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Commonwealth v. Cristina

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 14, 2015

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellant
v.
JEFFREY CRISTINA, Appellee

Submitted February 2, 2015

Appeal from the PCRA Order of the Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County, Entered March 20, 2013, Criminal Division No(s): CP-02-CR-0001478-1976, CP-02-CR-0002462-1976, CP-02-CR-0002464-1976. Before MARIANI, J.

Rebecca G. McBride, Assistant District Attorney, Pittsburgh, for Commonwealth, appellant.

Steven C. Townsend and Diana L. Stavroulakis, Pittsburgh, for appellee.

BEFORE: BENDER, P.J.E., MUNDY and STABILE, JJ.Concurring Statement.

OPINION

Page 420

BENDER, P.J.E.

The Commonwealth appeals from the PCRA[1] court's order granting Jeffrey Cristina a new sentencing hearing. Because the PCRA court lacked jurisdiction to entertain Cristina's untimely PCRA petition, we reverse.

In 1976, Cristina was convicted by a jury of second degree murder for the killing of Frank Slazinski during a home invasion. Cristina, a juvenile when the homicide occurred, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) on March 29, 1977. On October 5, 1978, our Supreme Court affirmed his judgment of sentence. Commonwealth v. Cristina, 481 Pa. 44, 391 A.2d 1307 (Pa. 1978). The Supreme Court of the United States subsequently denied his Petition for Writ of Certiorari on February 21, 1979. Cristina v. Pennsylvania, 440 U.S. 925, 99 S.Ct. 1255, 59 L.Ed.2d 479 (1979) (table).

On March 15, 1984, Cristina filed a counseled petition under the Post Conviction Hearing Act (PCHA), the statutory predecessor of the PCRA.[2] Cristina's PCHA petition was denied by order of the PCHA court on April 3, 1985. This Court affirmed that order on May 12, 1986, and our Supreme Court denied Cristina's subsequent petition for allowance of appeal on January 7, 1987. Commonwealth v. Cristina, 356 Pa.Super. 615, 512 A.2d 1288 (Pa. Super. 1986) (unpublished memorandum), appeal denied, 513 Pa. 639, 521 A.2d 931 (Pa. 1987) (table).

Cristina filed his second post-conviction petition for collateral relief on June 16, 2010. Counsel was appointed and filed an amended PCRA petition on September 14, 2011. Following a hearing, Cristina's amended petition was denied by order of the PCRA court dated October 28, 2011. Cristina did not appeal from that order.

Cristina filed his third post-conviction petition for collateral relief, the subject of the instant appeal, on July 27, 2012, 32 days after the United States Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2469, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012) (holding that " the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders" ). On August 14, 2012, current PCRA counsel was appointed. He filed an amended PCRA petition (hereinafter " the Petition" ) on Cristina's behalf on December 3, 2012, alleging that, under the rubric of Miller, Cristina's LWOP sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. By order dated March 20, 2013, the PCRA court granted the Petition and set a date for resentencing Cristina. The Commonwealth then timely filed the instant appeal, as well as a timely Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) statement. Subsequently, the PCRA court issued its Rule 1925(a) opinion on September 9, 2014. Therein, the PCRA court changed course, recommending that this Court reverse its March 20, 2013 order. PCRA Court Opinion (PCO), 9/9/14, at 2.

The Commonwealth now presents the following question for our review:

Whether the PCRA court erred in granting [Cristina] post-conviction relief

Page 421

in the form of resentencing where the [Petition] was untimely filed?

Commonwealth's Brief, at 4.

This Court's standard of review regarding an order granting or denying a petition under the PCRA is whether the determination of the PCRA court is supported by the evidence of record and is free of legal error. Commonwealth v. Ragan, 592 Pa. 217, 923 A.2d 1169, 1170 (Pa. 2007). The PCRA court's findings will not be disturbed unless there is no support for the findings in the certified record. Commonwealth v. Carr, 2001 PA Super 54, 768 A.2d 1164, 1166 (Pa. Super. 2001). " However, this Court applies a de novo standard of review to the PCRA court's legal conclusions." Commonwealth v. Spotz, 610 Pa. 17, 18 A.3d 244, 259 (Pa. 2011).

