The Superior Court of Pennsylvania on Wednesday reversed the Post-Conviction Relief Act’s court order granting a new trial for Letitia Smallwood.
Smallwood, now 63, was convicted for a 1971 double-murder arson case in Carlisle and sentenced to life imprisonment on each murder count. She was 20 years old when she was convicted of starting a fire in the 100 block of North Pitt Street that killed Steven Johnson and Paula Wagner.
In 2015, her conviction was overturned by Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas Judge Edward Guido, based on new evidence that called into question how arsons were investigated in previous years. A retrial was set to happen in Cumberland County.
Smallwood, after spending 42 years in prison, was released two weeks after that conviction was overturned.
However, the state had appealed that decision to overturn the conviction to the Superior Court.
In an opinion issued Wednesday by Superior Court Judge Ann Lazarus, she said the Post-Conviction Relief Act petition that led to Smallwood’s conviction being overturned was not filed in a “timely” fashion.
Marissa Bluestine, of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which represented Smallwood, told The Associated Press the decision is flawed. She says they are considering whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court or ask the Superior Court to re-examine the case.
Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said he met with Smallwood’s attorneys Wednesday and gave them time to figure out the details of what they want to do next. He explained that post-conviction relief cases can be complicated, especially regarding bail terms between appeals.
“I can’t just agree to anything unless the law provides a mechanism for me to do so,” Freed said. He said Smallwood is likely to appeal the decision.
The court argued that Smallwood learned about advances in fire investigation and the possibility of arson convictions being overturned after a TV program in 1999. She did not file her second PCRA arguing this until 15 years later on March 14, 2014.
The court argued that 15 years between those two events made the PCRA filing “untimely,” since those filings should be made within the required 60 days of discovering a new fact in the case.
The PCRA court opinion in Cumberland County argued that Smallwood used that time to attempt to acquire more information about the advances in fire science while seeking legal assistance to pursue the claim.
The state, however, argued that there was no due diligence or reasonable efforts between 1999 to 2014, but rather “years of attorney and expert shopping.” The state conceded that arson investigation was “more of an art than a science,” according to the Superior Court opinion.
Though Superior Court did not argue the changes in fire science, it did side with the state, saying Smallwood spent the 15 years trying to establish an alternative theory to eliminate arson as a conclusion, when establishing such a theory for her case was not immediately needed.
“Smallwood put forth great effort, but we are unable to find that these steps over 15 years were reasonable given the statutory time restrictions,” Lazarus’ opinion said.
The court even noted that it has no doubt the expert in the case would have given an opinion and evidence that could have led a jury to a different conclusion about Smallwood’s guilt than the original jury in the 1970s. However, the court was confused as to why Smallwood waited so long to file a petition for post-conviction relief upon learning of the information in 1999.
The case was heard before judges Lazarus, Victor Stabile and Alice Beck Dubow. Dubow did not participate in the consideration or decision of the case, according to the Superior Court opinion.