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Commonwealth v. Staton

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

May 24, 2018


          SUBMITTED: December 21, 2017

          Appeal from the Order dated January 31, 2017, entered on February 2, 2017 in the Court of Common Pleas, Blair County, Criminal Division at No. CP-07-0001850-2005.



          MUNDY, JUSTICE

         Appellant, Andre Staton, appeals from the February 2, 2017 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Blair County, dismissing as untimely, his petition for relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546. After careful review, we affirm.

         This Court has previously recited the underlying facts of Staton's case in our opinions disposing of his direct appeal, as well as his first PCRA appeal. See generally Commonwealth v. Staton, 38 A.3d 785 (Pa. 2012) (Staton I); Commonwealth v. Staton, 120 A.3d 277 (Pa. 2015) (Staton II), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 807 (2016). For the purposes of the instant appeal, we summarize the relevant underlying factual and procedural history as follows.

         Sometime in 2003, Staton began dating the victim, Beverly Yohn. In the fall of 2003, one of Beverly's friends observed injuries on her person.[1] Later on, in January 2004, Beverly called the local police, asserting that Staton had attacked her. Beverly obtained a temporary protection from abuse (PFA) order against Staton on January 27, 2004, and a final PFA order on February 19, 2004.

         On the morning of February 25, 2004, Beverly and her three sons were staying at the home of Penny Lantz, Beverly's mother. Lantz had left the house to go to work. One of Beverly's sons, Justin Yohn, was outside starting the car for her to take him to school, when he saw Staton rush up to the house. Staton told Justin to keep quiet, and Staton kicked in the back door. Jeremy Yohn, also Beverly's son, was in the kitchen. Jeremy observed his mother lock the back door, but shortly afterwards saw Staton kick the door down and enter the kitchen. Jeremy saw Staton pull a knife out of his jacket and watched Staton stab Beverly until she collapsed onto the floor. Staton ran out of the house through the same back door, threw Justin out of the car he had started, and drove away in it. Beverly was taken to Altoona Hospital Trauma Center and was pronounced dead later that day.

         Staton was apprehended, and the Commonwealth filed an information on October 6, 2005, charging him with one count each of criminal homicide, burglary, criminal trespass, theft by unlawful taking, and receiving stolen property, as well as two counts of aggravated assault. Staton proceeded to a jury trial, at the conclusion of which, the jury convicted him of all charges, with the criminal homicide graded as first-degree murder. At the penalty phase, the jury found two aggravating factors and four mitigating factors, but concluded the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors, and returned a death sentence, which the trial court formally imposed on June 1, 2006. Staton filed a timely post-sentence motion, which the trial court denied. This Court affirmed the judgment of sentence on February 21, 2012. See Staton I, 38 A.3d at 796. Staton did not seek a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court of the United States.

         On May 9, 2012, Staton filed a timely pro se PCRA petition. On May 11, 2012, the PCRA court appointed counsel, Timothy Burns, Esquire. Petitioner filed an amended pro se PCRA petition on August 20, 2012. On May 13, 2013, the parties appeared before the PCRA court. At this proceeding, the parties discussed Staton's then-pending motion to proceed pro se. Both Attorney Burns, and the Commonwealth opposed the motion on several grounds. Staton voiced his continued desire to represent himself, and his dissatisfaction with Attorney Burns' representation. The PCRA court denied Staton's motion to proceed pro se. As the PCRA court hearing drew to a close, Staton got up from his chair and swung at Attorney Burns. Staton struck Attorney Burns in the head, causing him to be temporarily unconscious. Attorney Burns suffered a severe concussion and was taken to a nearby hospital.[2]

         On May 28, 2013, the PCRA court entered an order and opinion. Therein, the PCRA court vacated its order appointing Attorney Burns in light of the assault, and further concluded Staton had waived his right to counsel under Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 904(H)(1). The PCRA court further stated it had reviewed all of Staton's issues in his August 20, 2012 amended pro se petition and concluded no issues of material fact existed. It therefore notified Staton of its intent to dismiss his petition without a hearing and explained why none of his claims entitled him to relief. See generally Pa.R.Crim.P. 909(B)(2)(a). Staton filed a timely pro se response. On September 25, 2013, the PCRA court entered an order denying Staton's PCRA petition. Petitioner filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court.

         This Court affirmed on July 20, 2015. Relevant to the instant appeal, this Court concluded that Staton had not waived his right to counsel, but rather forfeited his right to counsel. We explained that wavier of a right involves intentional or voluntary abandonment of a right, whereas forfeiture involves serious or dilatory conduct, even if one did not intend to abandon the right. Staton II, 120 A.3d at 286 (citation omitted). We concluded that Staton's unprovoked attack on Attorney Burns constituted "extremely serious conduct" that met the threshold of forfeiting his right to PCRA counsel, and the PCRA court did not err in proceeding to adjudicate the merits of Staton's amended pro se petition. Id. This Court then rejected Staton's remaining six issues. The Supreme Court of the United States denied Staton's petition for a writ of certiorari on January 11, 2016.

         On February 22, 2016, Staton filed the instant pro se PCRA petition. Therein, Staton alleged that he had been deprived of "a full, fair, adequate, and properly amended first PCRA petition." Staton's Second PCRA Petition, 2/22/16, at ¶ 3. Specifically, Staton alleged that on December 23, 2015, he reviewed a counseled pleading filed on his behalf in his federal habeas proceeding, in which he purportedly learned for the first time that Attorney Burns never filed an amended first PCRA petition on his behalf. Id. at ¶ 50. In his view, this deprived him of his constitutional rights insofar as he did not have an opportunity to be heard on the merits of his previous state and federal constitutional claims. Id. at ¶ 51.

         As to timeliness, Staton acknowledged his petition was facially untimely, but alleged that the newly-discovered fact time-bar exception applied. Id. at ¶ 55. He also alleged that he had complied with the 60-day rule at Section 9545(b)(2). Id. The alleged newly-discovered fact was that the PCRA court had adjudicated his August 20, 2012 pro se amended PCRA petition on the merits. Id. In Staton's view, his own filing violated the rule against hybrid representation, since at the time of filing, Attorney Burns was still ...

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