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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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