A Little Post Conviction Discussion

I’m a little late posting this week, mainly because a whole lot came up regarding the very issue I am discussing here. Post conviction work is probably my favorite place to work in the law and, unfortunately, a lot of it goes to attorneys who are court appointed and are thoroughly bored by their jobs. But post conviction appeals can be some of the most rewarding and most galvanizing work that is out there, and the gratification you’ll receive from the client and feel for your worthwhile work will almost outweigh the disappointment when you lose the appeal. So let’s talk post conviction, shall we?

Post Conviction relief often focuses on a few set arguments: ineffective assistance of counsel, breach of one part or another of a fourth amendment right, and the good ole standby, prosecutorial misconduct. (Just as a side not folks, take the arguments professionally, if you’re being called ineffective, don’t let it make you mad, sometimes you’re just a vehicle to getting a second shot at an argument. Sometimes its just the appellate lawyer’s job to call anyone she can incompetent. I usually apologize to the person for having to take that step, but please, don’t take offense.)

Back to prosecutorial misconduct: I’ve read arguments which are great examples of misconduct (usually later deemed harmless error) and I’ve seen arguments that are just a shot in the dark. Rarely have I seen a win, and never in one of my own cases, based on a misconduct argument. But a momentous decision has just come down from the federal courts, and I’d like to discuss it a little, and its possible implications.

The Washington D.C. Circuit Court of appeals just disbarred a federal prosecutor, an action that hasn’t occurred in, reportedly, over ten years. Former assistant U.S. attorney  G. Paul Howes was disbarred for his conduct in a number of high profile murder and gang cases. Howes apparently used vouchers, intended to pay for witnesses’ reasonable expenses, to bribe informants’ relatives and significant others. Not only that, but Howes then repeatedly lied and hid the conduct from the investigators and the court.

Interestingly, the Board on Professional Responsibility voted only for a suspension for Howes’ conduct. Appently, in their mind, bribery and perjury aren’t *that* big of a deal. The Circuit Court disagreed. They disbarred him.

Nine convicted persons have already gotten reduced sentences based on the revelation of the misconduct. How many more are to follow is anyone’s guess, but its certainly a case any appeals lawyer would jump to take on.

Systemically, for appeals lawyers everywhere, not just in Washington DC, does this mean anything? My answer is: Maybe. Although the judicial decision against Howes is not precedent in any way except for cases against other prosecutors, the nine convicted persons’s appeals certainly can be. I also don’t think its necessary to get to the level that Howe was at to find it could be prosecutorial misconduct. There is no need to reach the level of disbarment to achieve something more than a harmless error through misconduct.

If you come upon an issue of prosecutorial misconduct, even if DC Circuit isn’t in your jurisdiction, and even if you’re in a state court, I think you should try to draw the connection. The strength of your argument can only be increased by showing how one instance of prosecutorial misconduct can truly be a long standing practice of misconduct. So try it, and let me know how it goes!

Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)

The PCRA is an indirect method of appeal in criminal cases. A direct appeal is when a criminal case is appealed from the Court of Common Pleas, where the accused lost the case, and wants to challenge some aspect of it. For more on direct appeals, read my post here. An indirect appeal in a PCRA allows the person to have the case reconsidered when a direct appeal to the Superior Court has been denied.

The PCRA must be filed within one year of the denial of the final direct appeal, or after the conviction if the defendant chooses not to use direct appeals. The one year rule does have some exceptions. The basic exceptions include: where counsel effectively abandons the defendant in the PCRA process, where the petition is an extension of a previously filed petition that was within the one year limit, where the government blocked the petition in some manner, where the new evidence could not have been known within the one year limit, and finally, where the court has determined that constitutional rights are such that the extension must be given.

PCRA is limited on its grounds for appeal. The full text of the act can be read here, but I will summarize it briefly. Under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9541 et seq, you may only begin the process for the PCRA if your conviction or sentence resulted from:

  • A violation of the Constitution of Pennsylvania or of the United states, or of the laws of the United States, and the violation occurred under circumstances which so undermined the process that no reliable adjudication of truth could have taken place
  • There was ineffective assistance of counsel such that no reliable determination of truth could have taken place
  • A plea of guilty was gotten under circumstances which make it likely that the defendant was induced to falsely make the statement and the defendant is innocent
  • Government officials wrongly obstructed the defendant’s right to appeal where an issue for appeal was present and capable of being appealed
  • New evidence has come to light which would have changed the outcome of the trial
  • A sentence was imposed which was greater than the lawful maximum
  • The court proceeding took place in a tribunal which did not have jurisdiction

Additionally, the statute requires that the allegation in the petition has not been previously litigated in court (it is a new issue) and it has not been waived by a failure to raise the issue (you didn’t bring it up and you were only permitted to bring it up at a certain point of the proceeding). The failure to litigate the issue cannot be the result of a rational or strategic move by the defendant’s attorney at trial.

You may notice the phrase “reliable adjudication of the truth” or “reliable determination of the truth.” These phrases are synonymous and mean that, because of what happened at trial, the facts or process was so distorted that no one could have discovered the truth. The courts have stated that the issue must go directly to the truth-determining process. (Commonwealth v. Bennett, 2007).

Another thing to mention is the process that a person must be given for the court to have properly reviewed the PCRA claim. Although the amount of due process required is less stringent than at trial, a defendant who petitions is still entitled to present his or her claims in a meaningful time and have them considered in a meaningful manner.

A petition for post-conviction relief must conform to certain processes and is subject to parameters defined by statute and the court. When you consider a PCRA, you also need to consider what attorney you will hire, and find one with the experience and the dedication to see the petition through. Failure to obtain the right counsel can result in the denial of your petition.

Call Shannon K. McDonald to discuss your potential PCRA petition today.