PA Post Conviction Relief Act Petition – How to Prove Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

After being convicted of a crime (murder, attempted murder, gun charges, etc.) at trial in Philadelphia, a defendant may file a Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition to appeal their conviction.

However, there are limited grounds for appeal pursuant to 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9541 et. seq.   Some of those grounds include:

  • ineffective assistance of counsel
  • prosecutorial misconduct
  • unlawful guilty plea
  • newly discovered evidence
  • an illegal sentence

RelatedPennsylvania PCRA Law: The Basics of Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act

One of the most common grounds for filing PCRA petitions is ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC).

When defendants want to file PCRA petitions alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, their lawyers are presumed to be effective. Therefore, defendants have the burden to prove that their lawyers were ineffective.

In order to prove ineffective assistance of counsel, defendants must meet a three-prong test:

1. the claim of ineffectiveness of counsel has arguable merit;

2. defense counsel’s act was not reasonably designed to advance the interest of the defendant; and

3. the defendant was prejudiced by the defense counsel’s actions, i.e., but for his counsel’s actions, the result of the trial would have been different.


A defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim has arguable merit if his lawyer’s act or failure to act conflicts with a statute, constitution or rule of procedure.

An IAC claim may also have arguable merit if defense counsel ignored available and admissible evidence tending to establish a viable defense. For instance, if there was admissible evidence that would have established a defendant’s innocence but the defendant’s lawyer ignored the evidence, then a defendant’s IAC claim has arguable merit.


The second prong the defendant has to prove is that his lawyer’s decision was unreasonable. The fact that a lawyer’s strategy to present a case was unsuccessful does not render his representation ineffective. However, the decision for a specific strategy should be explained to the defendant. The defendant should know how his lawyer will defend his case. It is unreasonable if the act in question was not explained to his client.

Further, a lawyer’s action is also unreasonable if no competent lawyer would have chosen to do it.


Prejudice is established where a petitioner/defendant demonstrates that but for the errors and omissions of counsel, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the proceedings would have been different. In other words, the lawyer’s act or omission had an adverse effect on the outcome of the proceeding.


Nenner Law Firm handles PCRA petitions and appeals. Firm founder David S. Nenner has nearly 3 decades of criminal trial experience. Call (215) 515-0042 for a free consultation.

Related Posts
  • Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) Petition – Ineffective Assistance of Counsel (IAC) During Plea Bargaining Read More
  • PCRA Petitions in Philadelphia Criminal Cases Read More
  • Philadelphia Criminal Post-trial & Appellate Procedures – What to Know if You Lost at Trial (Part 2) Read More