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Schnader Helps Secure Victory for Pro Se Incarcerated Defendants

04/10/2017

Schnader represented the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and the Innocence Network as amicus curiae in a Supreme Court appeal concerning Shawn Burton, an incarcerated inmate convicted in 1993 of conspiracy to kill another inmate in the Allegheny County Jail. In 2009, Burton’s co-defendant Melvin Goodwine admitted to the murder in a court filing but claimed self-defense and stated that an innocent man was in jail because of him. Under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act, a defendant must file a petition within 60 days of any newly discovered evidence. Burton did not find out about the filing until 2013, but argued that as a pro se incarcerated defendant, it was impossible for him to find out about Goodwine’s motion. The trial court disagreed, and applied a presumption that litigants are aware of the contents of public records.

On appeal, the Superior Court reversed, holding that incarcerated inmates representing themselves are due some latitude and the presumption should not apply. On March 28, the Supreme Court affirmed, noting that in reality, “prisoners’ access to public records is distinctly compromised.” The Court remanded the matter to the trial court for a hearing on what Burton could have known and whether he exercised diligence.

Robert J. Cindrich, Timothy K. Lewis, Paul H. Titus, and Jay Evans represented the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and the Innocence Network in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appeal.