Overturning an Old Conviction in Washington

When the jury returns a guilty verdict in a criminal case, it may seem like the end for the person who was accused. However, there are additional steps that can be taken to in an effort to overturn a Washington conviction or seek relief from another court.

Overturning a conviction in Washington in the court

Post-Trial Motions

Washington law gives a person who has been convicted of a crime up to one year to file a motion for relief.[1]. Common post-trial motions include a Motion for New Trial, Motion to Vacate Judgment, A Motion to Arrest Judgment, or Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea. This statute does not apply to appeals (discussed below).

The one year limit does not apply to the following:

When a Motion Can Be Filed after the One Year Limit

Alternatively, a motion could be filed more than one year after the verdict was entered if the law was subsequently changed if the legislature or courts making the change stated that the new law should be applied retroactively. The judge also has discretion to find that there are reasons to apply the new law retroactively.[2]

Withdrawing a Guilty Plea

A Motion to Withdraw a Guilty Plea may be filed if the plea was not entered knowingly and voluntarily, such as if the defendant did not have all relevant information regarding the evidence against him. The defendant may not withdraw a plea if the judge imposed a harsher sentence than anticipated, unless the sentence exceeded the judge's authority.

These post-trial motions are filed in the trial court. They are usually heard by the same judge that presided over the trial. When a motion is granted, another trial is held in the same court. If the post-trial motions are denied, the individual may be able to pursue additional options in a different court.

Notice of Appeal

An appeal is the process of asking a higher court to review the judge's ruling or the jury's verdict to see if procedures followed in the courtroom failed to meet constitutional standards.

Common reasons for appeals:

In a criminal appeal, the defendant becomes the appellant and the state becomes the appellee. To begin the process, a Notice of Appeal is filed in the court where the trial was heard. This is not a lengthy document. Its sole purpose is to let the court know what ruling or rulings are being appealed. The Notice of Appeal must be filed within 30 days after the verdict is entered. A late appeal will be rejected. There is a no fee for appealing a criminal conviction according to RCW 36.18.020.

Requesting Bail While the Appeal Is Pending

It is possible to request release on bail while the appeal is pending, unless the person was convicted of a capital offense.[3] For the judge to allow bail, he must find that the appellant is not likely to flee the state, that release will not cause additional trauma for the victim's family, that the delay does not detract from the purposes of ordering jail as punishment, and that the person does not present a danger to the community.

After the Appeal is Filed

After the Notice of Appeal is filed, the trial court clerk compiles the record and forwards it to the Court of Appeals. The appellant also notifies the clerk if any transcripts are required. The clerk of the trial court will gather all necessary documents and transfer them to the Court of Appeals. Then the Court of Appeals will notify the appellant when the brief is due.

Appellant's Brief

The Appellant's Brief sets forth the procedural history of the case, all facts relevant to the appeal, and the basis for arguing that the conviction should be overturned. The brief does not address new evidence that was discovered (unless arguing the denial of a motion for new trial) or make arguments that were not raised in the trial court. After it is filed, the prosecutor is permitted to file an Appellee's Brief, arguing why the state wants the conviction to be upheld. If the prosecutor makes arguments that were not originally raised in the Appellant's Brief, the appellant gets a chance to refute those arguments by filing a Reply Brief.

Court of Appeals Schedules an Oral Argument

After the briefs are filed, the Court of Appeals may schedule an oral argument. Arguments tend to be brief, primarily used for the judges to ask questions of the parties. There is usually not time to review all arguments in the brief, although most people are prepared to do so. The judges make a decision after the argument and issue a written opinion later.

Requesting Council on Appeal

Any person who was represented by a public defender during the trial may also be able to request counsel on appeal. Otherwise, it is up to the appellant to determine whether to use the original attorney, a new attorney, or to represent himself on appeal. The Washington Courts provide a guide to brief-writing for individuals who prefer to represent themselves.

If the Court of Appeals agrees with the appellant, it will vacate the conviction as if the trial never happened. It is up to the prosecutor to decide whether to retry the case in front of a new jury. If the Court of Appeals disagrees with the appellant, it will uphold the verdict. It may then be possible to file a Petition for Review with the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court denies the petition, the original decision stands.

Writ of Habeas Corpus

After a person has exhausted all appeals, it may be possible to file a special request to be released, called a Writ of Habeas Corpus. These writs can be filed in state or federal court, depending on whether the problem alleged is a violation of state or federal law.[4][5]

The Petition outlines the reasons that it is not lawful for the person to remain in custody and can focus on Constitutional violations such as prison conditions that constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

If the writ is granted, the judge issues an order directed at the state, telling it to release the person being held in custody. A writ of habeas corpus is not available to someone who has served their sentence and been released.

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[1] RCW §10.73.090
[2] RCW §10.73.100
[3] RCW §10.73.040
[4] RCW §7.36
[5] 28 U.S.C. 2241