What Is the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)?
The Post-Conviction Relief Act is a state law that gives a person convicted of a crime a limited right to challenge the conviction or the legality of the sentence. A defendant who loses in the Superior Court, or in the Supreme Court (if the case gets that far), might still have a remedy available for challenging the conviction or the sentence. Essentially, the PCRA is an indirect method of appeal in criminal cases.
Eligibility to file a petition in the Court of Common Pleas under the PCRA is limited only to those individuals convicted under a violation of Pennsylvania criminal law and who are either:
- In prison, on probation or on parole in connection with that crime
- Imprisoned and awaiting execution of a death sentence
- Completing a prison sentence on another charge before the most recent prison sentence begins
Issues that the court may entertain under the PCRA are extremely limited. The grounds for granting relief include:
1. There was a constitutional violation during the legal proceedings
If there was a violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the U.S. Constitution, or the law, that undermined the process so that no reliable adjudication of truth could have taken place, this can be major ground for the PCRA. This is also referred to as “Due Process“, which is the legal requirement that the state must respect all legal rights that are owed to a person. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution prohibit the government from taking a person’s “life, liberty or property without due process of law,”. If it can be proven that due process was violated, the defendant will likely be able to challenge the conviction or the legality of the sentence provided during the trial.
2. The attorney for the defendant was ineffective in providing a proper defense
Every defendant has a constitutional right to competent legal counsel and defense, or “The Right to Adequate Representation”. Eligibility for PCRA emerges when one can prove that a counsel’s act or omission “so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place.” The defendant must be able to prove that there is arguable merit to a claim of incompetence, and the legal counsel did not have a reasonable basis for a specific act or omission. Any claim of act or omission must have caused a detrimental effect on the legal proceedings. Examples of incompetence with legal counsel may include: failure to present and disclose evidence, failure to cross-examine, failure to object, failure to file pre-trial motions, failure to consult the defendant of legal decisions, failure to present supporting witnesses, failure to file appeals on time, overall failure to investigate a case, etc.
3. An admission of guilt was obtained under circumstances indicating that it was unlawfully induced from an innocent person
For a court to grant relief to a defendant post-conviction due to an unlawfully induced admission of guilt, the defendant must show that the guilty plea was induced as the result of the counsel’s ineffective assistance. There must be a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the counsel’s ineffective assistance which would cause a false confession. False confessions have been proven to occur on a regular basis in case law, and are usually induced through coercion or by the incompetence of the accused.
4. Improper conduct by government officials obstructing the defendant’s rights to appeal
This issue arises when a motion for appeal was present and capable of being appealed but was unlawfully obstructed or denied by government officials. Not only can prosecutorial misconduct lead to reversals of convictions, but it can also subject the prosecutor to disciplinary action by the state bar authority. Prosecutorial misconduct can include but is not limited to:
- Discovery violations
- Improper and unlawful contact with witnesses, defendants, judges or jurors
- Prosecuting a case that is not supported by probable cause
- Threatening or harassing defendants, witnesses, or defendants’ lawyers
- Utilizing evidence for a conviction that can be deemed as improper, false, or misleading
- Displaying a lack of diligence, competence, or thoroughness in the prosecution
- Making improper and unlawful public statements about pending criminal matters
5. The judge imposed a sentence that exceeds the maximum allowed by law
A defendant is protected by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution against the federal government imposing excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishments to criminal defendants who have been convicted of a crime. This includes sentences that are disproportionate to the crime. These sentences are likely to be challenged and overturned during an appeals process and are grounds for eligibility of the PCRA.
6. The court hearing the original case lacked jurisdiction
Subject matter jurisdiction is a matter of law that establishes certain courts are given the authority to hear certain matters. There are many sections that courts are divided into, such as family law, criminal law, civil law, etc. If a court heard a case that was not in compliance with subject matter jurisdiction, it is grounds for appealing a conviction sentence through the PCRA. Simply put, the same way a federal tax court would not have jurisdiction over a case dealing with state taxes, a court that lacked jurisdiction over a criminal case would lead to a sentence being overturned.
7. Newly discovered evidence that would have resulted in a different outcome at trial
After-discovered evidence must have been unavailable at the time of the trial through reasonable diligence and must compel an alternate verdict, usually in favor of the defendant. A losing party may assert after-discovered evidence as grounds for a court to reconsider a motion or order a new trial. If newly discovered evidence arises, such as an eyewitness, new DNA tests, or recantation testimony, it may also very well be grounds for the PCRA appeals process.
There are time limits imposed by law for filing a request for relief under the PCRA and other technical requirements that should be discussed with an appellate attorney. Keep in mind that a PCRA is, for many defendants, their last hope of challenging a criminal conviction or an excessive sentence.