Com. v. Collins

Decision Date27 December 2005
Citation888 A.2d 564
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee/Cross-Appellant, v. Ronald COLLINS, Appellant/Cross-Appellee.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Michael Wiseman, Philadelphia, for Ronald Collins.

Hugh J. Burns, Philadelphia, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, for Com.



Chief Justice CAPPY.

Ronald Collins, Appellant herein, appeals from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County denying his guilt phase claims under the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa.C.S. § 9541 et seq. The Commonwealth appeals from that same order, which granted Appellant relief in the form of a new penalty phase hearing. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the Order of the Court of Common Pleas.

On October 21, 1994, a jury convicted Appellant of two counts of first degree murder and one count each of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, and possession of an instrument of crime.1 Following the penalty phase hearing, the jury found two aggravating circumstances related to each of the murders and one mitigating circumstance.2 The jury then found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstance in both cases and fixed the penalty at death. This court affirmed the sentences of death on November 20, 1997, and the United States Supreme Court denied his petition for certiorari on November 30, 1998.

The Governor of Pennsylvania signed a warrant authorizing Appellant's execution for February 4, 1999. Appellant then filed a Stay of Execution and a pro se Petition for Post Conviction Collateral Relief on December 17, 1998. The PCRA court stayed Appellant's execution pending resolution of the PCRA litigation and appointed new counsel. New counsel filed an amended Petition on August 15, 2000. The PCRA court held evidentiary hearings on Appellant's Petition.

Following the evidentiary hearing, the PCRA court affirmed the first degree murder convictions but granted a new penalty phase hearing. In granting a new penalty phase hearing, the PCRA court analogized this case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case of Jermyn v. Horn, 266 F.3d 257 (3d Cir.2001), in which the court concluded that the lack of directed and specific testimony about Jermyn's childhood and its impact on Jermyn's mental illness left the jury's awareness of his mental state incomplete.

It is from this order that the parties appeal. Initially, we note that this court has jurisdiction over Appellant's petition as a direct appeal from the denial of post conviction relief in a death penalty case. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9546(d). Additionally, this court has jurisdiction to review the denial of Appellant's guilt phase claims even though the PCRA court vacated Appellant's sentence of death. See Commonwealth v. Bryant, 566 Pa. 307, 780 A.2d 646, 648 (2001) (indicating that review of the PCRA court's decision denying guilt phase relief should precede the imposition of a new sentence by the trial court).

Turning to Appellant's guilt phase claims, the PCRA court concluded that two of Appellant's claims were previously litigated. In response, Appellant argued that this court's case law holding that "previously litigated" issues, as defined by 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9543(a)(3) and 9544(a)(2), could not be overcome by forwarding a claim of counsel's ineffectiveness conflicted with the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. We acknowledged that Appellant's argument was worthy of closer consideration and ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs on the following issue:

Whether the previously litigated doctrine as interpreted by this court as precluding claims of ineffectiveness that are raised for the first time in a collateral proceeding is constitutional and if not, what the proper interpretation of "previously litigated" is as set forth in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9544(b).3

Per Curiam Order of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 9/30/2004.

Appellant's general argument is simply that an interpretation of "previously litigated" that has the effect of precluding claims of ineffectiveness, which have not been raised previously, does not give adequate consideration to rights granted in the federal and state constitutions or to the nature of ineffectiveness claims. In support of his argument, Appellant contends that the statutory language is clear and merely prohibits a defendant from presenting an "identical" issue. Appellant then argues that this court's interpretation of "previously litigated" as encompassing claims of counsel's ineffectiveness ignores that the discrete issue of counsel's ineffectiveness has not been litigated. Appellant points out that a defendant has a right to effective assistance of counsel at trial and on direct appeal under both the federal and Pennsylvania Constitutions. Evitts v. Lucey, 469 U.S. 387, 105 S.Ct. 830, 83 L.Ed.2d 821 (1985) (interpreting the U.S Constitution amend. VI as including the right to effective assistance of direct appeal counsel); PA. CONST. art. 1, § 9 and art. V, § 9. Thus, Appellant concludes that this court's interpretation of "previously litigated" to include claims attacking counsel's effectiveness undermines the constitutional right to counsel by precluding a defendant from attacking counsel's performance.

