Com. v. Williams

Decision Date21 July 2003
Citation828 A.2d 981,573 Pa. 613
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Kenneth J. WILLIAMS, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Michael Wiseman, Philadelphia, for Kenneth J. Williams, Appellant.

Bernard Martin, Amy Zapp, Harrisburg, for the Com. of PA, Appellee.




In this appeal we are asked to decide if a capital defendant's pro se motion to withdraw his first timely Post Conviction Collateral Relief Act (PCRA)1 petition2 is controlling in a case in which: 1) the judge never ruled on the motion to withdraw; 2) counsel was sought but not appointed before the motion to withdraw; 3) the court did not conduct a colloquy of the defendant regarding the withdrawal; 4) the court allowed amendment of the petition which was purportedly withdrawn; and, 5) the court held extensive hearings on the issues raised in the amended petition. For the reasons set forth below, we decide that the pro se motion to withdraw—without court action—is not controlling and remand the case to the post-conviction court to address the issues raised in Williams's petition and its amendments.

Williams's first PCRA petition was timely and his pro se motion to withdraw must be deemed without effect since no judge ever granted or denied the motion. Since the PCRA court has held extensive hearings on the merits of Williams's petition, we remand the case for a decision on the merits of the petition as amended.

Williams raises 16 issues in his appeal from the dismissal of his PCRA petition, only the first two of which we need address here: did the PCRA court err in finding Williams's petition untimely and is Williams entitled to a merits review of his claims. We answer both questions in the affirmative. The remaining 14 issues go to the merits of his petition and must first be addressed by the PCRA court. Commonwealth v. Grant, 572 Pa. 48, 813 A.2d 726 (2002).

The issue raised in this case will be of limited application because the Rules of Criminal Procedure now require—in addition to the appointment of post-conviction collateral counsel—a colloquy on waiver on the record. Pa.R.Crim.P. 904(G)(1) and 904(G)(1)(a). The Rules at the time of Williams's first petition made no special provisions in capital cases and required only that "[w]hen an unrepresented defendant satisfies the judge that the defendant is unable to afford or otherwise procure counsel, the judge shall appoint counsel to represent the defendant on the defendant's first motion for a post-conviction collateral relief." Pa.R.Crim.P. 1504(a), renumbered and amended as Pa.R.Crim.P. 904(a), effective April 1, 2001.

In this case, Williams filed a PCRA petition and request for appointed counsel. No counsel was appointed. Williams then filed a motion to withdraw his petition which was never acted on by the court. Indeed, the court later opined during lengthy hearings on the petition that Williams's PCRA petition was timely. Only in December of 2001 did the court decide that the 1996 petition was withdrawn and the 1997 petition was untimely as a second petition. In that holding, the court erred because no judge had acted on the motion to withdraw, the motion was without effect, and the subsequent petitions were properly treated as amendments to the first petition. The docket bears witness to this conclusion.

The docket in this case reveals that on October 3, 1985, Williams was found guilty of first degree murder, robbery, theft by unlawful taking and receiving stolen property. The next day the jury returned a verdict of death, based on a finding of a single aggravator, murder in the course of a felony, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6), and no mitigator.3

On February 27, 1987, Williams's motion for a new trial was heard by the Lehigh Court of Common Pleas en banc. On March 12, 1990, Williams's petition for a new trial was denied and he was sentenced to death on June 29, 1990.

On July 27, 1990, Williams filed a notice of appeal and this Court affirmed the judgment of sentence on August 9, 1994.

On December 20, 1995, Williams's "Pro Se Motion To Proceed In Forma Pauperis And For Appointment Of Post-Conviction Counsel" was docketed and a pro se PCRA petition was docketed on December 26, 1995. The motion is not time-stamped. The petition was timely under the PCRA as then constituted.4 Williams also filed a petition for habeas corpus relief in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. An order for the transmission of the record to the eastern district is docketed on January 11, 1996.

The eastern district appointed counsel for the habeas petition. Lehigh County did not appoint counsel, despite the request in Williams's initial pro se petition.

On January 11, 1996, three days after counsel was appointed in the eastern district but before counsel met with Williams, Williams mailed a pro se "Motion to Discontinue PCRA Petition in State Court(s)." The motion was docketed on January 31, 1996.

