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Commonwealth v. Cruz

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

November 15, 2019

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
JAMES R. CRUZ, JR. Appellant

          Appeal from the PCRA Order Entered December 18, 2018 in the Court of Common Pleas of Centre County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-14-CR-0001246-1993.

          BEFORE: DUBOW, J., NICHOLS, J., and MUSMANNO, J.

          OPINION

          MUSMANNO, J.

         James R. Cruz, Jr. ("Cruz"), appeals from the Order dismissing his second Petition for relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"). See 42 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 9541-9546. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         This Court previously set forth the relevant factual background as follows:

Cruz was convicted of criminal homicide and theft on June 14, 1994[, ] and was sentenced to life imprisonment. At trial, the Commonwealth entered evidence relating to a number of hairs, recovered during the underlying criminal investigation, which implicated Cruz in the murder. Specifically, hair identified as belonging to the victim was found in the cab of Cruz's truck, and hair identified as belonging to Cruz was found on the ropes that had been used to bind and fatally strangle the victim.
To establish that the recovered hairs belonged to Cruz and to the victim, the Commonwealth relied, in part, on microscopic hair analysis. [Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI")] Agent Chester Blythe [("Agent Blythe")] testified at trial regarding the use of microscopic hair analysis as a forensic method. In [his] testimony, Agent Blythe drew scientific conclusions that implicated Cruz in the murder of the victim. …

Commonwealth v. Cruz, 178 A.3d 208 (Pa. Super. 2017) (unpublished memorandum at 1). On December 22, 1995, this Court affirmed Cruz's judgment of sentence. See Commonwealth v. Cruz, 674 A.2d 313 (Pa. Super. 1995) (unpublished memorandum), appeal denied, 544 Pa. 673 (Pa. 1996).

         On March 10, 1997, Cruz filed his first PCRA Petition. The PCRA court dismissed Cruz's Petition, and this Court affirmed the dismissal. See Commonwealth v. Cruz, 120 A.3d 1047 (Pa. Super. 2015) (unpublished memorandum), appeal denied, 633 Pa. 753 (Pa. 2015). "On April 20, 2015, the [FBI] issued a press release admitting, for the first time, that testimony by FBI analysts regarding microscopic hair analysis in criminal trials was erroneous in the vast majority of cases (hereinafter, "FBI press release")." Commonwealth v. Chmiel, 173 A.3d 617, 619 (Pa. 2017).

         On September 10, 2015, Cruz filed the instant, pro se, PCRA Petition, alleging that he had received a letter from the Department of Justice (the "DOJ letter"), advising him that Agent Blythe's testimony at his trial contained erroneous statements.[1] The PCRA court appointed Cruz counsel, who filed an Amended Petition, arguing that Cruz's PCRA Petition was timely filed under the "newly-discovered fact" exception. See 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(1)(ii). After filing a Pa.R.Crim.P. 907 Notice of Intent to Dismiss, the PCRA court dismissed the Petition without a hearing. This Court affirmed the Order of the PCRA court, holding that Cruz's Petition was untimely, and did not qualify for any of the three timeliness exceptions. See Commonwealth v. Cruz, 178 A.3d 208 (Pa. Super. 2017) (unpublished memorandum).

         Notably, the Cruz Court, relying on Commonwealth v. Edmiston, 65 A.3d 339 (Pa. 2013), held that the information within the DOJ letter was not a "newly-discovered fact," but was instead, "a new source of previously knowable facts." Cruz, 178 A.3d 208 (unpublished memorandum at 3). The Cruz court stated that the FBI press release was merely new analysis of old facts, and therefore, did not support a timeliness exception under section 9545(b)(1)(ii). Id.

         Cruz sought allowance of appeal with our Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Cruz's Petition for allowance of appeal, vacated this Court's order, and remanded to the PCRA court, in light of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in Chmiel, 173 A.3d at 628 (holding that the FBI press release is a newly-discovered fact "upon which [appellant]'s underlying claim is predicated," as that phrase is defined in the PCRA's exception to the one-year filing requirement, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(1)(ii)). See Commonwealth v. Cruz, 183 A.3d 348 (Pa. 2018) (unpublished per curiam order).

         On remand, the PCRA court dismissed Cruz's Petition without a hearing, finding that, even in light of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's holding in Chmiel, Cruz's Petition was untimely. See PCRA Court Opinion, 12/14/18, at 1-2 (unnumbered). The PCRA court reasoned that Cruz's sixty-day time limit for asserting the newly-discovered fact exception started on April 20, 2015, the date of the FBI press release. The PCRA court determined that Cruz's PCRA Petition, dated September 10, ...


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