Litigation Department Chair John S. Summers and colleague Dina L. Grove recently filed an amicus brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of a group of former pro se prisoners from Pennsylvania who ultimately were exonerated and released from prison, in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Burton.  The Supreme Court cited extensively their brief and adopted the position they advocated.

The case concerned Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act, which provides prisoners with the right to challenge their conviction.  The PCRA generally provides that a someone convicted must file his challenge within one year from when his sentence becomes final, although he may later challenge the conviction within 60 days of when he learns of facts that were “unknown” to him and “could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence.”  42 Pa.C.S. 9545(b)(1)(ii).  In an earlier opinion, the Supreme Court held that a “fact” in the public record could not qualify as a fact “unknown” because a person’s due diligence should have uncovered it.

Burton addressed whether the Supreme Court should apply this holding to pro se prisoners; that is, would an otherwise public fact still be “unknown” to a pro se inmate who had restricted access to public information and did not have the benefit of a lawyer.  Summers and Grove’s amicus brief demonstrated that pro se inmates’ access was, as a factual matter, very limited.  For example, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections policies did not provide inmates with access to the internet, the limited computer terminals available to inmates could not access web based tools and many inmates had no computer skills or training.  The Commonwealth’s prison law libraries also had limited research resources and inmates could not access public case dockets or pleadings.

The crux of the issue in Burton was whether Mr. Burton, as a pro se inmate, had access to a pleading that was filed after he was convicted which included facts helpful to him and undermining his conviction.  Mr. Burton argued that the public record presumption should not apply to him, because, as a pro se inmate, he had no access to the pleading.  Ruling 5 to2 in favor of Mr. Burton, the Supreme Court permitted Mr. Burton’s PCRA petition to proceed.  Justice Todd’s Opinion, written on behalf of four members of the Court quoted and relied upon Summers and Grove’s amicus brief.

Read the Amicus Brief

Read the Opinion