Defendants who are convicted of murder, robbery, and other felonies may file a Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act petition to challenge their conviction or sentence.
Defendants must file a PCRA petition within 1 year of the date of the judgement becomes final. However, there are exceptions to this 1 year deadline, which are provided in Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (Act) Section 9545(b)(1). The exception this article will focus on is Section 9545(b)(1)(ii) which allows defendants to file a PCRA petition after the 1 year deadline if they can prove:
[t]hat the facts upon the claim is predicated were unknown to the petitioner and could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence[.]
In other words, if there is newly discovered evidence that could not have been reasonably discovered, which would have changed the outcome of a trial, a defendant may file a PCRA petition even if it is after 1 year of the date of the final judgement.
However, this exception is often mistakenly referred to as the “after-discovered evidence” exception as a recent Pennsylvania court pointed out in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Brown, Appellant (Feb. 6, 2015).
Background of the Case
In Brown, the defendant filed a PCRA petition based on the newly discovered evidence exception pursuant to Section 9545(b)(1)(ii) of the Act. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder of a victim, who died from 2 gun-shot wounds to his chest. At trial, defendant maintained that he did not shoot the victim in his chest and that there was another shooter. The only shots the defendant fired were at the victim’s feet, and it was in self-defense.
Prior to the shooting on another day, defendant claimed that the victim pulled out a gun on the defendant and attempted to rob him at a bar. On the day of the shooting, the defendant was on his way to a birthday party and saw the victim sitting on the steps outside a building. When defendant walked up to the victim, defendant alleged that the victim cursed at him, put his hands in his pants and reached into his mid-section area under his shirt. The defendant thought that the victim might have a gun and fired three shots toward the ground to scare the victim away. The defendant then heard other shots and ran away.
At trial, the victim’s friend testified that he was sitting with the victim on the day of the shooting. The friend/witness walked away because he thought the victim and defendant might fight, given the prior incident between them, but did not know the details of the incident. The friend testified that after he walked away, he heard gun shots. When he turned around, he saw the victim holding his chest trying to run.
In defendant’s PCRA petition, the defendant said that the victim’s friend failed to tell the “whole story” at trial. Since the trial, the friend came forward to elaborate on his testimony stating that on the day of the shooting, he heard the victim curse at the defendant and saw the victim reach into his waistband and stand up. He also did not see the defendant shoot the victim. He did not reveal this information before because he was married to the victim’s cousin, who had since passed away. Therefore, after her death, he felt he should come forward. The defendant alleged that the “new evidence” would have bolstered his claim of self-defense at trial.
The court said that the newly discovered evidence exception does not require the defendant to allege and prove a claim of “after-discovered” evidence. Rather, he has to prove the evidence was]:
- unknown to him, and
- could not have been obtained by the exercise of due diligence.
Once these 2 elements are established, the PCRA has jurisdiction over the claim and the defendant can present a substantive after-discovered evidence claim.
The court denied defendant’s PCRA petition because it failed to show that the court had jurisdiction.
The friend was on the steps with the victim on the day of shooting, and the defendant knew that he was on the steps. Thus, defendant would have reason to believe that the friend saw the victim put his hands in his waistband and heard the victim curse at the defendant. At trial, the witness was not cross-examined on whether he saw the victim reach into his waistband. Further, the fact that the friend was married to the victim’s cousin did not show why the defendant was unable to discover this information with exercise of due diligence. He made no attempts to contact the friend at any point after the trial to determine whether he had additional information, i.e., saw the victim reach in his waistband.
Thus, the court held that the defendant must first establish jurisdiction before the PCRA court can rule on the merits of the newly discovered evidence.
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