Below is a discussion of the key provisions of the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), Section 9543, Eligibility for relief. The information below does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice about your specific PCRA matter, please contact our office and ask for a free consultation. (215) 564-0644
PCRA – Standard of Proof
Section 9543(a) lays out the standard of proof the petitioner must meet when filing a PCRA petition. Under section (a), that standard is the preponderance of the evidence standard, which is a lower burden of proof than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard imposed on the Commonwealth (DA) during trial. The preponderance of the evidence standard is like a 51% rule. The petitioner must plead and prove the elements of his petition so that the scales of justice tip ever so slightly in his favor.
PCRA – Who May File
Section 9543(a) also lays out who may file a PCRA petition, which is basically 1. anyone currently serving a sentence, or is on probation or parole; or 2. anyone sentenced to death. Learn about the basics of filing PCRA petitions in Pennsylvania.
PCRA – Claims Allowed
Under Section 9543(a)(2), only certain claims are allowed in a PCRA petition, such as:
- ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC),
- newly discovered exculpatory evidence,
- an unlawful guilty plea, or
- an illegal sentence.
The most commonly litigated PCRA claim involves an ineffective assistance of counsel claim (see section 9543(a)(2)(ii) below).
PCRA – Claims Must Not Have Been Previously Litigated, Waived or the Result of a Strategic Decision by the Lawyer
Section 9543(a)(3) lays out the general requirement that claims raised in a PCRA petition must be new. In other words, the basis of the specific PCRA claim cannot have been decided by another reviewing court or otherwise waived. Waiver of a claim or issue usually occurs if the claim/issue is not raised at the first opportunity.
Under Section (a)(4), the petitioner must also plead and prove that the failure to raise the claim/issue at trial or during a previous appeal was not intentional. Basically, the lawyer’s failure to raise the issue must have been an actual mistake, and not raised due to a strategic or tactical decision by the lawyer.
PCRA – Denial of Petition Due to Prejudice
In certain situations, Section 9543(b) may result in denial of a PCRA petition, if the Commonwealth proves it has been prejudiced by the delay in filing a petition. This subsection will not apply to petitions based on newly discovered evidence which could not have been reasonably discovered.
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*Below is Section 9543 of the PCRA in its entirety, current as of April 2014. Download the entire PCRA here.
(a) General rule.–To be eligible for relief under this subchapter, the petitioner must plead and prove by a preponderance of the evidence all of the following:
(1) That the petitioner has been convicted of a crime under the laws of this Commonwealth and is at the time relief is granted:
(i) currently serving a sentence of imprisonment, probation or parole for the crime;
(ii) awaiting execution of a sentence of death for the crime; or
(2) That the conviction or sentence resulted from one or more of the following:
(i) A violation of the Constitution of this Commonwealth or the Constitution or laws of the United States 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.
(ii) 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.
(iii) A plea of guilty unlawfully induced where the circumstances make it likely that the inducement caused the petitioner to plead guilty and the petitioner is innocent.
(iv) The improper obstruction by government officials of the petitioner’s right of appeal where a meritorious appealable issue existed and was properly preserved in the trial court.
(vi) The unavailability at the time of trial of exculpatory evidence that has subsequently become available and would have changed the outcome of the trial if it had been introduced.
(vii) The imposition of a sentence greater than the lawful maximum.
(4) That the failure to litigate the issue prior to or during trial, during unitary review or on direct appeal could not have been the result of any rational, strategic or tactical decision by counsel.
(b) Exception.–Even if the petitioner has met the requirements of subsection (a), the petition shall be dismissed if it appears at any time that, because of delay in filing the petition, the Commonwealth has been prejudiced either in its ability to respond to the petition or in its ability to re-try the petitioner. A petition may be dismissed due to delay in the filing by the petitioner only after a hearing upon a motion to dismiss. This subsection does not apply if the petitioner shows that the petition is based on grounds of which the petitioner could not have discovered by the exercise of reasonable diligence before the delay became prejudicial to the Commonwealth.
(c) Extradition.–If the petitioner’s conviction and sentence resulted from a trial conducted in his absence and if the petitioner has fled to a foreign country that refuses to extradite him because a trial in absentia was employed, the petitioner shall be entitled to the grant of a new trial if the refusing country agrees by virtue of this provision to return him and if the petitioner upon such return to this jurisdiction so requests. This subsection shall apply, notwithstanding any other law or judgment to the contrary.