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Overturning an Old Conviction in North Carolina

Conviction being overturned in North Carolina courtroom

There are few remedies available for obtaining relief from an old criminal conviction in North Carolina after one has served a sentence, such as when the defendant is no longer serving prison time but seeks to have a prior conviction vacated or nullified. North Carolina General Statutes provide a powerful remedy for convictions that violate fundamental policies of fairness and justice. The legal and procedural framework to overturn an old conviction, through a Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR), can be found in N.C.G.S. §15A-1415.

The other remedy is in the federal system, the federal habeas corpus proceedings for a state conviction. If it was an old conviction and the defendant has served a sentence, then one must meet the detention or custody requirement for habeas corpus by showing a significant limitation on freedom. Some cases hold that probation and parole conditions meet that requirement. An old conviction no longer carries the right to direct appeal, and habeas corpus proceedings do not apply unless one can prove the custody element.

Limits of Post Conviction Relief

Neither appeals nor post-conviction relief can retry a case and get a new result. Post-conviction procedures do not involve the question of guilt or innocence; rather, they focus on whether the proceedings were carried out legally and within the framework of the protections guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions. The remedies available to the reviewing court include vacating the judgment, ordering a new trial or ordering resentencing.

Advantages of North Carolina MARs

Direct appeals from a conviction have time limits for filing and are limited to the matters in the trial record. One cannot raise new arguments nor introduce new evidence. Discovery of new evidence can occur at any time and it can provide proof of innocence in a case wherein the defendant has been convicted and served all or part of a sentence. MARs is one of the available methods for introducing new evidence and creating a basis for a new trial or vacating a criminal conviction. The legal standard of proof for MARs is the clear and convincing evidence standard; it must be initially supported by affidavits.

Grounds for MARs

North Carolina G.S. § 15A-1415(b) provides the grounds that a defendant must plead and prove by clear and convincing evidence. The chief benefit of the MAR process is that one can bring new evidence, facts, and other matters not included in the record of the trial. Here is a list of circumstances that would be a ground for MARs:

Conviction Exceeded the Powers of the Court
If a court lacks the power to hear the case, or lacks power over the defendant, then everything it does must be invalid. Two of the ten bases overturn convictions if the court had no power to hear the case, or lacked power over the defendant; the acts charged were not crimes.
Illegal Detention
A Motion for Appropriate Relief authorized to stop illegal detention of an individual who has served the prescribed sentence and has not been released.
Change in Law
After the trial and conviction, the law applied changed. Whether a procedure or a change in the rule of law, the defendant seeks to have a new law or procedure applied to the case.
Unconstitutional Law or Proceedings
The defendant can prove that the laws applied to the trial and conviction were unconstitutional under the federal or North Carolina constitutions; or that the conviction was obtained by violation defendant’s constitutional rights.
Illegal Sentence
A sentence that exceeds the authority or wrongfully applies sentencing standards is the basis for ordering further proceedings to correct errors. This ground includes unauthorized sentences, was not a sentence authorized for the type or class of crime, and aggravating elements were wrong or wrongfully applied.
Protected or Non-criminal Activity
Acts charged were either not criminal conduct at the time committed or were activities protected by the United States or North Carolina Constitutions. Criminal laws specify conduct that is criminal and punishable; if a charge fails this test, it must fail. A similar result happens if the Constitution of the United States or North Carolina protected the activity that was charged as a crime.
Effects of Sex Trafficking Treaty
Incorporates international treaties and agreements and U.S. criminal statutes governing sex slavery and sex trafficking.

New Evidence

G.S. 15A -1415(c) allows defendants to file a motion for appropriate relief to introduce new evidence that was not nor with reasonable efforts could not have been, discovered prior to trial. As stated above, this attribute of the MAR is a major advantage over appeals and other motions, which are confined to the trial record. Federal Courts also provide a place to bring newly discovered evidence when the defendant is in custody and claims violations of federal constitutional rights including the right the effective assistance of counsel.

MARs Time Limitations

Some errors and actions of the trial court or prosecutor can violate fundamental policies of justice. G.S. 15A -1415 § (b) sets out the ten permitted grounds for a Motion for Appropriate Relief, although one item records changes to the penalties and system for aggravation of offenses. These provisions are so basic to a fair trial that they have no time limitations. A similar rule applies to bringing discovered evidence.

Likelihood of Success

The chances for success of the North Carolina Motion for Appropriate Relief depend on the strength of the claims. New evidence must be strong enough to prevent a reasonable juror from finding of guilt. Skilled legal representation would be a favorable factor; appeals and post-trial motions are complex and involve interpretations of case law. In one sense, a belief in one's innocence justifies every attempt for relief, and perhaps the definition of success is to pursue every available way to correct a wrong.

Costs and Fees

If made as a pro se motion, the defendant can request a waiver of fees and court costs. This request is discretionary with the court but for good cause shown, courts grant them liberally. The principle is important that poverty should not bar a person from a full fair and just hearing. The assistance of an experienced post-conviction attorney could be vital to the outcome. The effort required to proceed with a post-trial motion is substantial, and investigation of new evidence similarly can involve a very extensive attorney effort. The client and attorney must agree on fees, and the courts have powers to appoint attorneys for needy defendants.

Free Help and Information

Good sources of assistance are Legal Aid and pro bono organizations within the North Carolina Bar. The North Carolina Court System Office of Indigent Defense Services is another source of information and referrals. One can inquire with organizations dedicated to pursuing individual rights under the law such as the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights organizations and similar organizations. Leading law schools have legal clinics and other programs offering free or low cost consultations. Finally, many attorneys offer free consultations.

Federal Relief

Defendants convicted in state courts, and who are in custody, can use federal habeas corpus proceedings. 22 USC§ 2254. One can meet the requirement of custody or detention if, after serving a full sentence, one has remaining restrictions on freedom such as parole or probation. Defendants may only have one year from the discovery of new evidence to file claims.

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