ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA. (D.C. Civil Action No. 89-0395)
Before: Cowen and Nygaard, Circuit Judges, and Pollak, District Judge*fn*
Steven Heiser has waited more than eleven and one-half years for a Pennsylvania state court to hear his motion to withdraw a guilty plea. In addition, four years have passed without a hearing or ruling by Pennsylvania on Heiser's Pennsylvania Post Conviction Hearing Act ("PCHA") petition, which claims that his trial counsel coerced his guilty plea and that his plea was involuntary.
Heiser filed a habeas petition contending that this post-verdict delay violated his due process rights and that his guilty plea was neither knowing nor voluntary. The district court denied Heiser's habeas petition without a hearing. We exercise plenary review of the district court's decision. Zettlemoyer v. Fulcomer, 923 F.2d 284, 291 (3d Cir. 1991). We will reverse and remand with instructions that the district court hold an evidentiary hearing on Heiser's allegations.
In 1979, Heiser shot and killed the proprietor of an antique store he was robbing. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged him with murder, robbery and some other charges. The Commonwealth filed notice that it intended to seek the death penalty. In September 1979, during the second day of a jury trial before the Allegheny County Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, pursuant to a plea agreement Heiser changed his plea to guilty of second degree murder. Heiser later pleaded guilty to the remaining charges.
In December 1979, while testifying against his co-defendant, Heiser told the judge, who also presided at the trial Heiser truncated by his plea, that he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea, plead not guilty and be tried. In January 1980, the court sentenced Heiser to life imprisonment on the second degree murder charge and a consecutive term of five to ten years on the robbery charge.
In February 1980, Heiser's newly appointed attorney filed a motion under Pa. R. Crim. P. 320 to withdraw his guilty plea. The court indicated that, although filed after sentencing, the motion would be reviewed under the more lenient pre-sentencing standard because Heiser requested to withdraw his plea before he was sentenced. The trial judge died in 1982.
In 1987, Heiser filed a petition under the PCHA, 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 9541, et seq., alleging that his guilty plea was not knowing, among other things, because his counsel failed to adequately explain the elements of the charges against him, and that his guilty plea was involuntary because his trial counsel threatened to withdraw from the case if Heiser did not plead guilty. Because the Pennsylvania courts could not locate a transcript, the court postponed hearing Heiser's motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The transcript is still missing; and Heiser still awaits a hearing on his motions.
In February 1989, Heiser filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Heiser contended that his due process rights had been violated by the extreme delay. After the district court granted Heiser leave to amend his habeas petition, he further alleged that his guilty plea was not knowing and voluntary because, among other reasons, his counsel threatened to withdraw if Heiser did not plead guilty.
The district court properly excused Heiser's failure to meet the exhaustion of state court remedies requirement of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b) because of the inordinate delay by the state court. No one challenges that ruling. The district court denied Heiser's habeas ...