Appellant continues that an interpretation of "previously litigated" as precluding ineffectiveness claims fails to acknowledge that post-conviction review is often the only means by which a criminal defendant can challenge the effectiveness of his prior counsel, including his direct appeal counsel. Appellant also points out that the reason for the statutory provision — the concern with finality and the prevention of repetitive and vexatious filings — is of less moment today than it was 35 years ago, since this court has strictly interpreted the one-year time limitations of the PCRA, which by itself prevents repetitive and vexatious filings. For these reasons, Appellant offers that this court should interpret § 9544(a)(2) literally, as limiting only those filings which raise claims of trial court error or ineffectiveness that were actually presented to and decided on direct appeal.

The Commonwealth responds that the PCRA's previous litigation provision does not infringe upon a defendant's constitutional right to counsel. Rather, the provision simply precludes a previously rejected claim of trial court error from serving as the basis of an allegation of counsel's ineffectiveness. Such a result is consonant with the PCRA's bedrock principles of finality. See Commonwealth v. Peterkin, 554 Pa. 547, 722 A.2d 638, 642 (1998); Commonwealth v. Haag, 570 Pa. 289, 809 A.2d 271, 287 (2002). Thus, the PCRA's unambiguous provision should continue to be interpreted to foreclose repetitive claims that were litigated on direct appeal and to ensure finality in judgments. The Commonwealth asserts that the "previous litigation" bar is merely the codification of the "law of the case" doctrine, which provides that later phases of a litigated matter should not reopen issues decided by another judge of the same court or by a higher court involved in the earlier phases of the matter. Furthermore, in the interest of stare decisis, this court should uphold its numerous cases interpreting the PCRA's previous litigation provision. The Commonwealth points out that this court has consistently interpreted the previous litigation doctrine to preclude reconsideration of a claim that serves as the basis for an allegation of ineffectiveness if the underlying issue was rejected on direct appeal. E.g., Commonwealth v. Bond, 572 Pa. 588, 819 A.2d 33 (2002); Commonwealth v. McCall, 567 Pa. 165, 786 A.2d 191 (2001); Commonwealth v. Carpenter, 555 Pa. 434, 725 A.2d 154 (1999). For all these reasons, the Commonwealth concludes that this court should continue to interpret the PCRA's previous litigation provision to preclude reconsideration of an issue, even when the issue is raised in the context of ineffective assistance of counsel.

With that in mind, we turn to the relevant statutory provisions, which are as follows:

(a) General rule. — To be eligible for relief under this subchapter, the petitioner must plead and prove by a preponderance of the evidence all of the following:

* * * * * *

(3) That the allegation of error has not been previously litigated or waived.

42 Pa.C.S. § 9543(a)(3).

(a) Previous litigation. — For purposes of this subchapter, an issue has been previously litigated if * * * * * *

(2) the highest appellate court in which the petitioner could have had review as a matter of right has ruled on the merits of the issue;

42 Pa.C.S. § 9544(a)(2).4

From these subsections, it is clear that the relevant statutory inquiry is the term "issue." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9544(a)(2). There is nothing in this subsection defining "issue". That term, as used in "pleading and practice," is understood to mean "a single, certain, and material point, deduced by the allegations and pleadings of the parties, which is affirmed on the one side and denied on the other." BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY, 6th ed. 831. Thus, "issue" refers to the discrete legal ground that was forwarded on direct appeal and would have entitled the defendant to relief.5 See, e.g., Sanders v. United States, 373 U.S. 1, 83 S.Ct. 1068, 10 L.Ed.2d 148 (1963) (defining "grounds" as "a sufficient legal basis for granting the relief sought by the applicant"). The theories or allegations in support of the ground are simply a subset of the issue presented. Stated another way, there can be many theories or allegations in support of a single issue, but ultimately, § 9544(a)(2) refers to the discrete legal ground raised and decided on direct review. Thus, at the most basic level, this section prevents the relitigation of the same legal ground under alternative...

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