A year later, on January 9, 1997, Williams filed a subsequent pro se petition for post-conviction collateral relief. On February 4, 1997, Williams filed a pro se petition to discontinue his PCRA petition "if said petition will affect the federal habeas filed in Eastern District Court." The February 4, 1997 petition also asked for the appointment of counsel and a hearing.

On March 20, 1997, an informal status conference was held in the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County. A week later, on March 27, 1997, the Lehigh County Court docketed the first counseled collateral filing on behalf of Williams, a "Motion for Stay of Proceedings and Leave to Amend." Apparently counsel appointed in federal court agreed to also represent Williams in his state court proceedings. No record of entry of appearance, court appointment, or payment to counsel is docketed.

On April 17, 1997, Judge Carol K. McGinley of the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas entered an order which directed a stay of PCRA proceedings and gave Williams 45 days after the Commonwealth's reply in eastern district court to amend Williams's pro se PCRA petition.

On October 6, 1997, Judge McGinley entered an order for a status conference which was followed by an order staying the PCRA proceedings "to defer jurisdictional preference to the eastern district court" on October 20, 1997. On April 23, 1998, the PCRA was stayed again to defer jurisdictional preference, this time to the Third Circuit.

The PCRA court granted Williams's motion to vacate the stay on the PCRA proceeding on November 25, 1998, and ordered the Commonwealth to "file an answer to the petitioner's post conviction relief act petition by January 25, 1999." Williams's attorney filed a memorandum of law in response to the court's order that:

Counsel for the Petitioner shall file the following no later than March 22, 1999: 1) memorandum of law in respect of the claims by the Commonwealth that certain issues have been litigated; 2) a formal proffer of evidence with regard to matters not already recorded which are necessary to support the following memorandum; 3) identification of any matters which the Commonwealth claims were previously litigated and which the petitioner claims were the subject of ineffective assistance of counsel. It is further ordered that argument on the foregoing issues shall be scheduled by this court and hearing no later than April 22, 1999, and that following said hearing, further proceedings shall be scheduled in order to address the remaining issues left in the Petition of Kenneth Williams.
By the court: Carol K. McGinley.

On April 7, 1999, the PCRA court held a hearing limited to argument5 on the question of which of Williams's claims were to be deemed previously-litigated. The court issued an order and opinion on December 30, 1999.6 The PCRA court's order was accompanied by an extensive opinion regarding the previously-litigated claims. In the "legal history" section of the opinion, Judge McGinley noted that "On January 9, 1997,[sic December 26, 1995] the Defendant filed a Pro Se Petition for Post Conviction Collateral Relief in the Court of Common Pleas. On January 30, 1997 [sic 1996] the Defender's Association of Philadelphia agreed to represent the Defendant. This case was assigned to this Court in March 1997 due to Judge Diefenderfer's having taken Senior Status." In its 1999 opinion the court attached no significance to Williams's attempt to withdraw his petition.

The PCRA court held extensive hearings on May 15, 16, and 17, and October 3 and 4, 2000 on the PCRA issues raised in Williams's amended petitions. Eighteen witnesses testified, generating more than 500 pages of transcript.

On June 29, 2000, the docket reflects an order made from the bench by the court on May 15, 2000, that the "the amended petition for habeas corpus relief, filed September 30, 1997, be filed by the clerk of courts criminal nunc pro tunc for September 30, 1997." (Emphasis added.)

The context in which that order was made was a statement by the PCRA court at the start of the PCRA hearings that there were "procedural issues with regard to this PCRA that I think need to be cleared up. The date of the first filing of the PCRA was filed on January 9th of [1996]." The discussion continued:

[Defense Counsel]: That sounds right, yes.
The Court: That was a pro se petition. It was followed on February 4th of '97 [sic] by a pro se petition7 to discontinue the PCRA. I don't see any ruling on that petition.
[Defense Counsel]: I don't think there was a ruling.
* * *
The Court: It seems to me at some point there was an amended petition
[Defense Counsel]: That's correct.
The Court:—petition for PCRA. And I don't believe that's ever been filed with the Clerk of Courts, although it was submitted to the Court.
[Defense Counsel]: I would not be aware of that personally. I would have thought we filed it.
The Court: I don't

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    • United States
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    • June 17, 2008
    ...hearing, this Court directed the PCRA court to proceed to resolve the petition before it on the merits. See Commonwealth v. Williams, 573 Pa. 613, 828 A.2d 981 (2003). Among the claims asserted were allegations that: former Chief Justice Nix improperly interfered with the appointment of App......
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