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PACE v. VAUGHN

June 7, 2001

JOHN A. PACE
V.
DONALD VAUGHN, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James T. Giles, C.J.

Memorandum

Factual and Procedural History

I. Petitioner's Requests for Collateral Relief

On February 13, 1986, Petitioner pled guilty before the Honorable David N. Savitt of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County to the charges of possession of an instrument of crime and the second-degree murder of Randolph Baldwin. Judge Savitt sentenced Petitioner, who was then seventeen years old, to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Petitioner did not file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, and he did not file a direct appeal.

However, six months later on August 21, 1986, Petitioner filed a pro se petition under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Hearing Act ["PCHA"], 42 Pa. C.S.A § 9541, et seq. Through appointed counsel, Petitioner eventually filed an amended petition claiming both ineffective assistance of trial counsel and trial court error. The Commonwealth moved to dismiss the amended PCHA petition. The PCHA court granted that motion on July 23, 1991. On March 30, 1992, the Superior Court affirmed the PCHA court's decision. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania denied Allocatur on September 2, 1992.

On November 27, 1996, Petitioner filed a second request for collateral relief under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act ["PCRA"], which replaced the PCHA in 1988. When Petitioner filed the PCRA petition, the Act had recently been amended. The amendments, which were enacted on January 16, 1996, placed new time limits on PCRA petitions. The relevant part of the limitation follows:

(b) Time for filing petition. —

(1) Any petition under this subchapter, including a second or subsequent petition, shall be filed within one year of the date the judgment becomes final, unless the petition alleges and the petitioner proves that:

(ii) the facts upon which the claim is predicated were unknown to the petitioner and could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence; or

(iii) the right asserted is a constitutional right that was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States or the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania after the time period provided in this section and has been held by that court to apply retroactively.

42 Pa. C.S.A. § 9545.

II. The Timeliness of the Petitioner's PCRA Petition was Uncertain Based on the Statutory Language and Legislative Note.

Section 9545 of the PCRA states that a petition must be filed within one year of the date that a petitioner's conviction became final, unless the petition falls within one of the enumerated exceptions. At the time Petitioner filed his PCRA petition in November 1996, his conviction had become final over ten years before, and his petition did not claim any of the statutory exceptions to the one year time limit. Since Petitioner's conviction occurred prior to the enactment of the PCRA amendments, it could not have been clear how, if at all, the amendments would apply to the petition when it was filed in November, 1996. The 1995 PCRA amendments had been accompanied by a Note about legislative intent. It stated that "a petitioner whose judgment has become final on or before the effective date of this act shall be deemed to have filed a timely petition under 42 Pa.C.S. Ch. 95 Subch. B if the petitioner's first petition is filed within one year of the effective date of the act." The Note did not clarify whether petitioners with pre-1996 final convictions, who filed second or successive petitions, but who were filing their first petition since the amendment, had one year after the enactment of the act to file a collateral relief petition.

III. Opinions from Federal District Courts Reflected the Fact that the Timeliness of Petitioner's PCRA Petition was Uncertain when it was Filed.

When Petitioner filed his PCRA petition in November 1996, it was not then known how the Pennsylvania state courts would apply the above quoted provision. No Pennsylvania state court opinion had been rendered interpreting it. As of September 1997, the third circuit found that it was still not clear how Pennsylvania courts would interpret amendments to the PCRA. Specifically, in Banks v. Horn, the court noted that:

While it is true that the text of the 1995 PCRA amendments supports these contentions [that the 1995 amendments bar a second collateral relief petition filed more than one year after a conviction], it is not clear that these amendments are dispositive. The Commonwealth does not refer us to a single case applying the PCRA as amended in 1995 to support its views. Furthermore, in Szuchon and Beasley the Pennsylvania Supreme court addresses the merits of claims which seemingly were precluded by the PCRA provisions then in force.

126 F.3d at 214.

It is, of course, possible in death penalty cases (and other cases as well) that future experience will show that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court consistently and regularly applies the 1995 amendments to the PCRA and thereby creates a procedural bar sufficient to satisfy the standard ...


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