Senate Passes Greenleaf Conviction Integrity Bills Extending Time Limit for Post-Conviction Relief and Expanding DNA Testing

On Tuesday, April 17th, the Pennsylvania State Senate voted to pass two bill sponsored by Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf (R, 12) to make landmark improvements to Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act and DNA testing laws to ensure conviction integrity and bring justice to more Pennsylvanians. 

SB 915 would extend the time limit for a convicted person to file for post-conviction relief under the new evidence exception from sixty days to one year.  SB 916 makes numerous updates to Pennsylvania’s DNA testing law, including allowing persons who have plead guilty to access testing, and allowing someone to file for testing after their sentence has expired. 

“These bills are long overdue, and would help ensure that justice is being done in Pennsylvania,” said Senator Greenleaf.  “Even if one person has been wrongly convicted, it is a massive failure of our justice system and the ideals that are most important to us as Americans.  Both of these bills address conviction integrity in providing a realistic time frame for someone to file for a re-trial due to the discovery of new evidence, and greatly expands DNA testing even for those who have plead guilty to a crime.  In many cases, a person was coerced into a false confession that resulted in not only a wrongful conviction, but also denied them justice through DNA testing.” 

To date, 333 wrongfully convicted Americans have been proven innocent by DNA testing, including 12 Pennsylvanians. The real perpetrators were identified in 163 DNA-based exoneration cases. These offenders went on to be convicted of 145 additional crimes, including 77 rapes and 34 murders.

SB 915, Extending Post-Conviction Relief Deadlines for Discovery of New Evidence

Under current Pennsylvania law, a convicted person has one year from the date of the conviction to file a post-conviction relief action challenging the conviction. If the person misses the one-year deadline there are three exceptions to the rule that allow the person to bring a petition despite the expiration of the one-year time limit. The exceptions are that (1) the failure to raise the claim previously was the result of interference by government officials with the presentation of the claim; (2) there is new evidence that was unknown to the person at the time of the trial and could not have been discovered by the exercise of due diligence; and (3) the right asserted is a constitutional right that was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States or of Pennsylvania after the one-year time period expired and the court said that the right applied retroactively. In the case of these three exceptions the person has only 60 days to file a petition invoking the exception.

The General Assembly established the 60-day requirement in 1995 during the special session on crime (Act 32) to reduce the number of frivolous petitions filed by inmates. The 60-day rule has proven to be a hurdle that creates a hardship on many incarcerated individuals. The 60-day rule is unrealistic because it often takes years to determine whether fragments of new evidence, added together, are enough to construct a solid case. And, given that the persons involved are often incarcerated with no attorney actively working on their case, it makes complying with the rule next to impossible. The one-year rule is more realistic for most claims. 

SB 915 extends the time period to one year for bringing a petition based on one of the exceptions. A person convicted of a crime who several years later becomes aware of new evidence, for example, that quite possibly would have changed the outcome of his trial would have one year from the discovery of the new evidence to file the petition.

SB 916, Expanding DNA Testing 

SB 916 would update Pennsylvania’s DNA testing law to reflect significant advances in technology and the lessons learned by criminal justice professionals since 2002. The legislation would accomplish the following:

  • Remove the supervision requirement. Currently only people serving a sentence can apply for DNA testing. Dozens of citizens have been denied the ability to prove their innocence because their sentence expired. Twenty-nine other states have no incarceration or supervision requirement in their DNA law.
  • Allow those who plead guilty to access testing. Nationally, ten percent of DNA-based exonerees initially pleaded guilty to the charges even though they were innocent.
  • Require the Commonwealth to identify all physical evidence in a case. Currently, petitioners for testing must identify all evidence to be tested, but they are often unaware of all the physical evidence collected by the Commonwealth during the investigation.
  • Allow testing when new DNA testing technology becomes available. Currently, DNA testing is only available when the testing technology being requested was not available at the time of trial. The statutory language has caused confusion in the courts. In addition, many testing laboratories reach “inconclusive” results when there are multiple persons’ DNA in a sample, but newer technologies exist to separately identify the DNA of multiple persons.
  • Matching with DNA profiles in CODIS. A court must currently consider whether DNA testing will yield “exculpatory results” when deciding whether to grant testing. My bill will clarify that courts may also consider whether DNA testing will be exculpatory for someone other than the petitioner. This is because the testing results will be added to the FBI’s DNA database, called CODIS.

These bills will now be considered by the House of Representatives.

Contact: Aaron Zappia (215) 657-7700