Com. v. Spotz: This is getting old
The Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) allows a criminal defendant to file a petition within one year of final judgment seeking review of his conviction. This protection ensures that every criminal defendant will have at least two chances to prove that a mistake sent them to prison—or worse, to death row.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylania maintains mandatory and exclusive jurisdiction of all death penalty appeals, whether on direct or collateral action. This includes PCRA appeals—even where the PCRA board found that the petition was totally without merit.
These two statutes conjoin to present a vexing problem for the Supreme Court, wherein it is bound to consider appeals repeatedly from death row inmates willing to file absurd and meritless petitions, and force the Highest Court of the Commonwealth to reconsider the claims involved.
Spotz has been here before
The Supreme Court typically does a good job of demonstrating that its commitment to reviewing death penalty cases is serious, even when the issues have been exhaustively and accurately adjudicated. But one can easily sense the Court’s impatience in this brief opinion in everything from the recitation of the facts to the summary dismissal of all claims. Indeed, this case actually represents two of Spotz’s appeals rolled into one—making ten total times that Spotz has come up to the Supreme Court for a consideration of his claims. Indeed, in a footnote, the Court lists the eight previous opinions issued regarding Mr. Spotz, and in addition, one blistering special concurrence by former Chief Justice Castille, excoriating Mr. Spotz’s lawyer for various ethical violations.
But the Court is required to consider Spotz’s appeal, since he sits on death row. Accordingly, the Court proceeds to consider his claims.
Wecht for the Majority: Spotz can’t use a ruling about a federal statute to save himself from a different statute
Justice Wecht summarizes as follows: “In 1995, Spotz embarked upon a three-day homicide spree through York, Schuylkill, Cumberland, and Clearfield Counties. Spotz killed four people, one of whom was his own brother. In 1996, Spotz was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. He has brought many collateral appeals since then.”
Spotz argued that two recent SCOTUS cases apply to him: Johnson v. U.S. and Welch v. U.S, both decided in the last three years. In these cases, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a federal statute was void for vagueness, and that this finding should retroactively apply to those whose convictions have already been made final. Spotz pointed out that there are similarities between the federal criminal statute in question and a death penalty aggravating sentencing factor used by the jury to sentence Spotz to death.
PCRA Exception for Newly-Recognized Constitutional Right Clearly Does not Apply to Spotz
Rejecting Spotz’s claim, the Court points out, “It is axiomatic, and self-evident, that the asserted newly-created right actually must enure to the benefit of the petitioner.” In other words, Johnson isn’t talking about you, Mr. Spotz, and you knew that. Pointing to similarities in a statute that’s been stricken on constitutional ground isn’t the same as pointing to a constitutional right that has enured to your benefit. For Spotz to prevail, he needs the Pennsylvania statute to be stricken down, and for that striking down to be retroactively applied. He cannot use the mechanisms of PCRA to litigate an argument he didn’t think to present in his initial trial.
Conclusion: Time for PCRA and Death Penalty Reform
Underlying the Court’s ruling is the well-known interest of finality of judgment, particularly when it comes to death penalty cases. A brutal murder occurred, and when a jury has found a murderer guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he should not be permitted to game the system to reconsider his conviction repeatedly.
Frustratingly, the Court is bound by statutory duty to reconsider this murder—and his victims’ families to relive it—every time Mr. Spotz decides to file a new petition. The time has come for the General Assembly to put new and reasonable limits on reviews of death penalty cases. While we certainly want the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to have exclusive jurisdiction of death penalty appeals, surely we don’t need them to review denials of every unhinged petition attempted by an understandably but annoyingly desperate petitioner.