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Posted by on Sep 25, 2018 in Criminal, PCRA | 0 comments

Com v. Crispell: PCRA Petitions may be amended to add new claims, even if the new claims fall outside of the “one year” rule

In an otherwise mundane PCRA affirmance, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled unanimously that a PCRA petitioner may move to amend his petition to add an additional claim, even if that claim could not be independently brought as a second petition where a second petition would be time barred.

PCRA petitions must normally be filed within one year of final adjudication. Crispell filed his petition timely, but then obtained information tending to implicate a Brady violation after his filing. While more than a year had passed, at that time, since his final adjudication, Crispell sought leave to amend his PCRA petition to include this new claim. The PCRA court believed it lacked jurisdiction to entertain this claim. Our Supreme Court reversed, with Justice Wecht writing for the Court. The claim was permitted as an amendment, as only petitions are time-barred after a year, not potential amendments to petitions.

Amendments should be considered under the Rules of Criminal Procedure. “PCRA courts are invested with discretion to permit the amendment of a pending, timely-filed post-conviction petition,” and amendments should be liberally allowed to aid the pursuit of “substantial justice.”

The case was remanded for consideration of whether the Brady claim should be allowed as a timely amendment to the case.

 

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Posted by on Feb 22, 2018 in Criminal, PCRA, Sentencing | 0 comments

Com v. DiMatteo: PCRA petitioner entitled to new sentence where SCOTUS change occurred before his sentence was final

Commonwealth v. DiMatteo resolves an obscure overlap in sentencing rules in Pennsylvania, confirming that a Defendant is entitled to resentencing where he was not sentenced on his open plea before a SCOTUS decision established that the ultimate sentence he would receive was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rules unanimously that a PCRA petitioner is entitled to resentencing because Alleyne v. United States was decided by SCOTUS before Dimatteo was sentenced. This holding resolves an ambiguity that arose where the Court had already held that 1) Alleyne is not “retroactive” to those whose sentences were decided before Alleyne was handed down; and 2) negotiated guilty pleas cannot later be challenged on the basis that the sentence is illegal because the prosecution is entitled to the benefit of its bargain.

Alleyne ruled that an aggravating factor that results in a longer sentence must be found by a jury, not by a judge. At issue in this case is 18 Pa.C.S. § 7508 (“Drug trafficking sentencing and penalties”), which allowed for aggravated penalties depending on the weight of the drugs, which weight was to be determined by the sentencing judge.

Another issue addressed here is whether a sentence that is unconstitutional presents a cognizable claim under the PCRA, which only recognizes a claim for sentences that are “

Majority by Mundy: An Illegal Sentence Can be Addressed by a timely PCRA petition

Justice Mundy, writing for five members of the unanimous Court, holds that DiMatteo is entitled to have his unconstitutional sentence revoked, and to be resentenced. Mundy notes that an open plea is different from a negotiated guilty plea, which the Court had previously said should be upheld in a post-sentence challenge. After all, if the Defendant knowingly accepted a sentence on the longer end of the range, purportedly aware of the change in the law, he should not get to challenge that sentence later.

But an open plea is different. An open plea should not result in an unconstitutional sentence. DiMatteo gets a new sentence, and the Court agrees that § 7508 is unconstitutional under Alleyne. Furthermore, despite the fact that PCRA petitions are limited to essentially eight enumerated grounds, an illegal sentence can always be addressed if the PCRA petition is timely under the “greater than the lawful maximum” power of PCRA courts.

Concurrence by Baer: Commonwealth’s argument unsupported by the record

Justice Baer concurs, arguing that because PCRA petitions are the “sole means by which to obtain collateral relief” in Pennsylvania, “a claim generally challenging the legality of a sentence is cognizable under the PCRA.” In addition, Baer addresses the Commonwealth’s argument that its withdrawal of other charges was consideration for DiMatteo’s open plea, and that the plea should be considered “negotiated” on this basis. Baer finds this argument unsupported in the record.

Conclusion: Open Pleas Really Do Have Benefits

Open pleas are typically risky for defendants—they leave discretion in the trial court’s hands, and leave the defendant with little recourse on appeal if the judge lays down the hammer. In this unusual case, the defendant gets the benefit of the doubt because of his open plea. This case will have further-reaching effects than one might think at first glance. This isn’t just about Alleyne. It lays out an avenue for relief to anyone who sees a major SCOTUS case alter the landscape, even at the last moment.

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Posted by on Feb 13, 2018 in Criminal, Murder, PCRA | 0 comments

Com v. VanDivner: Three Part Miller Test Establishes Sanity for Death Penalty

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled 6-0 in Commonwealth v. VanDivner that a defendant whose intellectual impairments interfere with his ability to cognitively adapt is mentally incompetent as regards the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Under SCOTUS precedent Atkins v. Virginia, such an individual may not be put to death. This case also serves as a reminder that a death penalty case which comes to the Court under its exclusive appellate jurisdiction over death penalty cases is remanded upon the Court’s ruling that the death penalty is inapposite for further proceedings in the Superior Court.

The case comes as a PCRA petition, arguing that his counsel was ineffective in failing to appropriately argue the evidence in regard to his mental deficiencies before age 18.

Todd: Interaction Between the First Two Prongs of the Miller test is Key to Inquiry

Speaking for the unanimous 6-0 majority, Justice Todd rules that VanDivner met the three part “Miller” test for mental incapacity, and that trial counsel’s failure to flesh out VanDivner’s significant limitations rendered him ineffective under Strickland.

In Com v. Miller, 585 Pa. 144 (2005), SCOPA established a three part test for determining mental incapacity for Eighth Amendment purposes:

  • Limited intellectual functioning;
  • Significant adaptive limitations;
  • Onset prior to age 18.

There is no “IQ cutoff” score to determine limited intellectual functioning, but rather, the “interaction” between the individual’s intellectual limitations and adaptive limitations determines the degree of incapacitation under this inquiry. Furthermore, the assessment is based on an individual’s “typical” rather than maximum performance. VanDivner’s voluminous evidence included testimony of his limitations prior to age 18, along with the substantial ways that he was limited, not only in IQ, but in his behavioral and adaptive abilities. The Court rules, therefore, that

Upon concluding that VanDivner is not eligible for the death penalty, the Court reclassifies the case as non-capital and sends it to the Superior Court for consideration of VanDivner’s other claims regarding his conviction.

CJ Saylor: Atkins justifies vacating sentence without ineffective assistance

Chief Justice Saylor concurs, arguing that a violation of the Eighth Amendment justifies vacating a sentence without a showing of ineffective assistance of counsel. Saylor would not use ineffective assistance as an “overlay” to get to the desired result but, upon a showing of a constitutionally-unsound death penalty verdict, would vacate the sentence on substantive grounds, namely, the imposition of sentence upon a mentally incompetent defendant.

Conclusion: Miller test reaffirmed

This case doesn’t exactly set new precedent or break new ground. The Miller test for mental incompetence has been the law in Pennsylvania for some time. But this case reaffirms the required connection between deficient IQ and cognitive adaptability. The case also emphasizes that an individual’s cognitive weaknesses are measured by this test, not the individual’s strengths. Put differently, someone who has ups and downs should be measured according to their down days, and the evidence considered in light of how low they can go.

VanDivner avoids the death penalty, and lives to fight another day in the lower courts over his underlying murder conviction.

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