Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Commonwealth v. Burton, ____ A.3d ____, 2017 WL 1149203 (Pa., Mar. 28, 2017). The case involved what is known as the “public-record presumption.” The presumption is this: what is contained in the public record is presumed to be knowable to the masses. The question in this case, however, was whether that presumption should apply to a prisoner who will most likely not have access to the public records like the general public.
The exact facts and details of the Burton case are somewhat nuanced, involving technical procedural quirks. Nevertheless, what is important to know is that Burton was attempting to get a new trial—nearly 20 years after being convicted of first-degree murder—based on receiving information years later that his co-defendant admitted responsibility in an expungement petition for the murder that Burton was convicted of.
Having this information, Burton filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition within 60 days of receiving this new information. He filed the PCRA under an exception to the general rule that requires a PCRA be filed within one year of a judgment becoming final. That exception is known as the “newly discovered evidence exception.” The exception reads:
(b) Time for filing petition.—
- Any [PCRA] . . . shall be filed within one year of the date the judgment becomes final, unless the petition alleges and the petitioner prove that:
* * *
- 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
* * *
42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(ii).
When Burton originally filed the PCRA under this exception, the trial court ruled that Burton was untimely. The case ultimately made its way through the appellate courts, and it end up in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. There, after a lot of analysis of previous caselaw and the statutory language of the “newly discovered evidence exception,” the Supreme Court held as follows:
We hold that the presumption that information which is of public record cannot be deemed “unknown” for purposes of Section 9545(b)(1)(ii) does not apply to pro se prison petitioners.
The Burton case most certainly represents a win for prisoners in Pennsylvania, who are unrepresented and trying to obtain a new trial based upon newly discovered facts.