After the court finds you guilty of a crime, you may feel as if you have lost the fight. However, Pennsylvania offers defendants several avenues to have the circumstances of their case and conviction reconsidered. In addition to direct appeals, the Post-Conviction Relief Act affords individuals the opportunity to have aspects of his or her case reviewed.
Direct Appeal vs. Indirect Appeal
Direct appeals are appeals based on legal errors committed by the trial court. In a direct appeal, your argument will be heard in an appellate court by higher ranking judges. In order to win a direct appeal, you must prove that the trial court erred in a decision related to your case. For example, a conviction may be reversed under instances like a judge issuing improper jury instructions, or incorrectly denying a Motion to Suppress.
A PCRA Petition is an indirect appeal. The argument will be heard by the same judge who presided over the first trial, or- if that judge is unavailable- a judge in the same jurisdiction and of the same ranking. The allegation in the petition must be new; meaning, that the issue has not been previously litigated in court. A PCRA Petition may be related to a change in constitutional law since the trial, the discovery of new evidence, the improper or lack of testing of DNA evidence, or ineffectiveness of counsel. No matter the circumstance, the attorney must prove to the court that the result of the trial may have been different if not for the issues presented in the PCRA Petition.
Ineffectiveness of Counsel
Ineffectiveness of counsel is the most frequently cited error in PCRA Petitions. Petitioners must prove that the attorney was ineffective, that the attorney's ineffectiveness prejudiced them in some way, and that the attorney's alleged ineffectiveness did not have a reasonable or strategic basis. If an individual is able to show that his or her lawyer was legally ineffective and that they were prejudiced as a result, the court may grant a new trial or sentencing hearing.
Examples of ineffectiveness include:
- Failure to file Motion to Suppress or Motions in Limine
- Failure to file post-sentence motions or direct appeal when requested by the defendant
- Failure to object to legal errors made by the judge or prosecution
- Failure to request or object to jury instructions
- Failure to interview/call defense, alibi, or character witnesses
- Failure to hire an expert witness
Lawyers are human and mistakes happen. After a conviction, it is worthwhile to consider whether or not the attorney was ineffective. Sometimes, we believe that more should have been done when there was little more that the attorney could have done on a client's behalf. Likewise, a client may believe that the attorney did everything in their power when- in fact- additional action would have been beneficial.
An individual who has pleaded guilty to a crime may still file a PCRA Petition. The admission of guilt makes these appeals especially challenging to prove and the most difficult to win; however, there are still circumstances under which those who have plead guilty may successfully appeal. Individuals who have plead guilty may appeal based on the jurisdiction of the court, the legality of the sentence, and/or the validity of the guilty plea. Most often, petitioners appeal based on the validity of the guilty plea.
It is important to draw the distinction between "buyer's remorse" and an invalid guilty plea. Pennsylvania "does not require that a defendant be totally pleased with the outcome of his decision to plead guilty, only that his decision be voluntary, knowing, and intelligent."
Defendants are often required to complete a written guilty plea colloquy. This form is a sworn statement and all answers are binding. The form asks questions like, "Is your plea of guilt being given freely and voluntarily without any force, threats, pressure or intimidation?" and, "Are you satisfied with the representation and advice of your attorney?" In short, the written guilty plea colloquy form ensures that the defendant is fully aware of the rights that he or she is giving up, that it is solely the defendant's decision to enter the guilty plea, that the defendant is sober and of clear mind, and that the defendant understands all of the conditions of the guilty plea agreement.
There are certain circumstances that allow for successful appeals in spite of a correctly executed written guilty plea colloquy. However, this form serves as near indisputable documentation that a defendant is voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently entering a guilty plea. The written guilty plea colloquy is accompanied by a guilty plea hearing in front of a judge. A defendant's statements during this proceeding are also sworn and binding. Once a defendant has entered a plea of guilty, it is presumed that he was aware of what he was doing, and the burden of proving involuntariness is upon him.
Filing a PCRA Petition
There are strict time constraints for filing a PCRA Petition. Petitions must be filed within one year of denial of the first direct appeal or the conviction if there are no direct appeals. There are some exceptions to the deadline including the discovery of new evidence, the timely filing of an extension, the abandonment of counsel during the PCRA process, a government block of the petition, or a court determination that constitutional rights are such that an extension must be given.
In most cases, the time constraints are rigid. PCRA Petitions require exhaustive research and a great deal of time. If you or a loved one is considering filing a PCRA Petition, begin the process and contact an attorney as soon as possible.
To begin the process, the individual convicted of a crime must complete a pro se PCRA Petition. In this form, petitioners are prompted to answer questions about the basis and facts of the issues that they are alleging. This petition serves as the structure for the appeal that the attorney will present to the court.
If the individual is low income, he or she may qualify for representation by a public defender. If the petitioner decides to hire an attorney, it is best to select an attorney with experience in PCRA proceedings.
Attorney Julian Allatt has represented private and appointed clients for countless PCRA hearings. Attorney Allatt was able to win an exceptional PCRA appeal of a guilty plea by proving that the Court failed to explain to our client the nature and the elements of the charges. In386 A.2d. 53 (Pa. Super. 1978), the Superior Court concluded "for an examination to demonstrate a defendant's understanding of the charge, the record must disclose that the elements of the crime or crimes were outlined in understandable terms." On this basis, the court agreed with Attorney Allatt and our client, the Petitioner, that the guilty plea was invalid because there was no understanding or agreement on the factual basis for his plea.
In December 2017, Attorney Julian Allatt successfully proved an ineffective counsel PCRA claim before the court. On February 8, 2018, our client's conviction and sentence of 10 to 26 years in prison were vacated. On February 26, 2018, our client was released from prison after serving four years. (Read more about the appeal here)
If you or a loved one is interested in pursuing a direct appeal or filing a PCRA Petition, contact the attorneys at Rehmeyer & Allatt for a free consultation.