We must begin by addressing the timeliness of the Petition, because the PCRA time limitations implicate our jurisdiction and may not be altered or disregarded in order to address the merits of a petition. Commonwealth v. Bennett, 593 Pa. 382, 930 A.2d 1264, 1267 (Pa. 2007) (stating PCRA time limitations implicate our jurisdiction and may not be altered or disregarded to address the merits of the petition); Commonwealth v. Johnson, 2002 PA Super 238, 803 A.2d 1291, 1294 (Pa. Super. 2002) (holding the Superior Court lacks jurisdiction to reach merits of an appeal from an untimely PCRA petition). Under the PCRA, any petition for post-conviction relief, including a second or subsequent one, must be filed within one year of the date the judgment of sentence becomes final, unless one of the exceptions set forth in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(i)-(iii) applies. That section states, in relevant part:

(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:
(i) the failure to raise the claim previously was the result of interference by government officials with the presentation of the claim in violation of the Constitution or laws of this Commonwealth or the Constitution or laws of the United States;
(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. § 9545(b)(1)(i)-(iii). Any petition attempting to invoke one of these exceptions " shall be filed within 60 days of the date the claim could have been presented." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(2).

Here, it is undisputed that the Petition is untimely and, therefore, that Cristina had to avail himself of at least one of the exceptions to the timeliness requirements set forth in Section 9545(b)(1)(i)-(iii) in the Petition. There is also no dispute that Cristina has not alleged the applicability of either Section 9545(b)(1)(i) or (ii). Accordingly, our inquiry is focused on whether Cristina can rely on Section 9545(b)(1)(iii) to overcome the PCRA's time limitations.

Subsection (iii) of Section 9545[(b)(1)] has two requirements. First, it provides that 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

Page 422

the time provided in this section. Second, it provides that the right " has been held" by " that court" to apply retroactively. Thus, a petitioner must prove that there is a " new" constitutional right and that the right " has been held" by that court to apply retroactively. The language " has been held" is in the past tense. These words mean that the action has already occurred, i.e., " that court" has already held the new constitutional right to be retroactive to cases on collateral review. By employing the past tense in writing this provision, the legislature clearly intended that the right was already recognized at the time the petition was filed.

Commonwealth v. Copenhefer, 596 Pa. 104, 941 A.2d 646, 649-50 (Pa. 2007) (quoting Commonwealth v. Abdul--Salaam, 571 Pa. 219, 812 A.2d 497, 501 (Pa. 2002)).

The Commonwealth argues that the United States Supreme Court's decision in Miller, the case relied upon by Cristina to invoke Section 9545(b)(1)(iii), has not been " held by that court to apply retroactively." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(iii). Accordingly, the Commonwealth contends that the PCRA court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the Petition. Despite entering an order granting Cristina's Petition, the PCRA court now agrees with the Commonwealth's position in light of our Supreme Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Cunningham, 622 Pa. 543, 81 A.3d 1 (Pa. 2013), cert. denied, Cunningham v. Pennsylvania, 134 S.Ct. 2724, 189 L.Ed.2d 763 (2014). PCO, 9/9/14, at 2.

In Cunningham, our Supreme Court held that, " applying settled principles of appellate review, nothing in [Cunningham]'s arguments persuades us that Miller's proscription of the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences upon offenders under the age of eighteen at the time their crimes were committed must be extended to those whose judgments of sentence were final as of the time of Miller's announcement." Cunningham, 81 A.3d at 11. Moreover, the Cunningham Court determined that " the Miller majority did not specifically address the question of whether its holding applies to judgments of sentence for prisoners, ... which already were final as of the time of the Miller decision." Id. at 4.

Notably, however, the Cunningham decision addressed claims of Miller's retroactivity as presented by Cunningham. As the Cunningham Court acknowledged,

Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989) (plurality), delineated a general rule of non-retroactivity for new procedural, constitutional rules announced by the Court, ... subject to two narrow exceptions.... [T]he exceptions extend to " rules prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense," and " watershed rules of criminal procedure implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding." More recently, in Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348, 124 S.Ct. 2519, 159 L.Ed.2d 442 (2004), the High Court appears to have merged the first Teague exception with the principle that new substantive rules generally apply retroactively.

Cunningham, 81 A.3d at 4-5 (internal citations omitted).

