anyway, the defendant may have 30 days to file an appeal, depending on the specifics of the case.
Finally, the judge may decide to hold a PCRA hearing. These hearings are a little like a smaller trial without a jury, so the defense will gather and present its evidence and witnesses.
A great outcome from this hearing is a new trial for the defendant, where hopefully the errors that led to their wrongful conviction will not be repeated.
There are many procedural differences between these two legal actions, but the most immediate difference between PCRA petitions and appeals is the deadlines; while a defendant has a whole year to file a PCRA petition after the date of their sentencing, a defendant that wants to appeal their conviction has only 30 days.
Another difference is that while a direct appeal relitigates the original trial, only allowing evidence that was submitted previously, PCRA petitions allow for the admission of new evidence. Appeals and PCRA petitions are very similar in the types of issues they can bring up, but allowing new evidence could make a huge difference depending on the case.
Additionally, the forms of relief generally offered by these two processes are not quite the same. Successful petitioners frequently get a new, fair trial, and while defendants that appeal successfully may also get a fair retrial, appeals are more likely than petitions to end in a vacated sentence or a dismissed case.
Currently, all 50 states in the Union have some form of post-conviction remedy. Some states call them Post Conviction Relief statutes, using the acronym PCR rather than PCRA. However, the PCR statutes in certain states are so narrow that some courts consider only 42 states to have a functional post-conviction relief process.
The Supreme Court of Ohio recently conducted a 50-state survey of PCR mechanisms, noting broad patterns and briefly describing the individual acts and statutes in each state. This survey can be found here.
Petitioning for post-conviction relief can be a long and tricky process, and there is very little room for error. Simple mistakes like misfiling a document or missing a deadline can mean that a person is locked out of challenging their conviction through the PCRA for good.
If you or a loved one are navigating the complicated and often-frustrating world of legal appeals or post-conviction relief, it’s a good idea to find a knowledgeable guide. The highly trained appeal lawyers and PCRA lawyers at Kenny, Burns & McGill have decades of experience, and will be able to explain your best options. Give us a call today! (215) 423-5500
To read the legal text of Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act, click here.