Post-Conviction Relief • Mental Competency

Commonwealth v. Ali, PICS Case No. 14-0341 (Pa. Feb. 18, 2014) Stevens, J. (14 pages).

Where defendant demonstrated the ability to understand, factually and rationally, the nature of criminal proceedings against him and the ability to raise, preserve, and litigate a PCRA, such showing demonstrated that defendant was not incompetent and therefore was not entitled to a second PCRA petition outside the one-year limit on the basis of the “newly-discovered facts” exception. Affirmed.

Appellant Imanuel Bassil Ali, by the Federal Community Defender’s Office, appealed from the denial of a second PCRA petition stemming from his death sentence for a murder conviction. After his sentence was affirmed on appeal in 1998, Ali filed a timely pro se PCRA petition. PCRA counsel was appointed; however, Ali requested permission to proceed pro se, and continued to file pro se supplemental PCRA petitions. The PCRA court performed a mental health evaluation, and found Ali competent and granted his request to proceed pro se. The PCRA court notified Ali of its intent to dismiss, shortly after which it found Ali incompetent to proceed pro se, and appointed new PCRA counsel. Several weeks later, the court found Ali competent to proceed pro se again. After evidentiary hearing, Ali’s PCRA petition was denied.

Ali appealed the denial, with attorneys from the federal defender appearing on behalf of Ali. Ali then filed his own 1925(b) statement along with a pro se petition to remove counsel, which was opposed by the federal defender, who challenged Ali’s competency and requested a competency hearing before a Grazier hearing. The court denied the federal defender’s request and found Ali competent during the Grazier hearing and permitted him to proceed pro se. The appellate court denied Ali’s appeal from the denial of his PCRA petition.

Federal defender filed a second PCRA petition on behalf of Ali, alleging “newly-discovered” competency and Brady claims, which was denied and from which Federal Defender made the instant appeal. Federal Defender argued that its petition qualified under the “newly-discovered” evidence exception to the one-year time bar on the basis that Ali was mentally incompetent at relevant times during his first PCRA petition, and his incompetence made him incapable of ascertaining facts upon which the current substantive claims were based; therefore, his claims were not waived such that the time-bar applied to them.

Federal defender claims that it was at the time of the Grazier hearing during Ali’s first PCRA petition that it began to question Ali’s competency. Federal defender submitted a report from a psychiatrist who had conducted a pre-trial interview with Ali that raised concerns of possible psychiatric illness, which concluded that Ali was not competent during either his trial or PCRA petition, pointing primarily to Ali’s refusal of legal representation.

The instant court found federal defender’s evidence of mental incapacity to be insufficient, agreeing with the PCRA court’s finding of competency, which the instant court noted was based on two more current, court-ordered mental evaluations of Ali, as well as on the court’s observations of and interactions with Ali, in which he demonstrated a more than usual understanding of the facts and legal arguments of his case, and was able to sufficiently brief and argue his twelve PCRA claims. Consequently, the court found that the issues in the instant second PCRA petition did not qualify for the “newly-discovered” exception and were thus time-barred.