New Laws Protect Integrity of Convictions, Expand DNA Testing/Access to Post-Conviction Relief

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ December 30, 2018


On October 24, 2018, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed two criminal justice reform bills into law. The first, Act 146 of 2018, extends a particular deadline by which to seek post-conviction relief. The second, Act 147 of 2018, significantly expands DNA testing in Pennsylvania in an effort to ensure the integrity of criminal convictions and assure justice is served.

Act 147 greatly expands and updates Pennsylvania’s DNA testing law to reflect advances in technology and practical experience gained by criminal justice professionals in the last 20 years. Notably, Act 147 eliminates the requirement for obtaining DNA testing that a person currently be serving a sentence, now allowing those whose sentences have expired access to DNA testing and the opportunity to prove their innocence that it affords. Also of particular significance, Act 147 allows those who have plead guilty, rather than just those who have been found guilty after a trial, access to DNA testing. Additionally, where DNA testing is ordered, ACT 147 requires the Commonwealth to identify all physical evidence it has in the case that is testable, allows for DNA testing when new technology becomes available, and matches DNA profiles in the FBI’s data base, CODIS.

Post-conviction DNA testing has led to the exoneration of many individuals who have been wrongly convicted. Over 300 Americans – including 12 Pennsylvanians – have been proven innocent by DNA testing after they were convicted. In many of those cases the real perpetrator was ultimately identified and convicted. In order to protect the lives and freedom of innocent people, it is essential that the criminal justice system allow access to DNA testing for the greatest number of people possible. Act 147 is a great step for Pennsylvania toward doing that.

Act 146 of 2018 amends Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). Under the PCRA, a person convicted of a crime typically has one year to file a petition challenging the conviction. There are three exceptions that allow a person to file such a motion after the one-year deadline has passed: (1) failure to file within one year was due to interference by government official(s); (2) there is new evidence the person did not know about at the time of trial and could not have discovered even by the exercise of due diligence; or (3) the motion is based on a new Constitutional right that has been recognized by the United States or Pennsylvania Supreme Court after the one-year deadline under PCRA expired, and the Court has held that the constitutional right applies retroactively.

Until now, Pennsylvania’s PCRA required that any petition filed under one of these exceptions was filed within 60 days after the basis for the claim arose. This deadline was, at times, virtually impossible to meet for some individuals, such as those who were incarcerated and did not have an attorney actively working on their case. Act 146 extends the deadline to file under an exception from 60 days to 1 year. The extension of this deadline to one year will allow a greater number of people to challenge a conviction under PCRA when one of the three exceptions arises.

Together, Acts 146 and 147 greatly expand individuals’ ability to challenge the propriety of a conviction. In doing so, they offer enhanced protection of the rights of those charged with crimes.

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