How Can a Conviction Be Overturned?
There are ways to overturn a conviction: (1) a motion for a new trial, (2) a direct appeal, or (3) a writ of habeas corpus.
Motion For a New Trial
After a guilty verdict is handed down in a criminal case, one thing a lawyer can do is file a motion for a new trial. This motion has to be filed within 30 days of sentencing, so most of the time the lawyer who represented you at trial will be the one to file this motion. The same judge who presided over your trial decides whether to grant it.
In a motion for a new trial, the lawyer alleges that some specific type of error or misconduct occurred that is serious enough that the verdict should be thrown out and a new trial granted. The grounds for which a motion for a new trial can be granted are limited. They include things such as a juror being bribed, a juror viewing evidence that wasn’t admitted at trial, the judge giving incorrect jury instructions, and the prosecution withholding evidence of innocence from the defense.
The second, and most common, way a conviction can be overturned is through a direct appeal. Within 30 days after you’re sentenced (or 90 days if a motion for a new trial was filed), your lawyer has to file a notice of appeal. Your lawyer will prepare a legal document called a brief to argue to an appellate court that there was some error in your trial that should cause the conviction to be thrown out. Unlike trials, which are presided over by a single judge, appeals are decided by panels of three judges.
People have a misconception that appellate judges look through the trial transcript and decide for themselves if they think that the jury made the right decision. That is not what appellate judges do. Appellate judges look to see if there was some violation of the law or constitution that could have affected the jury’s guilty verdict. It’s possible for a panel of appellate judges to personally believe the jury made the wrong decision but still affirm the conviction because there was no error at your trial.
There are far more arguments a lawyer can make in a direct appeal than in a motion for a new trial. Your lawyer can claim that the judge erred in letting the jury see certain types of evidence, or that the law you were convicted under is unconstitutional, or that the police illegally searched you or your house, or that the police illegally questioned you. Your lawyer can challenge things that the prosecutor did, such as making improper arguments in front of the jury. Your lawyer can argue that there were problems with the way the jury was selected or that the evidence against you was so weak that no reasonable juror could have found you guilty. These are just a few of the many types of arguments that can be raised on appeal.
Writ of Habeas Corpus
The last way to challenge a conviction is through filing a post-conviction writ of habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus is filed after your direct appeal is finished. A writ of habeas corpus is a legal filing in which your lawyer argues that you were convicted in violation of certain constitutional rights. Similar to a motion for a new trial, the constitutional rights violations you can claim in a writ of habeas corpus are limited. They are generally limited to rights violations that you could not have discovered until after your direct appeal was finished.
The most common claim that is raised in a writ of habeas corpus is ineffective assistance of counsel. Your habeas lawyer argues that your trial lawyer didn’t do something that a competent lawyer would have done and that his failure to do that thing made it more likely for the jury to find you guilty. These include things like failing to talk to certain witnesses, failing to investigate your case, or failing to make certain types of objections at trial. Most people don’t realize that their lawyer has been ineffective until after the case is over when they’ve hired a second lawyer to look into what the first lawyer did. You can even raise an ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim and argue that your appellate counsel didn’t make an argument that could have resulted in your conviction being overturned.
Writs of habeas corpus are often used to challenge guilty pleas, since a guilty plea usually includes a waiver of direct appeal. Ineffective assistance of counsel claims can be used to challenge guilty pleas. For example, your lawyer may have not investigated your case and uncovered evidence that would have helped you or may not have made an obvious legal argument that could have caused your case to be dismissed.
Your habeas lawyer might be able to raise a claim of “involuntary plea,” which is an argument that your lawyer didn’t fully inform you of certain negative consequences of pleading guilty that, had you known about, you wouldn’t have pled guilty.
These aren’t the only arguments that can be made. Your lawyer may be able to argue that newly discovered evidence of innocence should cause the verdict to be overturned, or that the prosecution failed to disclose evidence that would have helped you at trial.
Habeas is a complex and specialized area of law, more so than appellate law, and this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the claims you can raise. It’s always best to talk with a lawyer who does habeas writs to find out what, if any arguments, might be available to overturn your conviction.
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