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Commonwealth v. Stokes

November 21, 2008


Appeal from the Order dated August 3, 2006 of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Criminal Division, Nos. 4576-4589.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Madame Justice Greenspan


SUBMITTED: July 11, 2008


This is a collateral capital appeal from an order dismissing Appellant Ralph Trent Stokes's second petition for relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546. Because we conclude that the petition was not timely, we affirm the order of the PCRA court.

On March 11, 1982, Appellant and Donald Jackson robbed Appellant's employer, a restaurant known as Smokin' Joe's Korner, in Philadelphia. Armed with guns, Appellant and Jackson entered the restaurant before it opened. Appellant herded the employees into the walk-in refrigerator and threatened to kill them if they failed to cooperate. Despite the fact that Appellant wore a ski mask, some of the employees recognized him. In response to being identified by his co-workers, Appellant shot and killed two of them, Mary Louise Figueroa and Eugene Jefferson. Appellant terrorized and threatened two other employees, Renard Mills and Pierre Blassingame, but did not shoot them. However, when a United States Postal Service employee happened onto the scene, Appellant shot him in the head, killing him.

Both Appellant and Jackson were arrested and charged with the murders. Jackson cooperated with the Commonwealth and agreed to testify against Appellant in exchange for a guilty plea to second-degree murder and a life sentence. The Commonwealth proceeded to trial against Appellant and sought the death penalty. At trial, Jackson testified that he willingly participated in the armed robbery that Appellant had devised. However, Jackson told the jury, the shootings were not part of the plan and Appellant killed his co-workers because they would have identified him. Mills, who escaped death on the day of the robbery, also testified for the Commonwealth. He knew Appellant from working with him at a previous job. Mills described the robbery and the murder of his co-workers; he too identified Appellant as the shooter.

On July 22, 1983, the jury found Appellant guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and related charges. Following a penalty hearing, the jury found two aggravating circumstances: creating a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(7); and killing while in the perpetration of a felony, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711 (d)(6). The jury found no mitigating circumstances.*fn1

New counsel was appointed for post-verdict proceedings and in May 1987 the trial court held hearings on counsel's motions, which included claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. In January 1990, the trial court issued an opinion in support of its denial of post-verdict motions. In October 1992, on direct appeal, this Court affirmed Appellant's convictions and death sentence. Commonwealth v. Stokes, 615 A.2d 704 (Pa. 1992).*fn2

Appellant filed his first PCRA petition in November 1996, which the PCRA court denied without a hearing in October 2000.*fn3 This Court affirmed the denial of collateral relief in December 2003. Commonwealth v. Stokes, 839 A.2d 226 (Pa. 2003).*fn4 In February 2004, Appellant successfully sought a stay of execution in federal court and, with present counsel, pursued a petition for writ of habeas corpus. During these federal proceedings, counsel sought and received records from files maintained by the United States Postal Service (USPS) and the Philadelphia Police Department Homicide Division (PPD). On July 26, 2004, Appellant filed a second PCRA petition. In it, he alleged that documents in the USPS and PPD files included exculpatory evidence that should have been turned over to Appellant at time of trial. Appellant asserted that the Commonwealth's failure to disclose this information constituted a violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1968), entitling him to a new trial, or in the alternative, an evidentiary hearing on the issues raised.*fn5

The PCRA court denied Appellant's second petition without a hearing because it was not filed within the PCRA time limitations. Notwithstanding its conclusion that the petition was untimely, the PCRA court, the Honorable C. Darnell Jones, II, separately considered each issue Appellant raised and determined that not one met the standard set forth in Brady. Specifically, the PCRA court concluded that Appellant failed to establish that the prosecution suppressed "either exculpatory or impeachment evidence that was favorable to [Appellant and caused Appellant] prejudice." PCRA Ct. Op. at 12 (citing Commonwealth v. Morris, 822 A.2d 684, 696 (Pa. 2003)). The matter is now properly before us on appeal.

Our standard of review of the denial of PCRA relief is clear: we are "limited to determining whether the PCRA court's findings are supported by the record and without legal error." Commonwealth v. Hawkins, 953 A.2d 1248, 1251 (Pa. 2008). We note that a second or subsequent petition must present a strong prima facie showing that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. Commonwealth v. Carpenter, 725 A.2d 154, 160 (Pa. 1999). Finally, the petition must be timely, as the Act's timeliness restrictions are jurisdictional in nature and are to be strictly construed. Commonwealth v. Abu-Jamal, 941 A.2d 1263, 1267-68 (Pa. 2008).

There is no question that the instant petition is untimely on its face; it was filed over ten years after the judgment of sentence became final. Appellant insists that the PCRA time bar is overcome by the application of two statutory exceptions, to wit: 1) interference by government officials, under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(i); and 2) facts unknown to the petitioner that could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence, under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(ii). Appellant relies on the prosecution's alleged Brady violations to satisfy both exceptions.

Appellant recognizes that in order to invoke either exception to the Act's timeliness provision, there is a requirement that a petitioner file his claim "within 60 days of the date the claim could have been presented." 42 Pa.C.S. ยง 9545(b)(2). This Court has made it clear that the 60-day rule requires a petitioner to plead and prove that the information on which he relies could not have been obtained earlier, despite the exercise of due diligence. Commonwealth v. Marshall, 947 A.2d 714, 720 (Pa. 2008). Thus, with respect to both claimed exceptions, ...

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