The Cunningham Court clearly held that " the first Teague exception does not apply to the Miller rule." Id. at 10. However, as to the second Teague exception, the Cunningham Court stated that " [Cunningham] has not developed his arguments in such terms." Id. The Court went on to admit that " given the high importance attached by the Miller majority to the new rule which it discerned, it seems possible that some Justices of the United States

Page 423

Supreme Court may find the rule to be of the watershed variety." Id. Nonetheless, the Cunningham Court expressed doubt regarding whether a majority of the High Court would apply the second Teague exception to Miller. Id. Whether our Supreme Court's prediction will be accurate remains to be seen; however, that prediction is obviously dicta, because Cunningham had not argued the applicability of that exception.

Accordingly, while it may be convenient shorthand to state that Cunningham held that the rule in Miller does not apply retroactively, that is not completely accurate. Cunningham can only be read for the propositions that 1) the Miller Court did not, itself, give retroactive effect to the new rule it announced, and 2) Miller is not otherwise retroactive under the first Teague exception. Whether Miller is retroactive under the second Teague exception, or some other theory,[3] has not yet been addressed by our Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, in the wake of Cunningham, it is clear that neither the United States Supreme Court, nor the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, has held that the rule in Miller applies retroactively. Accordingly, we are constrained to agree with the Commonwealth that Cristina cannot rely on Miller to establish the exception set forth in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(iii). As such, the PCRA court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the Petition, and Cristina's LWOP sentence must remain in effect.

Cristina argues, in the alternative, that because he filed the Petition after Miller, but before Cunningham, we should remand to the PCRA court to afford him the opportunity to amend the Petition so as to construe his invocation of Section 9545(b)(1)(iii) in light of the " current legal landscape[.]" Appellant's Brief, at 15. Ostensibly, Cristina would amend his petition to raise the retroactivity questions left unaddressed in Cunningham, as we discussed supra. However, no such modification could overcome the obstacle presented by Section 9545(b)(1)(iii). Because the United States Supreme Court has never expressly recognized Miller to apply retroactively, Cristina cannot avail himself of that exception to the PCRA's time-bar. The time-bar is jurisdictional in nature and, thus, the PCRA court lacks jurisdiction to entertain the Petition, let alone any amendment thereto. See Commonwealth v. Seskey, 2014 PA Super 27, 86 A.3d 237 (Pa. Super. 2014), appeal denied, 101 A.3d 103 (Pa. 2014).[4] Accordingly, we deny Cristina's remand request.

Order reversed. Jurisdiction relinquished.

Stabile, Judge joins this opinion.

Mundy, Judge files a concurring statement.

Judgment Entered.

Page 424

CONCURRING STATEMENT

MUNDY, J.

I concur in the result reached by the Court. As the Majority notes, the United States Supreme Court denied Appellant's petition for a writ of certiorari on February 21, 1979. Majority Opinion at 2. Therefore, Appellant's judgment of sentence became final on this date. See 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(3) (stating, " a judgment becomes final at the conclusion of direct review, including discretionary review in the Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, or at the expiration of time for seeking the review[]" ). Appellant filed the instant petition on July 27, 2012, which rendered it patently untimely.

" This Court has recognized that a new rule of constitutional law is applied retroactively to cases on collateral review only if the United States Supreme Court or our Supreme Court specifically holds it to be retroactively applicable to those cases." Commonwealth v. Miller, 2014 PA Super 214, 102 A.3d 988, 995 (Pa. Super. 2014) (emphasis added). As the instant case comes to this Court, neither our Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court has held that the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), applies retroactively.[1] In my view, that is the end of the inquiry.

Our Supreme Court's opinion in Commonwealth v. Cunningham, 622 Pa. 543, 81 A.3d 1 (Pa. 2013), cert. denied, Cunningham v. Pennsylvania, 134 S.Ct. 2724, 189 L.Ed.2d 763 (2014), speaks for itself. Although the Majority is correct that Cunningham did not consider every theory of retroactivity under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989) (plurality), and Danforth v. Minnesota, 552 U.S. 264, 128 S.Ct. 1029, 169 L.Ed.2d 859 (2008), Cunningham's overall conclusion nevertheless remains that Miller does not apply retroactively to cases in which the judgment of sentence has become final. See generally Majority Opinion at 8. Accordingly, with the foregoing observations, I respectfully concur in the Court's result that the PCRA court's order must be reversed.


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