PA Criminal Appeals Law – The Basics of Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act Part 2

Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petitions are very common in Pennsylvania criminal cases. A PCRA petition is usually filed after a direct appeal and allows a petitioner to collaterally attack a conviction or sentence. However, as with filing a direct appeal, the procedure for filing a PCRA petition is very complex. For instance, time deadlines under the PCRA are very rigid with few exceptions.

Therefore, if you or a loved one was convicted of a crime in PA and would like to discuss the right to appeal or file a PCRA petition, you should contact a criminal lawyer immediately.

Click here for part 1 of this article which discusses who can file PCRA petitions and the time deadline and exceptions.


Section 9543(a)(2) of the Post Conviction Relief Act lists the specific grounds or issues which can be raised in a PCRA petition. The issues raised in a PCRA petition will vary from the issues raised in a direct appeal.

The most common issues raised in a PCRA petition include the following:

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Under the PCRA, individuals who received ineffective assistance of counsel “which, in the circumstances of the particular case, so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place,” may be entitled to relief.

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Prosecutorial Misconduct (i.e., a Brady violation)

Many petitioners want to know whether the prosecutor committed misconduct by hiding exculpatory evidence (Brady violation) or otherwise engaging in other questionable conduct. The truth is that most prosecutorial misconduct claims fail, unless there is concrete evidence which clearly proves the misconduct, and the evidence would have likely changed the outcome of the case.

An example of prosecutorial misconduct involves hiding evidence that the only eyewitness in a case recanted his or her testimony. So long as there is clear evidence that the prosecutor’s office withheld such information, a PCRA petition based on this issue would probably be successful.

Unlawful Guilty Plea

In most cases, it is very difficult to attack a guilty plea. So long as the plea was made knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily, it will be upheld. However, the PCRA allows a petitioner to attack guilty pleas induced under circumstances which show that the petitioner is actually innocent.

Newly Discovered Evidence

If exculpatory evidence is uncovered, a petitioner may obtain relief under the PCRA. However, the evidence cannot have been reasonably discoverable, and the evidence must have changed the outcome of the trial.

An Illegal Sentence (i.e., falls outside the maximum allowed under Pennsylvania law)

In addition, it is important to note that there are two additional factors which must be pled in the PCRA petition and ultimately proven: 1. the issues raised in the PCRA petition cannot have been previously litigated or otherwise waived; and 2. there cannot be a reasonable explanation for the failure to litigate the issue prior to or during trial, or on appeal.

Also, the standard of proof which applies to PCRA claims is the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This standard is a relatively low bar, compared to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. The preponderance of the evidence standard basically means that something is more likely true than not true. This standard is also called the 51% standard. The scales must tip ever so slightly in favor of the petitioner in order for a PCRA claim to be granted.


The criminal appeals lawyers at our firm specialize in handling PCRA petitions and appeals. When filing an appeal or a PCRA petition, it is important to have the case reviewed by a trial lawyer, someone with enough actual trial experience to be able to identify errors at trial and sentencing.

Our lawyers have over 40 years of combined trial experience.  Call (215) 515-0042 for a free consultation.

Disclaimer: This website does not create any attorney-client relationship or provide legal advice. Our lawyers provide legal advice only after accepting a case. It is imperative that any action taken is done on advice of counsel. Since each case is unique, discussion of prior outcomes and settlements in past cases is no guarantee of a similar outcome in current or future cases. Contacting our lawyers via the email contact form on this website does not create an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent through the contact form.

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