As general rule for the criminal justice system in Utah, a conviction can only be challenged and overturned when a defendant or offender is still serving his or her sentence. In most situations, the sentence includes not only the period of actual incarceration but also any associated term of parole or supervised release. Even within that time period, there also exist some specific rules of procedure further governing the timeliness of seeking to have a conviction overturned.
Overturn a Conviction in Utah
Although this is the general rule regarding the time frame to seek this type of relief, there is a very limited area in which an old conviction can be challenged even after a sentence is satisfied. A conviction may be overturned, even after the sentence has been completed, if compelling evidence exists and demonstrates the individual's actual innocence.
When a person convicted of a crime has completed a sentence, he or she can seek to have the sentencing court reopen the proceedings. This is undertaken via a motion to that court contending that compelling evidence exists to support the actual innocence of the defendant.
As referenced above, a case to overturn an old conviction needs to be founded upon evidence of actual innocence. The most common type of evidence utilized to support actual innocence in this type of proceeding in Utah is the results of DNA testing. For example, DNA test results that demonstrate a convicted person simply could not be the perpetrator of the crime that underlies the case brought against a particular defendant.
In reality, when seeking to have an old conviction overturned after a sentence is served, the statutes of limitations and other laws setting deadlines for challenging convictions will have expired. As a result, when a defendant desires to seek this type of remedy, he or she is relying on what are known as the equitable powers of the court. In other words, no specific law exists to permit the relief desired but a court considers the request as a matter of justice and fairness.
With that noted, a person who obtains access to evidence of actual innocence cannot unnecessarily delay the process of seeking relief from the court. A defendant must seek relief from the court within a reasonable time period of obtaining evidence that demonstrates actual innocence.
Even when a person has obtained uncontroverted evidence of actual innocence, the odds for success on a motion to overturn an old conviction is not a "sure thing." A court is not obligated to entertain a motion put forth by a defendant to seek this type of relief when a sentence is completed. A court will entertain this type of motion at its discretion and in what a judge perceives to be the interests of justice and fairness. Even if the court agrees to hear this type of motion, approving or denying the relief requested by the defendant is also something well within the judicial discretion of the court.
If a judge declines to hear a motion for this type of relief, appealing that decision is likely to be futile. In order to prevail on appeal in this type of situation, a defendant would have to demonstrate that the judge's decision was an abuse of discretion. In other words, a defendant would be left having to meet the virtually insurmountable burden of demonstrating that no reasonable person would have taken the position of the judge in regard to the motion to overturn an old sentence.
The concept of having an old sentence overturned can seem simplistic on the surface. This is particularly the case when the relief is sought because of evidence demonstrating that the convicted person actually is innocent of the crime. In reality, overturning a conviction in these circumstances requires the assistance of a skilled attorney with extensive experience in what are known as post conviction remedies. Ultimately, a person seeking to have a sentence overturned will really want to focus on identifying a lawyer who has dealt with actual cases of innocence in the past.
The biggest cost that a person faces in pursuing to have an old sentence overturned without professional legal assistance is losing the case. On the other hand, retaining a private attorney with experience in post conviction causes of action can be an expensive proposition. With that said, there are occasions in which private counsel may be willing to provide a reduced fee arrangement as part of a commitment to provide at least some pro bono (or volunteer) professional service.
Many people who find themselves in a position to attempt to have an old conviction overturned do not necessarily have the financial resources necessary to engage an attorney with the appropriate level of experience necessary to pursue such a case. Thus, they focus on attempting to identify free resources for legal assistance of this nature.
There are organizations like the Innocence Project that specialize in cases in which DNA and other types of reliable evidence demonstrates a person was not guilty of the crime for which they were convicted. (The Innocence Project actually deals with a narrow spectrum of cases, more often than not those involving people on death row.)
Law school clinical programs are often willing to assist a person with this type of case. Through a law school clinic, law students represent clients under the supervision of licensed attorneys. Organizations like the ACLU sometimes provide legal assistance to individuals seeking to have an old conviction overturned.
Finally, if a court makes an initial determination that the motion to overturn a sentence has merit, a judge might consider appointing an attorney from the public defender's or appellate public defender's office. Although this is a possibility, it is not a decision a defendant can necessarily rely upon in this type of proceeding.
Find more legal articles in our articles database.
*Law & Order photo was cropped from its original proportions.