Commonwealth v. Lambert

Decision Date18 October 2005
Citation584 Pa. 461,884 A.2d 848
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. James LAMBERT, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Daniel Silverman, for James Lambert, appellant.

Amy Zapp, Hugh J. Burns, for the Com. of PA, appellee.




Appellant James Lambert appeals from the order of the Court of Common Pleas dismissing his second petition for relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa.C.S. § 9541 et seq. For the reasons set forth below, we find that appellant is not entitled to relief and, accordingly, we affirm the order of the PCRA court.

On April 25, 1984, appellant was convicted of first degree murder, robbery, conspiracy, and related offenses in connection with the murders of two patrons during a robbery of a bar in Philadelphia.1 Following a penalty-phase hearing, the jury returned a sentence of death for each murder count. On direct appeal, this Court affirmed appellant's convictions and sentences. Lambert, 529 Pa. 320, 603 A.2d 568. Appellant then filed his first PCRA petition on June 15, 1995. The PCRA court dismissed the petition without a hearing on January 29, 1998. This Court affirmed on appeal. Commonwealth v. Lambert, 568 Pa. 346, 797 A.2d 232 (2001) (Opinion Announcing the Judgment of the Court). On March 15, 2002, this Court denied appellant's petition for reconsideration. Commonwealth v. Lambert, 2002 Pa. Lexis 1776 (Pa.2002). On May 8, 2002, appellant filed the instant PCRA petition, his second, which the PCRA court dismissed. Appellant appealed to this Court.

A PCRA petition, including a second or subsequent petition, must be filed within one year of the date that judgment of sentence becomes final. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1). A judgment becomes final for purposes of the PCRA "at the conclusion of direct review, including discretionary review in the Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, or at the expiration of time for seeking the review." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(3). If a PCRA petition is untimely, neither this Court nor the trial court has jurisdiction over the petition. Commonwealth v. Murray, 562 Pa. 1, 753 A.2d 201, 203 (2000). "Without jurisdiction, we simply do not have the legal authority to address substantive claims." Commonwealth v. Fisher, 582 Pa. 276, 870 A.2d 864, 869 (2005).

Here, appellant concedes that he did not file the instant PCRA petition within one year of the date that his judgment became final. Appellant contends, however, that his petition is timely as it fits within two of the three exceptions to the PCRA's timeliness requirements provided in Section 9545(b)(1). That Section provides in full:

Any petition under this subchapter, including a second or subsequent petition, shall be filed within one year of the date the judgment becomes final, unless the petition alleges and the petitioner proves that:
(i) the failure to raise the claim previously was the result of interference by government officials with the presentation of the claim in violation of the Constitution or laws of this Commonwealth or the Constitution or laws of the United States;
(ii) 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; or
(iii) the right asserted is a constitutional right that was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States or the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania after the time period provided in this section and has been held by that court to apply retroactively.

42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1). Moreover, any petition invoking one or more of these timeliness exceptions must be filed within sixty days from the date that the claim could have been presented. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(2).

Appellant argues that the claims raised in his serial petition fall within both the "governmental interference" exception, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(i), and the "newly discovered evidence" exception, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1)(ii), to the timeliness provision of the PCRA, because the Commonwealth withheld impeachment and exculpatory evidence, thus violating Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). Specifically, appellant raises seven Brady claims, relying on notations found in several police activity sheets and other documents contained in the archived police file concerning this case. Appellant contends that the Commonwealth withheld valuable impeachment and exculpatory evidence contained in these undisclosed documents, which, according to appellant, demonstrates that several of the Commonwealth's key witnesses lied at trial, and that appellant was in fact innocent of any crime.

In response, the Commonwealth argues that in order for appellant's PCRA petition to fall within the cited timeliness exceptions, he must actually establish a meritorious Brady claim. The Commonwealth argues that the PCRA court correctly determined that each Brady claim asserted by appellant was without merit and, thus, appellant's petition is untimely. The newly discovered evidence exception, set forth in Section 9545(b)(1)(ii), however, does not require a merits analysis of the claim in order for it to qualify as timely and warranting merits review. The exception merely requires that the "facts" upon which such a claim is predicated must not have been known to appellant, nor could they have been ascertained by due diligence. Appellant asserts that the "facts" upon which his Brady claims are based derive from documents contained in this case's archived police file, which were not "known" to him until after the filing of his initial PCRA petition. In accordance with this Court's decision in Commonwealth v. Lark, 560 Pa. 487, 746 A.2d 585 (2000),2 appellant's counsel filed the present serial PCRA petition on May 8, 2002, which was within the requisite sixty days of this Court's denial of appellant's reconsideration petition following our decision on his first PCRA petition on March 15, 2002. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(2). Therefore, so long as the facts set forth in the police file were not otherwise known to appellant, the Brady claims he asserts are "timely" under the newly discovered evidence exception. In this case, it appears that six of appellant's seven Brady complaints are reviewable on the merits, while the seventh is time-barred. However, because we find that appellant's "timely" Brady claims are without merit, we conclude that the PCRA court properly dismissed appellant's serial PCRA petition.

The manner in which appellant obtained the alleged impeachment and exculpatory evidence underlying his Brady claims was extraordinary. In October 2001, proceedings were commenced before the Honorable D. Webster Keogh, the Supervising Judge of the Criminal Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia, following a formal complaint filed by the Commonwealth regarding the improper use of subpoenas by the Federal Capital Habeas Corpus Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia ("Federal Defender") to obtain archived police files. At these proceedings, it was revealed that between June and October 2001, the Federal Defender improperly subpoenaed the original police files for approximately twenty-five capital cases from the Philadelphia City Archivist, apparently in an effort to circumvent the discovery requirements set forth in Pa.R.Crim.P. 902(E). On October 29, 2001, Judge Keogh ordered that the archived police files obtained by the Federal Defender be sealed, thus precluding the Federal Defender from disclosing the contents of the files they unlawfully secured. In a decision letter dated February 8, 2002, Judge Keogh concluded that the Federal Defender's actions constituted an abuse of the subpoena power to such an improper and illegal extent that he referred the matter to the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board for appropriate action.

The original police file for the instant case was one of the archived police files obtained by the Federal Defender. In the instant serial PCRA petition, appellant's counsel, who is not contractually or otherwise affiliated with the Federal Defender, stated that while appellant's appeal of his first PCRA petition was pending before this Court, he became aware that the Federal Defender, who had been assisting counsel in the litigation of this case, were in possession of the original police file. Counsel was informed by the Federal Defender that the file allegedly contained unspecified Brady material. In accordance with Lark, 560 Pa. 487, 746 A.2d 585, counsel filed the present PCRA petition within the requisite sixty days of this Court's denial of appellant's reconsideration petition following our decision on his first PCRA petition. The PCRA court, per the Honorable John J. Poserina, Jr., scheduled an evidentiary hearing for September 24, 2002 for the limited purpose of hearing testimony from an attorney from the Federal Defender regarding alleged undisclosed exculpatory evidence contained in the archived police file. On September 16, 2004, however, PCRA counsel filed a motion submitting that he required the archived police file in order to prepare for the evidentiary hearing. Attached to the motion was an order directing the Federal Defender to turn over the police file to counsel. The motion did not mention Judge Keogh's existing order sealing all archived police files obtained by the Federal Defender. The PCRA court issued the order and appellant thereby obtained the archived police file from the Federal Defender. Counsel subsequently filed a supplement to his serial PCRA petition on September 24, 2002, asserting nine Brady claims.3

The law governing alleged Brady violations is well-settled. In Brady, the United States Supreme Court held that "the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the...

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